First, let me define the two terms. Contemporary Christian Music is an ever-evolving term referring to the various Christian music of the day. Back in the 80s it was Amy Grant, Kieth Green and Petra. Now, it's Chris Tomlin, Matthew West and Newsboys. I'll refer to this as CCM1 for the rest of the article. Cliché Christian Music (CCM2)is a broad subcategory of CCM1 that includes songs full of musical and theological clichés and tautological themes. For the sake of argument, even though CCM2 is technically a part of CCM1, I will separate them completely as if they were two separate categories.
Let's compare and contrast the musical styles of the two CCMs. CCM1 tends to feature innovation in musicality: timeless melodies and chord progressions that you can immediately recognize. A uniqueness between bands and from song to song also embodies CCM1. For instance, when you hear a Newsboys song, you can usually tell before Peter starts singing that it's a Newsboys song. Even people like Amy Grant have a uniqueness that characterizes their music.
Musical styles that fall within CCM2 tend to run together. Chord progressions tend to be a boilerplate standard: nothing unique, innovative or complex. The instrumentation tends to be another boilerplate standard: an acoustic guitar played by the lead singer and an electric guitar playing a melodic part; bass player in the background or not at all; drums playing simple rhythms and fills; the ensemble often accompanied by a string quartet, trio or just a violin or cello.
Another thing that characterizes CCM2 in my mind is what I call "poor instrumental writing". Two classic examples of this are Tenth Avenue North's songs Love is Here and By Your Side. The songs open with a moving guitar part that doesn't really fit the theme of the song. This out of place instrumentation is a sign of poor consideration when songwriting. Granted, almost every other song an the album is very well written, especially its most recent single, Hold My Heart, but these two will forever immortalize in my mind that Tenth Avenue North is new at this and sometimes takes their influence from CCM2, especially lyrically.
This brings me to another distinction, one which is much more noticeable to the listener. CCM1 has rhymes and messages that are unique, not the blindly obvious like "fun" and "sun" or "cool" and "pool". Relient K's Matt Thiessen is my songwriting idol; his melodies, instrumentation and lyrics are always fresh and usually deal with not just one issue, but all issues. His tongue-in-cheek writing style flows effortlessly, showcasing his God-given gift.
One song that lyrically encompasses CCM2 is The Wrecking's You Remain. The rhythms and melody are simple, the lyrics are obvious, and the instrumentation is plain and uninteresting. It may be true, but it seems very poorly written or written in a rush. Yes, the message is true, but it is full of Christian clichés. The same can be said for a lot of the songs praise teams play in church nowadays: How Great is Our God is full of a Christian boilerplate message. Yes, it's a good song, but it's still uninteresting musically and lyrically.
This brings me to another issue: some of these songs have come to belong to CCM2 solely because they are part of a standard set of songs that are easy to learn and easy to do wrong. How Great is Our God was a great song when my band first started covering it. But now that everybody and their dog plays this song for almost every P&W set, it's become an empty mass of words and notes. The meaning is gone. For a song to be a part of CCM1, it must retain its meaning even after hearing it a literal thousand times.
Preachiness is another huge factor that makes even the innovative Casting Crowns migrate toward CCM2. I'm always hearing "I owe this," and "I owe that;" and "I have to do this," and "I need to do that." Herein lies the theological separation between songs like Hands and Feet by Audio Adrenaline and Follow You by Leeland with Brandon Heath. The former song emphasizes "[touching] the world like You've touched my life," whereas the second paints serving the needy as the noblest calling, a sort of "Look at me, I'm following Christ. This is how we follow Christ." It seems preachy, like a calling. The truth of the matter is that every calling is different. Here at Walla Walla University, the Student Missions department is always trying to send people out as missionaries, painting it like it's a call for everybody. True, the Great Commission (which Follow Up strives to follow) tells us to go to all the world, but "all the world" is different for me than for, say, my friend Katelyn. She's heading to the Philippines, but I'm staying right here. Why? I have been called to be an at-home missionary. We're each following our callings.
The final distinguishing factors between CCM1 and CCM2 lie solely on the performers: arrangement and performance. You can take a dead song and breathe new life into it with a good arrangement. You can take a stupendous song and kill it with a bad arrangement. Performance goes hand in hand: preparation and practice are key; the audience can tell when you've not rehearsed. (More advice on this to come in later articles.) A good arrangement avoids musical clichés and chord progressions. And usually, the artist who most often performs the song has the best arrangement. It's a rule of thumb that is good to follow.
The differences between Contemporary Christian Music and Cliché Christian Music may be small, but they create a gap between the two almost as wide as the Grand Canyon. The vast majority of new CCM that I hear falls under CCM2, with the best artists relatively unknown in the "mainstream" CCM world. Why am I writing this? I don't really know. But I want to distinguish between what I want to hear and don't want to hear, and I don't want to hear the same old, tired songs that have lost meaning. I don't want to hear dumbed down arrangements. And sure as the rising sun, I don't want to be preached at. Songwriters, keep this in mind.
Your Brother in Christ,
*This article is the first in a series about music and its effects in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other denominations. Next Friday: *