Church vs. Art part 5: My Least Favorite Acronyms

RIYL. FFO. Those are two of my least favorite acronyms. They mean “recommended if you like” and “for fans of.”

There is a time and place where these abbreviations are useful or appropriate. In the realm of Christian art, they’re exploited.

If you like these bands, you’ll like these musicians. If you like these movies, you’ll like this movie. If you like these photographers, you’ll like this photographer. If you’re a fan of a, b, or c – you’ll be a fan of x, y, or z.

Overuse of these comparative acronyms is the epitome of laziness. It is a symptom of either the forced or willful absence of creativity. It is the agonizing slow death of artistic passion. Remove autonomy and you’re left with homogeny.

Industry insiders are all looking for the next big thing and the human brain is programmed to crave conformity. Those two factors conspire to impose a dogmatic approach to artistic innovation. This explains the influx of supernatural romance novels being published after the Twilight series became popular. This is evidenced in the countless grunge bands that were signed to major labels after the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. It defines the reinvigoration of fairy tales in pop culture with two shows from two different networks tackling the world of fables (Once Upon a Time, Grimm) and two theatrical releases portraying divergent interpretations of the Snow White story (Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman).

But if truly original artists want to break big in the real world, all they need to do is build a fan base and then make that fan base bigger. Please don’t assume I am trying to over simplify things or make it sound easy – as if anyone could become famous. It is not an effortless process. For most that have achieved any measure of success in a creative field, it took significant hard work. I have seen that time and effort first hand as friends of mine tried to establish themselves as a new band in Boise. Several of my friends have started photography businesses and their self employment is nothing short of the very definition of hustle. My sister-in-law is in the process of getting her first book published, and that is the result of a decade of her trying and trying again. The point is that if enough people notice you and that recognition grows, eventually the industry will take notice.

Unfortunately, the rules are different in the Christian subculture. The notion that Christian artists must resemble something that is currently popular in the mainstream world is ingrained into the way that Christian industries function. They’re looking for the Christian version of Lady Gaga, or the Christian version of Stephanie Meyer. The reason this happens is logical: it is easier to market a new band or a new author when you can compare it to something that the audience all ready likes. It’s easy to sell something when you can attach the label RIYL or FFO.

The Christian industry goes a step beyond secular comparisons – it even looks to build upon its own successes. There is a desire to duplicate the success of TobyMac, or Ted Dekker. If it worked once, why can’t it work again?

The Assemblies of God church in my hometown was a hotbed for musical talent. Their youth group had a dynamic worship team and many of the kids there were forming bands. Around the time this was going on, Jars of Clay’s debut album was huge. The band was being nominated for Grammy awards; their single Flood was the number one most requested song on alternative radio and was finding frequent rotation on MTV. It seemed like no other Christian band had found that much success in mainstream markets. Every Christian teenager trying to start a band wanted to be the next Jars of Clay. That desire to replicate the Jars of Clay sound was apparent in our little community. Some bands did it right and had the open chord driven acoustic guitar rock with male vocals that sounded like Dan Haseltine. Those bands were able to attract larger audiences than bands that attempted a more imaginative approach to music.

I don’t want to disparage any of these Christian artists. I own every Jars of Clay album. I’m a big fan of TobyMac’s music. I’ve read many of Ted Dekker’s books. I’m encouraged by the work that these writers, artists, and musicians have accomplished.

Yet, I want more. I want to see a greater number of people like Kemper Crabb, Matt Wignall, and Michael Gungor. If you do not recognize any of those three names, you have proven the need for more artists of their caliber.

Kemper Crabb is an Episcopalian minister who considers himself an artist-priest. He’s a founding member of the prog-rock band Atomic Opera, has recorded with popular CCM band Caedmon's Call, and has released a handful of solo albums that have an old English feel to them – a style of music that has limited appeal in any market. His views on artistry are fascinating. It is his conviction that kept him from falling prey to the RIYL acronym. As he explained in an interview with The Phantom Tollbooth, the Christian music industry wanted to mold his band into something else. They wanted a Christian version of Fleetwood Mac. Crabb’s response: “Why would we want to be the Christian Fleetwood Mac? There's already a Fleetwood Mac, and they're better at being Fleetwood Mac than we could be, and we're not even interested in Fleetwood Mac being the pagan Arkangel. We'd just kind of like to be who we are.”

Matt Wignall is a songwriter, singer, guitarist, artist, photographer, advocate for tattoos, and an enigmatic man defiant of trends. I met him in the late 90’s when I was working a merch table at Tomfest. His band, Havalina Rail Company was set up in the booth next to mine. He stood out more than any of the other performers – not because of his appearance but because of his persona. For starters, his band was stylistically out of step with the majority of the other acts at Tomfest – a music festival that was known for attracting punk, metal, and hardcore performances. Havilina was an odd (and sometimes uncomfortable) mix of jazz, country, blues, punk, Americana, folk, and art-house pop. They described their sound as “Spy Music.” In the middle of a bunch of tattooed and pierced kids buying t-shirts and vying to get autographs from their favorite hard rock bands, Matt pulled a lap steel guitar out from under the table full of posters and CDs and started to play licks that would have felt more at home in the Grand Ole Opry than at an alternative music festival. I watched him play and the look on his face was at peace, like there was no place he’d rather be than there at that moment.

I caught the tail end of Havalina’s performance set. Matt gave a short speech in between songs that has stayed with me in the years since. The popularity of third wave ska had started to wane that summer, just as swing music began to garner frequent radio play. Matt recognized that swing was something that would fit well with the style of music his band all ready played. He said fans frequently asked him why they didn’t play swing songs. And he said something about how pursuing trendy styles is the opposite of what Christians should do. He said that our God was the most creative force in the universe and our art should reflect that powerful creativity. We shouldn’t follow trends set by mainstream artists; Christians should be setting trends that others want to follow.

Michael Gungor is another talented musician that is poking holes into the theory that you must sound like someone else to succeed. He even addressed this issue in one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. He described the process of how much of the Christian music industry functions – to communicate the gospel in whatever medium you wish. Style doesn’t matter because, in Michael’s words, “It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. … If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language.” He picked apart this method of creation. The problem is that the heart of a musical style (or any other artistic craft) is more than skin and bones. Songs are more than chord structure, tempo, and vocal inflection. The end result of stripping the spirit of a particular music style and just replacing it with positive feel good lyrics is that it reduces the final product to what Michael calls “a musical zombie.” Michael listed of two byproducts of this practice: it makes us dishonest and it kills creativity. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

But Michael also pointed out the fact that Christian artists who go against the status quo and get noticed are described as creative (a label that he found interesting). He said the “creative” descriptor isn’t often used for mainstream artists. It’s mostly something you hear in the Christian arts. It’s like we’re surprised to hear or see a Christian artist that is truly creative. Michael wrote, “when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like ‘holy crap, listen to how creative it is!’ It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, ‘wow, look at how clean her face is!’”

When everything seems like it's intended for fans of something else. When everything you see is recommended if you like that other thing. When everything you hear sounds like someone else. What other explanation is there when you hear something that you’ve never heard before?

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