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Thursday, December 24, 2015

What the Heck Happened to Newsboys?: 2000-2006, Christian Music Goes Corporate

If you're not happy with your life, the best decision is to change course. Of course, if you're actually going the right way in the first place, changing course may not actually be in your best interest.
I think Newsboys' sixteen year-oldm publicly ignored, and band-shunned Love Liberty Disco is the best album that band ever released. It features an honesty and vulnerability, a personal touch and focus lacking in even the band's better work.
However, compared to the Newsboys previous albums (albums released 1994-1998), Love Liberty Disco sold badly and was not embraced by fans. The band responded by changing course. For their next album, 2002's Thrive, the band reenlisted the services of their old co-writer and producer, Steve Taylor. Don't get me wrong, Steve Taylor is awesome. The work he did with the Newsboys in the 90's is awesome. Taylor's solo stuff is awesome. Last year's Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil album was awesome. I just kick-started their new EP. I love Steve Taylor, and the nine tracks Steve Taylor co-wrote for Thrive are decent, but in my opinion, they don't come close to the classic zone he and the Newsboys inhabited together for say, 1996's Take Me to Your Leader. However, Thrive has ten tracks. That leaves one track that Peter Furler, frontman and the creative mind behind the band until his 2009 exit, fashioned all by himself. That song is called "It Is You."
"It Is You" is a corporate worship song. I don't mean "corporate" in the sense of, "this song was crafted by a corporation to make money," though I guess in a sense that could be true, as well. I mean "corporate" in the sense that "It Is You" is written from a "we" perspective, designed to be sung in a room full of several thousand people feeling the same thing in unison. Rather surprisingly, "It Is You" received more radio play than the rest of Thrive combined. And thus, a trend was born.
In the wake of "It Is You"'s success, Newsboys immediately got to work on a new album. Adoration: The Worship Album, hit the market only 13-months after Thrive. That week, Newboys experienced their first #1 album in five years. Adoration eventually went gold based on the success of songs such as "He Reigns." A Newsboys worship album sequel, Devotion, was released just 19 months later. The personal revelations of Love Liberty Disco were nowhere to be found, might as well not even have existed. What happened?
Well, what happened was an epidemic afflicting more than just Newsboys, though the popularity of Newsboys Adoration certainly buoyed the movement. Maybe it started when Third Day drifted from the Southern Rock of their previous albums to worship music, with their 2000 worship album Offerings (which also, like Newsboys' Adoration, received a sequel, Offerings II).  Third Day's first platinum album? Offerings. Then there's Audio Adrenaline, trading their trademark rock sound for the worship of 2001's Lift. Do you remember when Michael W Smith wasn't primarily known as a worship artist? After the release of 2001's Worship, most people don't. For Heaven's sake, the guy wrote an instrumental album the year before--a critically-lauded instrumental album that did not go platinum. Worship went platinum. So did 2002's Worship Again. Are you noticing a trend?
Before the 00's, worship albums were a sort of curiosity. Hillsong (who was only beginning to unleash Hillsong United), Vineyard and Hosanna put out a bunch of stuff a church worship team might pull songs from, and that was it. Then, all of a sudden, that wasn't it. Now gobs of Christian bands who weren't making worship music before were, and now the market was flooded with major Christian label worship albums by major Christian label bands. These songs found their way onto the radio, and changed the musical landscape there, as well. Can you imagine K-Love playing something as unique as "Breakfast" today? Of course not. The song is too weird. But today's K-Love-dominated airwaves won't hesitate to play the blandest worship anthem the current incarnation of Newsboys can crank out...but we're not talking about today. We're talking about a change that occurred 10-15 years ago that effects the music world of today.
On a personal level, worship music has never been my favorite genre. You may notice in my film and music reviews that I rarely use the term "we." That's because I am well aware that my complete feelings and opinions are unique to myself. I do not presume that everyone else will feel the same. I hate, and generally shut down when I encounter reviews that couch the writer's opinions in that collective pronoun. "We feel for his plight," "We are moved by the lyrics," etc. How do you know that you can speak for everyone else, reviewer person? How do you know that everyone else feels the same way that you do? Isn't that a bit presumptuous...or dare I say arrogant? Obviously, there is such a thing as good music and bad music, a good film and a bad film, but everything is subjective. All that to say, if I am that picky about my music criticism, I am going to be even more selective about how I choose to worship the creator of a universe so remarkably enormous, the human mind can barely fathom it, let alone measure it--a Being that, if He created that universe, is more than 13 billion years old (a time-span almost as hard to comprehend as infinity). I don't think I want to worship that being by singing generic lyrics on top of over-produced pop music. That's just not going to work for me. I want to worship him in a way that fits my existence as he created it. In other words, I struggle with corporate worship music.
Yes, the corporate of this title has two meanings. There's the sell-out to a big record company to make everyone a million dollars corporate, and then there's everyone lifting their hands and singing the same words at the same time corporate.
Now don't get me wrong, I think corporate worship is awesome. When done in earnest (and it usually is), it is a powerful experience in which to partake. I've played multiple musical instruments (a couple times at the same time!) in the service of corporate fact, playing music is one of the ways in which I am able to feel closest to God. However, the experience of corporate worship done in 3:30 by a band owned by a billion dollar record label leaves me...wanting. Worship should not be a product.
So anyway, I don't own any post-Love Liberty Disco Newsboys album until 2006's Go. I don't think the band sold out, though. I read an interview with Newsboys then frontman (now six-years plus "former Newsboys frontman"), Peter Furler, from around 2004,where he basically made the point that he no longer cared about art, and only cared about worship. Therefore, Adoration and Devotion are pretty artless. The shame of it is, the man forgot that true art is worship (sorry to get so fartsy, but it's true), and everything else is just a product, whether for a financial profit, or for a self-motivated profit. However, judging by Furler's recent drumming stint with Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil (reunited, and it feels so good!), as well as the increased musicality of his latest post-Newsboys solo work, this may be a point Furler is slowly remembering. If that's the course he wants to chart, I'll be happy to follow.

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