What place does criticism have in the field of Christian art? Mike Rimmer ponders the role of the CCM reviewer.
It's amazing the number of people who have told me that the first thing they do when they open a fresh issue of Cross Rhythms is to turn straight to the review pages and have a good laugh at the reviews of the WORST albums.
One very valuable aspect of this publication is that we are brave enough to be honest about the state of Christian music. If an album is brilliant we'll rave about it. You can check the square rating and know it's something of quality. We'll probably even write features about the artist. Basically, we'll make sure that you don't miss it even if the artist is Fred Nobody and he's duplicating cassettes in his council house bedroom in Scunthorpe. If it's great, you'll hear about it, we'll applaud and get excited because our heart is to encourage the grassroots development of ministry and artistry in Britain.
But in the honesty of reviewing, there's a more difficult side to the coin. All our reviewing team love getting those great album's, it's easy to wax long and lyrical about a nine or 10 square album but what happens when the recording you're listening to is so dreadful it's peeling the paint from your walls? At moments like these, how can we maintain the integrity of being honest about the dire state of the recording without hurting those who have made it? How is it possible to critique an artist s bad art and not discourage the artist?
With these words I find myself wandering out onto a tightrope and to be honest I feel vulnerable sharing these ideas with you. In the past I have been intolerant of bad recordings and my response has always been to resort to a humorous use of language and image to try to communicate the sheer awfulness of some of the things I have heard. I have had fun ripping some things to shreds! Highly entertaining, it made good reading, especially for those who enjoyed such wit. But I've now come to see that such barbed comments can also wound.
I have hurt some artists who feel they are being used by God and whose ministry I have discouraged through my words. This brings me full circle to question how we can tell the truth about the bad quality of a recording without damaging the heart of the person who made it?
How do you balance the desire for Christian music in this country to be of a high artistic quality and for the magazine to be truthful with the need to nurture those who may have begun their musical journey and whose early efforts in making recordings may be decidedly dodgy?
In many ways the wholesale availability of recording equipment has meant that today just about everyone who can manage a couple of chords on a guitar or a keyboard has an opportunity to "make a recording". Where once recording studios were viewed by musos almost as holy places, off limits to all but the select few able to land recording contracts, today anyone and everyone has a cassette recorder and a chance to commit their output to tape. Today it seems that as soon as the most inexperienced musician has played a gig or two (and sometimes even before that!) they're to be found in their bedrooms recording their "album". These home-produced efforts would be referred to as "demos" in the non-Christian world and used solely to chart creative progress, as a means of securing some local gigs' or, if the artist abounds in optimism, a sampler to be sent off to record companies begging their A&R man to attend a concert. In the Church though, a strange tradition has emerged. Many of these home-produced releases, despite often being recorded on the most rudimentary equipment and with photocopies providing the inlay card, end up as "private releases". Such is the church community surrounding just about every Christian artist, that inevitably there are a few sales to be made regardless of a recording's quality.
There is a desire amongst the Cross Rhythms team to make sure that we love our brothers and sisters who are making Christian music and that has to be the fundamental factor in all we write about the albums we review. In some cases it could be argued that it is a loving thing to point out that a particular artist has no perceivable talent. Tough love means that we have to say these things. It would be unloving to let a tone deaf female vocalist carry on dreaming that she's going to be the next Amy Grant.
Looking back through the reviews pages of the last few years, Cross Rhythms has never shrunk back from an honest appraisal of bad art but speaking personally, there have been times when I could have been more gentle in my words, more thoughtful about the person who made the recording. My humour may have humiliated or stung and sometimes the words on the page may have seemed to have belied the real heart of the magazine.
In the last few days whilst I have been pondering the subject, I kept
on returning to one Scripture where Paul wrote. "Instead, speaking the
truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head,
that is. Christ." (Eph 4:15)
Cross Rhythms isn't going to "bland out" and suddenly say everything is wonderful because it is vital that there is an independent voice critiquing the mass of Christian music released in this country. A voice whose opinion you can trust because there are no hidden motives. But it's also important that we grow in the way we review albums.
In the past there have been times when we haven't got it right and if you've been hurt, forgive us. In these days we're reaching out to God and we need his grace to help us in the future. Please pray for us as we seek to grow in this area, seek to learn how to excel in speaking the truth in love; seek to become more Christlike in the way we review albums and how we treat the artists who make them.
This is a very difficult area because from a journalistic point of
view we have to develop the vocabulary and approach that puts onto
paper what we seek in our hearts to put into practice. The gap between
what we know in our hearts and what we can execute tapping on our
keyboards will need to be narrowed and this takes a fresh anointing.
All of our team of reviewers need wisdom from God in order to grow up
into the head, that is Christ.