Kylie, the Salvos and the Guitar

Recently The Guardian newspaper had an article on their website posing the question, “Is Guitar Music on the way out?”  It was a collection of thoughts from various contributors – nothing remarkable about it, but the very fact that the question is being asked has big implications for the church.

For a long time the church has used music to communicate its message and to stir the faith of her people.  In my 26 years as a Christian I have sung songs pretty much every Sunday and plenty of times during the week.  I have loved it, and look forward to doing it for the next 26 plus years.

I have sung hymns written 300 years ago to an organ and I have sung contemporary songs written in the 21st century to a modern band playing with very healthy volume.  I’m happy to leave the hymns behind.

In terms of my own tastes, I am a child of my era.  I was born in 1973.  I have loved music ever since I was a child.  I have a theory that music was perfected in 1987.  In the lead up, Dire Straits produced Brothers in Arms in 1985.  The stage was now set.  In 1987 we then had in a single year the 3 greatest albums of all time.  There were the 2 greatest pieces of an Australian music, Kick by INXS and Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil.  Then there was the most wonderful album ever, the reason that music was invented, The Joshua Tree by U2.  And if that was not enough before the year was out possibly the all time best ever song was released when Guns n Roses gave us Sweet Child O Mine.  When music is that good, there is only one direction that it can head.  And didn’t it head there fast!

Having been so fortunate to be alive and a teenager when music was soaring to such great heights you can imagine my alarm when in 1988 Kylie Minogue’s version of The Loco-Motion spent 7 weeks at number one.  Excuse me?????  It didn’t even have real drums in it – it was just synthesiser music!!  Where were we just 12 months ago????

The big question at that point was would popular music embrace the synthesiser and gradually shun the drumkit?  Or would synthesiser music be recognised for the plague that it is?

It seems that I am on the losing side of this argument.  Synthesiser music now reigns supreme on the music charts.  Guitar music is still around but is on the way out.  If that wasn’t enough, singing has been partly replaced by talking.  They call it rap.  Guitar and drum music will always retain a niche, but that’s all.  Jazz music – dominant in the 1930’s – retains a niche, but that’s all.  I think that’s where the rock music that I love will end up.

Amongst the contemporary church the guitars and drums are far from endangered.  They dominate!  What about the synthesiser?  Most contemporary churches that have a full band have a keyboard, but the guitars and drums tend to drive the music.  It suits me just fine, but we are asking for trouble when we expect people to listen to dance music all week, and then guitar music on a Sunday.  That’s a scenario that is going to end badly for the “contemporary” church.

At one extreme there is the possibility that the contemporary church will go the way of the Salvation Army.  When they started out in London in 1865 they used cutting edge music – the brass band.  Despite coming out of a Wesleyan / Methodist background, with a rich tradition of hymns, they used their own music and it was a hymn free zone.  They often put Christian lyrics to tunes that ordinary people sung in pubs.  And today…they still use brass bands.  Is the brass band as cutting edge today as it was in 1865?  Um, not quite.  I would think that their founder, William Booth, would be stunned if he saw what they were doing.

To avoid going the same way the contemporary church has to embrace dance music.  Personally, I can’t say that I am looking forward to it.  But lest we end up being the only ones with guitars and drums in 50 years it has to happen.  To avoid that future I am happy to phase out the guitars at church.


9 Comments to “Kylie, the Salvos and the Guitar”

  1. Hi John. Just a thought – If the ‘contemporary’ church is considering ‘dance music’ during services, or even having discussions about it – they are still playing ‘catch up’ in my opinion. Is it impossible now, to imagine a time when The Church/Christians were actually innovators in music, and many other artistic endeavours for that matter, including sculpture, painting, architecture – the list goes on. Yes, there was a time when they were doing this. Not just imitating popular culture, but in many ways creating the popular culture. I’m not a regular ‘contemporary church-goer’ anymore, so I don’t really care what style of music gets played. When I used to attend St Pauls’ Castle Hill, the music ministry was really about being a mechanism for creating a ‘contemporary’ feel to a service (helping the non-church-goer feel welcome) than it was about creating art, and hence, worshiping God in a creative way. I’m sure you’re familiar with Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer. It really made an impression on me a few years back. It might be worth a re-read.
    Cheers John, really good to hear from you.


    • Thanks Grif – was hoping you would chime in because I knew you would have something thoughtful to say. You raise a really important issue as to whether the aim of church music is to make the new person feel welcome or if it is “about creating art, and hence, worshiping God in a creative way”.

      In my mind, and an assumption that really underpins the whole post, is that the church is in trouble if it’s music does not make people feel welcome. I guess I sort of base that on the fact that when Paul spoke to a Jewish audience and took Timothy with him, he had Timothy circumcised. That he was the lengths that he (and Timothy!) were prepared to go so that nothing would get in the way of the message. I think that the Salvos, to the extent that they persist with their brass bands in the 21st century, have let their music get in the way of the message.

      I think that there has to be both – music that reflects the culture and therefore makes new people feel welcome, and music that pushes the boundaries and that takes art to places that it has never been, and without the people of God would never go. And perhaps the right forum for that is conferences and concerts more so than Sunday services.

  2. Now for some science!

    Coming soon to a church near you. (If it has not already arrived)

  3. Sorry John, I agree with Jared’s points. I was hoping to have come back here to find a response from our friend Ron – he always has something interesting to say! 🙂

    Interestingly, most of the Planetshakers demos have electronic drums (which are done using a keyboard by the amazingly gifted Joth), and the tracks that play along with the band have quite a bit of synth as well as some electronic drums. Also, there have been some Planetshakers songs that I’ve heard for the first time and thought, “Gee, that sounds like [such and such song on the pop charts].”

    I just think it’s wonderful that our Creative God puts different expressions of creativity (and musical taste!) in His people, and there are many different styles of music sung in churches all over the world, with one purpose – to bring glory to God!

  4. As a dance/house/electronica fan since the early 1990s, when the scene kept on reinventing itself, I would’ve LOVED to have seen the church/es take it on then before the “death of dance” (despite still being strong) in the early 00s. Labels like put out some fine artists (RHYTHMSAINTS [house] & Faith Massive[intelligent drum & bass]) and still pump out some fine tunes (check out BeBe Vox!)

    I remain a fan, but it’s not the same as the 90s. Why would the church be catching on 20 years late(r)? I guess then at the end of the day, it’s all about Jesus! Above all, I have to agree John… “Then there was the most wonderful album ever, the reason that music was invented, The Joshua Tree by U2.”

    Now… on to Catherine’s post…

    on second thought 😉

  5. I must admit that I had it in the back of my mind that the singles chart may not support my hypothesis like the albums chart does! It probably reflects demographics a fair bit – I would imagine the “buy the latest hot song” brigade would be the 15 year olds listening to the synth pop, whereas your older listeners (ie those over 20) are more likely to buy a whole album, and are also more likely to like music with drums and guitars (and dare I say it, lyrics with some depth!)

    Another interesting thing is that if you go and see a large number of these synthesized acts as live acts, they use a live drummer. Sure there are programmed loops and all that going on as well, but in a live setting, more often than not a live band is at the core of the show, even if the entire album was created on a computer. (As an aside, did you know that aside from the guitar sounds, the entire Whispering Jack album was done on a synthesiser?)

    So in short… I disagree. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, and I’ll be a grumpy old man telling the kids about how it was in my day when we sang songs with drummers and guitarists, but I don’t think so. Yes, I expect music to continue to change and evolve – it’s what music does. It never stands still. But to suggest that it’s going to evolve in the direction of dance/synthesised music and rock music will become a niche, I don’t think there is any evidence of that.

  6. John, I think we need some proof here that “synthesizer music now reigns supreme on the music charts”. Here are Australia’s top 20 albums for this week:

    MY JOURNEY Karise Eden
    BROKEN BRIGHTS Angus Stone
    HAPPY HOME Darren Percival
    BELIEVE Justin Bieber
    SHOOTING STAR Rachael Leahcar
    NO SHAME Sarah De Bono
    THE STORY SO FAR Keith Urban
    UP ALL NIGHT One Direction
    THE OL’ RAZZLE DAZZLE Missy Higgins
    SOME NIGHTS fun.
    OVEREXPOSED Maroon 5
    21 Adele
    EL CAMINO The Black Keys
    FORTUNE Chris Brown
    LIVING THINGS Linkin Park
    WILD ONES Flo Rida
    + Ed Sheeran
    CORNERSTONE Hillsong Live
    CROOKED TEETH House vs. Hurricane

    Here’s my categorisation: feel free to disagree!
    Synth/pop oriented:
    Justin Bieber
    Katy Perry
    Sarah De Bono
    One Direction
    Chris Brown
    Flo Rida

    Guitar/band/acoustic oriented:
    Karise Eden
    Angus Stone
    Darren Percival
    Rachael Leahcar
    Keith Urban
    Missy Higgins
    Maroon 5
    The Black Keys
    Linkin Park
    Ed Sheeran
    Hillsong Live
    House vs Hurricane

    So, in my opinion, there’s only 6 albums in our top 20 that would fit in the ‘synthesizer music’ category. Definitely present, but perhaps not reigning supreme? I’m all for church music remaining current, but it would seem that there is a lot of current music around that features the guitar 🙂

    • Good analysis Jared. I tried the same thing with the singles chart and got 16-4 in favour of dance music, although I am happy to be corrected on some of my categorising.

      But would you agree that in general synthesiser music outsells guitar/drum music, and the trend is accelerating? Because I think the day will have to come when the drumkit comes out of the church band, and I’m not aware of any church doing that at present.

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