This is a guest post by Austin Gravley. Austin is an intern at Redeemer Christian Church in Amarillo TX, and also works as a professional exterminator. He hopes to attend seminary once he finishes his B.A. in General Studies at WTAMU in Canyon, TX. You can follow him on Twitter at @gravley_austin
If you had told me Kings Kaleidoscope was going to be the next entry in the Christian Market F-Bomb Crisis, I would’ve laughed and said you’re insane.
The Christian Market F-Bomb Crisis comes like clockwork once every year or two. In 2010ish it was Derek Webb, Mumford and Sons in 2011 and in 2012, P.O.D. Sufjan Stevens followed last year after a generous 3 year gap (although nobody cried foul much there mainly because Sufjan is an anomaly as far as both markets are concerned), and now we have Kings Kaleidoscope dropping an F-bomb twice in a song of their brand new sophomore release BEYOND CONTROL (oh, the irony is rich with that album title). It still sounds absurd, even after having listened to the album on repeat for 9+ hours yesterday, but it’s nonetheless the world we now live in. God help us all.
As a former music critic, and especially as one who has lavishly praised Kings Kaleidoscope over the years, I admit that I was extremely frustrated by this development. I’m partially writing this as a therapeutic exercise for myself, and then partially so I can link drop this anytime the discussion comes up and hope to provide a nuanced, responsible point-of-view amid a topic that’s often brings out the worst in believers, both in attitude and intellectual rigor. Let’s get started, then.
The Context of the Song
Unfortunately, in discussing the song on FB with people yesterday, very few people were willing to do any homework as to why this song exists and what led to it getting released on an album. Thankfully, the context is readily available and I’ve done as best I can to summarize it below.
In an interview with the guys over at the Bad Christian Podcast, Chad explained that he has severe anxiety disorder and suffers from bad panic attacks, and during the crunch time of the album production season he was in a really spiritually dry state. One evening, during the middle of one of these anxiety/panic attacks, he pens a prayer in his journal and, sitting down at a piano, the music and words mesh and a song was birthed. The song, therefore, is autobiographical in nature – he is more or less copying and pasting his journal into melodic form, language and all. He states in the interview:
The song is me. The song my heart, it’s my gut, and it’s my honest pouring my guts out to God prayer . . . . And then the song is met ultimately with God’s true response to me as the true me of where I’m actually am at.
He also acknowledges the financial and public cost of this decision, and he was adamant that he’s not wanting to be a shock jock or even focus on the usage of the f-bomb itself. He remarks that his main goal was trying to communicate what fear sounded like in that particular panic attack, not trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable or unacceptable for a Christian to write about. The clean version they recorded was out of respect for the conviction that Christians ought not listen to music with profanity in it. His demeanor the entire time was an extremely meek and mild one, not brazen or contentious. As uncomfortable as it is for us to hear it, it’s certainly not the easiest thing for him to talk about either.
Authenticity and Sinfulness
When it comes to art, Christians have long had an authenticity problem. In particular, the Christian music industry has cemented itself as being an artificial, plastered market where everything is squeaky clean and safe for the whole family – if its not sanitized, no messiness allowed. Although I personally believe this precedent is far more sinful than a single song with an f-bomb in it, we need to realize that overcorrections into the other lane are not a solution to this problem. In other words, sinfulness does not get a pass in the name of authenticity, no matter how badly it’s needed from Christians who are making art.
The question of language often is the locus from which most of these authenticity discussions or overcorrections take place, as they’re the perfect assault on the flawless image of Christian musicians that the Christian market paints. A recap of the “what words are acceptable for Christians to use in songs?” debate is well beyond the scope of this article and I honestly am quite tired of that particular discussion, however I will note that some words are harder to justify than others, and arguably the f-bomb falls pretty far on the “inexcusable” side of the spectrum. While it’s worth noting that, grammatically, the usage of the f-bomb in A Prayer is not sexually explicit or degrading at anyone (like it’s used the majority of the time), the baggage of the word is nonetheless present in full form. In fact, synonyms for this particular usage would include “extremely”, “incredibly”, “really, really, REALLY” – in other words, it’s being used as the ultimate superlative. Regardless of where you fall in the aforementioned language debate, I think both sides can look at this with a tilted head and ask, “Really? You’re going to go there and you’re going to use it like that?” This is, as another band noted on FB, a rather underwhelming use for such a scandalous word.
In short, I don’t think a 1:1 replication of the f-bomb from Chad’s journal was a necessary thing to do. I think the song could been 100% autobiographical in nature while recognizing that authenticity does not necessitate an unwise choice. In fact, I think the existence of the clean version that features a different word substituted for the f-bomb completely undermines Chad’s intentions, no matter how legitimately well meaning they might’ve been. It’s a de facto concession that the use of the word “vicious” instead of “f***ing” was a sufficient substitution that preserved the autobiographical and authentic nature of the song without bringing in all the baggage and controversy of using an f-bomb.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Do I believe Chad was in sin for deciding to do this? As highly as I think of Chad Gardner and Kings Kaleidoscope, I do not believe there is a justification for this choice and that, yes, it was sinful to do so. However, I do know, and I think this needs to be made clear that, despite the controversial end result, our response to this needs to include a respect for the motives behind the song, even if the end result goes too far. It takes an incredible amount of courage to share with others the most intimate parts of your life (again, the lyrics are literally ripped from one of his private journals) with others and portray yourself the way the song portrays Chad in this particular moment of his life. This is not a publicity stunt or event a marketing angle that the band is trying to pursue; this is a man being honest with his audience to a fault. Despite our legitimate criticism of the song, this courage should not be mocked. Curtailed in the future? Absolutely. Honored and encouraged in other artists? Absolutely.
I’m going to go back to listening to the album now – for all the drama, it’s is pretty dang good.