Steve Taylor Blew Up Christian Music Real Good!

Harvest Rock Syndicate
April/May/June(?) 1988, Volume 3, Issue 2
© 1988 Harvest Rock Publications
Page 5

By Chris Well

Photo by Jeff Jones

"A clean stage is a happy stage," Steve Taylor wisely offers at the St. Louis soundcheck while pointing out some crates sitting onstage, "that's what I always say." Even without a crowd, he always has something interesting to say. The world figured that out when his debut EP I Want To Be A Clone forever changed Christian music. Instead of religious reruns with the complexity of a bumper sticker, Christian music was then free to pry loose the traditions strangling the church... much like the writers of the Bible did. Taylor's lyrical jibes often mirror Biblical prophets, outlandish former-day rock 'n' roll dudes who refused to sidestep a challenge.

"I'm always interested in a lot of the theatricality that went into the Old Testament prophets, and it amazes me how the church can be so conservative and staid in their traditions when you look at the bizarre nature of the prophets," says Taylor.

We're sitting backstage cross-legged on the floor in a room without chairs and a box of baby toys in the corner. Taylor will soon be playing with the baby toys and I'll soon lose all feeling in my left leg. Hardly the dignified setting you expect for a major name in Christian music, but then Steve Taylor has never really followed tradition. For instance, he finds altar calls at rock concerts inappropriate, based on five years' experience as a youth pastor. "I understand why altar calls are done, but I also have the privilege of being on the other side and knowing how to manipulate an audience... if it was easy to do as a youth pastor, it's five times easier as a rock performer." In the first six months of his stint as youth pastor, he learned the finer points of taking kids on a youth retreat. Light some candles, hold hands, and sing "Kumbaya" until half of them crack from emotionalism. How much more powerful would a rock concert be? "The deal is, I've never felt altar calls were necessary to justify what I'm doing... and I resent the sometimes fascist mentality on the part of some Christian bands, like their way is the only way and if you don't do that you don't care about kids or something like that."

He wouldn't be so vehement if he didn't see some bands creating more victims than converts. "When somebody says they've seen thousands of kids come to the Lord, I don't believe them. I know that, while the Billy Graham organization knows how to follow up, most rock bands don't. They're not the Billy Graham ministry that goes into churches to work with counselors a year before the thing starts. The other problem is when kids come forward basing a commitment more on liking the rock star than on wanting to follow Jesus... six months later, if there wasn't any follow-up, they don't understand why they believed in the first place. Then it's doubly hard to reach them the next time, because they think they've tried Christianity and it doesn't work."

Some might assume Steve Taylor is some smart-alec revolutionary, but he's really well-rounded. His literate probing of shaky church traditions puts him in league with Da, but he can be as accessible as Amy Grant.

"I admire the nerve that can go into something that's so obscure that no one knows what the heck you're talking about... but for me, the communication thing is high on my agenda. I wouldn't want someone who is reasonably intelligent to not have a clue what the song is about."

Taylor's satire pokes fun at church and world problems alike, moving from prejudice ("We Don't Need No Colour Code") to abortion ("Bad Rap") to religious country clubs that double as churches ("This Disco Used to be a Cute Cathedral"), never afraid to question his faith. What's the point of believing something that's too fragile to question? "A lot of us are afraid to ask questions, afraid that maybe Christianity doesn't hold all the answers... I suppose that's partly lack of faith, partly the reality that most churches are great with comfortable questions, but don't really like areas that are unknown. The absurd part is, are they afraid that someone's going to come up with a question that will send the Christian faith toppling down after 2,000 years? I don't think that's possible."

Steve Taylor once suffered serious doubts, his first year at a Christian college. Wondering if what he believed was based on truth, he started checking into the historical and philosophical claims of Christianity. "I started seeing why we believe the Bible is true, why we believe Jesus is the Son of God, why we believe He rose from the dead... I got a good grounding in my head, as well as my heart. I would challenge all believers to do that, because it just helps in times of doubt. It's like Peter saying you have to be 'ready with an answer' (1 Peter 3:15)."

Switching from Biola University to a "very radical" Colorado University his second year, Taylor found intellectual faith to be a real kick. "I could get into it with students and start shooting questions back at them, and it was great to actually see them stumbling, trying to figure that stuff out. I so seldom saw that in exchanges with Christians and non-Christians. Christians tend to fall back on 'you gotta have faith' or 'I just believe'... and for someone who doesn't already believe the Bible, they don't care if the Bible says so."

That may explain the "apologetic" nature to some of his work. "It's an area that's still kind of lacking, not just in Christian music, but in the church in general. We don't tend to know why we believe... which allows misconceptions about Christianity to continue. If people really knew their Bibles I don't see how some of these 'health and wealth' doctrines could have cropped up. Compare them with what Jesus taught and they're absurd. If people understood there are reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God, when they got into it with someone at school or work, there's a lot of questions they can answer instead of staying on the defensive."

The real question at this point is, will those ideas come across in music? Can a song educate? "There are a lot of people, obviously, who just dabble and listen to the top 40... but there's a lot of people who really want to know what a song has to say. We certainly saw music at the forefront of the protest movement in the late 60's, we certainly saw music at the front of the punk movement in England in 1976-77... there's no reason music can't continue to have that kind of effect." Taylor credits the Clash with educating him about the Spanish Civil War. In light of this power, he doesn't think music should be listened to casually, any more than you should sit in a move theater with your mind on "autopilot." "I certainly don't advocate a diet of all Christian and no secular music, because you miss out on a lot of good songs and even good philosophies... we don't have a corner on the market for truth... but I think the mind should always be engaged when listening."

While promoting 'think'-music, Taylor also sees blatant Christian music as filling a definite need. "I don't see a problem with in-your-face Christian music... because there are a lot of people who don't really dig into lyrics, who either just let it wash over them or prefer short spurts of easily-digested songs. There's something to be said for blatant lyrics, but there's a lot of room for realizing that a Christian is obliged to comment on the totality of life. We have a slant on issues that non-Christians don't necessarily have."

Moving away from the quirky sounds of Clone in subsequent releases, the smoother dance music and tamer lyric structure of I Predict 1990 has given Steve Taylor a more mature appearance, while recent mainstream Christian music has been moving into more intense ground. As the two seem to be closer, is Steve Taylor becoming more normal, or is mainstream Christian music becoming more weird? "Gosh, I hope I'm not getting closer to mainstream Christian music." He's shocked at the comparison. "The things that interest me musically don't have anything to do with most mainstream Christian music... and I would really resent being clumped in with that group. It's nothing against them personally (I don't want to sound condescending here because they're all good guys). They do what they do well, but if I ever felt I was being classified as mainstream rock 'n' roll, I would definitely go on to something else. Maybe go back to being a janitor."

The issue seems to lie in musical goals. Steve Taylor has a unique vision, and to move into territory that's already occupied would be artistic failure. "The thing we're all faced with is that new wave is dead. Dave Perkins and I were lamenting the death of rock 'n' roll, wondering how many times it can keep reinventing itself. It's really hard if you stay in the arena of rock music now to come up with an actual sound that is honestly unique... because how do you sound fresh in this age?"

And finally, what's the deal with Steve Taylor moonlighting as guitarist in the DeGarmo & Key band? "No, that's another Steve Taylor, but if they want to send me checks, that's okay."