Steve Taylor - Warning: Satire

On Being (Australia)
September 1988
© On Being
Pages 41-42
Thanks to Andrew Stewart

By Kirsten Hill

Steve Taylor needs a sticker on his latest album. Something like "Warning: This album is funny. Check 'satire' in the dictionary before spinning".

His particular blend of stinging satire and acid wit are incongruous in a contemporary Christian music scene that still dictates gospel songs must fill their 'Jesus' quota.

His latest vinyl offering, I Predict 1990, has whipped up a storm of controversy both here and in the US. Responses range from the "total disgust" expressed by one youth pastor in Queensland to vehement denunciations from the pulpit of Jimmy Swaggart. Rolling Stone has dubbed him the "bad boy of Christian rock".

Records have been returned, bookstores have refused to stock the album, and in the States it has been banned by some stores.

Right-to-Lifers have been incensed by Taylor's song "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good", a satirical look at a neighbourhood ice-cream man who decides that blowing up abortion clinics is one way to maintain his clientele.

Right To Life Chairwoman, Margaret Tighe, was outraged after hearing the lyrics, calling the song the "work of a sick mind". Lines such as "Now I don't care if it's a baby or a tissues blob / But if we run out of youngsters I'll be out of a job" have left her, and many pastors, less than impressed.

Never one to miss an opportunity for sensationalism, Derryn Hinch, after airing the video on his show, also condemned Taylor as "sick".

What is it with this guy? Is Taylor just a knocker, trashing out anything he can lay his hands on? Does he only ever open his mouth to plant both feet firmly in it?

Or is there something more? A perceptive artist unafraid to challenge the establishment? Where does Taylor draw the line between satire and cynicism?

"I'm sure people would disagree with the way I view it, but I look at satire and cynicism as two different things--like a cynic is a theology student who doesn't go to church. That's not really where I'm at," Taylor said from the US where he is currently on tour.

"I think cynicism comes from thinking about stuff and not doing anything. People don't like to be preached at, and so satire lets you get a message across, hopefully it's got some humour in it, and it goes down a little better than telling someone what to believe."

But his subtleties are often lost on a world that doesn't want to think, that wants answers on a silver platter. Taylor doesn't deliver them.

In a Christian world unused to satire, people are missing the point. Taken literally, his lyrics can be seen not only as sarcastic, but destructive and downright ungodly.

"Anytime you're dealing with satire there's the possibility of being misunderstood," Taylor said, admitting that it did worry him.

"I think what compounds the problem is that in a lot of these songs I like to play the character, do it from the main character's point of view. So what would seem obvious to you and me, sometimes if someone isn't familiar with satire in music they might get the wrong idea.

"I'd like to think the songs have enough of an edge and a bite to them that if you missed the point it would be just because you weren't really thinking about the song at all."

Taylor is amazed at the response "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" evoked in Tighe and Hinch. He vehemently denies he is condoning violence, and in a letter to Hinch he explains his song.

"I can't believe Mr. Hinch and Mrs. Tighe didn't get this song is satirical. I've been to Australia three times, I have loads of Australian friends and I know Australians have a sense of humour. After all, aren't you the country that sent over that band Air Supply?

"Obviously neither Mr. Hinch nor Mrs. Tighe sat down and thoughtfully read the lyrics. If they did and still take this song seriously, I'd hate to sit with them through a Marx brothers movie.

"Violence only brings more violence and can never be justified--except perhaps whoever that guy was who invented Vegemite."

Nothing escapes Taylor's gaze. On what other album could you find Oliver North, yuppies, the moral majority, humanist education and pop idolatry all being given a good once-over?

All with Taylor's irrepressible sense of humour, all with perceptive insight and honesty.

Taylor makes the establishment squirm because he does not shy away from telling it like it is, and then how it should be. He is not afraid to confront the problems of the world, and that includes the church.

Hypocrisy, racism, abortion, greed, and compromise--his criticisms are close to the bone and they hurt. But Taylor doesn't end there. With the criticism comes the challenge.

Taylor doesn't take it easy on his listeners. If you're interested in being spoon-fed, look elsewhere. Taylor wants to challenge you to take a stand for God. As a former youth pastor, Taylor believes there are enough Christian 'wimps' out there already.

"When there are issues that I believe God has a point of view on, then I think those are all fair game for letting your voice be heard. If a follower of Jesus sees a situation where there is obvious injustice being done, I would hope that would bug them so much that they would feel like they had to say something."

If there's something that gets Taylor really riled up, it's Christians compromising their faith. Whether it's abortion of materialism, Taylor is saddened by what he sees as a lack of courage and a compromising of Biblical values.

"Recent events point to a general philosophy being practised by many Americans, including a lot of American Christians, that the end does justify the means. At a time when people are sympathetic with the idea that you occasionally have to do ethically questionable things in order to protect everything from national to personal interests, I think the overall theme of this album is very important.

"Christians are one group who can say there is such a thing as right and wrong--we don't say it enough."

Fans are used to seeing Taylor as a hyperactive clown bouncing around on stage like a crazed Frankenstein. Whacky, zany, madcap. Quirky lyrics, outrageous sense of humour and acid wit. But when the frenetic pace stops, Taylor slows down for some serious thought.

The man who, when I asked him what his favourite Steve Taylor song was, answered "El Shaddai", is the same guy who is saddened by the commercialism creeping into the Christian music scene and materialism creeping into the church.

He believes the biggest problem facing the church is its tendency to interpret the Bible through culture and values.

"Instead of letting it transform the way you think, you try to filter it through the way you already think. You kinda take the parts you like and leave out the parts you don't like.

"Some philosopher wrote about how religions tend to imitate what is important to a culture. In the US we are obviously a very materialistic culture and you see people trying to twist Christianity into making a deal where God owes you--prosperity, health and things are your right as a Christian. It contradicts pretty dramatically a lot of what Jesus taught."

Taylor doesn't want to be a political spokesperson. But he's not interested in complacency either. He's aware of the limitations of pop songs--how can you fit deep doctrine into three and a half minutes?--but he's also aware, paradoxically, of their powerful influence on teenage life.

He struggles with his lyrics, sometimes staying up night after night on a tough one. He says he's spent as long as a month on one song.

Taylor isn't interested in being controversial for the sake of being controversial, but music for music's sake is purposeless. "If your music's saying nothing, save it for the dentist's chair."

So by all means bop till you drop. But while you're using your feet, give your brain some exercise too.

Kirsten Hill and her young brother Jason are big Steve Taylor fans.