05 December 2006

Book review: Body Piercing Saved My Life

Just finished Andrew Beaujon's Body Piercing Saved My Life1, a book about Christian rock. A quick, solid read, nothing too heavy but just substantial enough to keep it interesting. Beaujon writes for SPIN, and it shows; Body Piercing reads less like a book than an extended SPIN article, with all the good and bad that implies. On one hand, there's a breezy, conversational tone on the surface, as well as plenty of witty digressions and a sharp eye for ironic observations. On the other hand, way too much personal stuff about the author's own "journey" in gathering material for the book and developing an understanding of his subject,2 and both the theses and conclusions are pretty indistinct.

Still, while those may seem like tough criticisms, they're really just minor quibbles. The main thing I came away with, and this is the highest praise I can offer up to any book about music, was an eagerness to listen to several of the bands described therein. MuteMath3 and mewithoutYou seem like the most obviously enticing candidates, both of which Beaujon describes as mildly art-damaged indie rock with only vaguely Christian-themed lyrics. But he even manages to make the David Crowder Band, described as one of the better examples of an altogether odious strain of Christian music ("worship music"), sound intriguing. I've never cared for Christian rock, mostly because what little has crossed over to the "general market" (DC Talk, Creed, Evanescence4, etc.) has been universally rubbish. But there's obviously quite a lot of it out there (it's the only segment of the music industry currently experiencing growth in CD sales), and Beaujon is happy to report plenty of worthy acts to be heard.

After laying out the history of the genre in one early chapter, Beaujon tries to cover all aspects of the business and culture surrounding the music, from meeting with an indie label impresario and several different artists to attending a conference, and awards show and an outdoor festival. For the most part he finds people eager to show him around and help him out5 and is almost never hassled about getting saved (he's an athiest, though he hardly goes around announcing this). This makes the chapter in which he describes hanging out with some pro-life activists on the protest scene in Washington stick out like a sore thumb for two reasons: one, it has little, if anything, to do with music and two, try as he may, Beaujon is unable to conceal his dislike for the views of his subjects, never a problem elsewhere in the book. And every few chapters he transcribes an interview with what he calls a "Christian Rock Lifer," (musicians, magazine editors) and each of them is engaging and passionate.

I think the most important thing I got out of this book is the idea that you don't have to be Christian to dig some of this music. Plenty of Sufjan Stevens fans already realise that (or don't, and that's the point). Remember when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was all the rage with the kids? How many of his American fans were Muslim?

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. I was amazed at how many people didn't get the joke in the title, which appears on the cover below a cartoony doodle of two hands with holes poked through the palms. People would ask me what I was reading, look at the cover and say "What does that mean?" Seems pretty obvious to me, and I'm hardly an evangelical. [Return]
  2. Stuff like "When I got back to my hotel that night I thought about..." and "I was starting to realise that this might not be what I was really looking for..." These aren't quotes, by the way, just generalisations off the top of my head. But you know what I mean. I guess you could take the whole thing as a metaphor for a spiritual journey to parallel those experienced by many of his subjects, but if that's his intent it doesn't quite work. [Return]
  3. The clip on their homepage, by the way, is worth watching strictly for the fact that the lead singer is playing a key-tar. [Return]
  4. Whom, by the way, I never even knew were Christian until I read this book. There were a few others like that in there as well. [Return]
  5. Curious exception: label publicists, who seem inexplicably reluctant to allow their artists to be interviewed. [Return]

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