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Let's talk about what really constitutes a counter-culture.

Late last year upon the release of their seventh studio album, Good Monsters, Jars of Clay were dismissed in a snide 120-word review by Daryl Sterdan, the Winnipeg-based music critic for the Sun Media newspapers. Following far lengthier, better informed and more positive reviews of new releases by Swollen Members and Papa Roach (the very names of those bands referencing the tired twin pillars of the rock music world: sex and drugs) Sterdan disses the Jars thusly:

"We have nothing against Christian rockers Jars of Clay. They seem like nice guys. They pen sweet melodies. They sing them with sincerity. They don't get too preachy too often. And for a bunch of reverent dudes, they even crank it up pretty loud now and then. In fact, between what we've read and what we remember of their other CDs, their seventh studio disc Good Monsters seems like one of their punchier outings, with a dozen well-crafted anthems that aim for a sweet spot between U2, Tragically Hip, Dire Straits and Counting Crows. Still, you know nobody's gonna cut loose and bite the head off a dove or anything. And rock 'n' roll without danger is like decaf coffee: There's no kick."

This little blurb is a veritable compendium of all the commonest anti-Christian biases. It positively oozes with condescension--and it's hard not to suspect that, contrary to his opening declaration, Sterdan does indeed hold an a priori objection or two against Jars of Clay and Christian musicians in general. To an extent I can see where that grudge comes from. Much of what is produced under the banner of Contemporary Christian Music does incline toward the slushy and derivative, though I regard this Greenville, Illinois quartet as a wonderful exception to that tendency. Indeed I consider Jars of Clay to be one of the half dozen finest bands working in any genre today, and would tag Good Monsters as one of the strongest releases of their 14-year career.

They say receiving any kind of notice is better than nothing. And indeed it's unusual to see the Jars or any other Christian act reviewed at all in the mainstream press, even though all of their albums have gone gold and a few have gone platinum. Nor do you ever spot them promoting new releases by appearing on any of the prestige showcases like David Letterman or Saturday Night Live. During Holy Week this April, I caught the band on their first-ever Canadian tour in Cambridge, Ontario where they played at Forward Baptist Church. In Hamilton they played at Redeemer University; in Toronto at the Airport Christian Fellowship; in St. Catharines at Central Gospel Temple. It was a wonderful show and, of course, was utterly ignored by the press.

And so it becomes doubly maddening when a newspaper finally does deign to acknowledge their existence, and they throw the assignment to someone who cranks out an ill-informed and uncomprehending pan. It's about as fair as sending me out to cover a concert by Barbra Streisand or to pass judgement on the latest profanity-laced platter by Puff Daddy or Phat Diddy or whatever he's calling himself this week.

But I propose to put all these slights aside, dig down a little deeper and instead challenge what strikes me as the central and fatuous assertion at the very heart of the mainstream media's dismissal of Christian musicians. To wit: Rock music is inherently dangerous, raucous rebel music, and any band that identifies itself as Christian must be timid purveyors of non-threatening pap. The hoary old template of the wild, anarchic rocker is almost half a century old by now, and you'd think people would have sussed it out for the fraud it is. How many times do we have to watch as an Elvis "Jailhouse Rock" Presley morphs into a vacuously smooth Vegas crooner? Or chart the dispiriting progression as a Mick "Street Fighting Man" Jagger turns himself into one of the canniest businessmen who ever fronted a band? Does it never occur to secular critics that the image they hold of what a truly counter cultural group should look like and sound like is in fact an archetype of a stodgy and corrupt establishment that is over-ripe for overthrow?

Thirty some years ago Joni Mitchell railed against what she called, "the star-making machinery behind the popular song." In the decades since then, that hype-driven machinery has only become more and more cynically effective, drawing in hordes of young fans to music that sounds so rebellious but which, in the end, only sublimates youth's hunger for change into nothing more transforming than a shift in fashion and style. Such superficial contortions may entertain and divert for awhile, but they don't ultimately change a blessed thing except the bank accounts of those who promote them.

Sterdan's biting "the head off a dove" jibe is, of course, an allusion to poor drug-addled Ozzy Osbourne and his infamous bat decapitation back in the early 70s. To retain any illusion of dangerousness, one had better avoid the Oz-man's 21st-century incarnation on so-called "reality TV" (there's a particularly potent oxymoron for you) as a sort of seedy Aquarian version of the hen-pecked Dagwood Bumstead. Today's housebroken and heartbroken Ozzy is about as dangerous as a bowl of butterscotch pudding. In terms of their willingness to courageously stand apart from the cultural mainstream and profess their faith in something beyond the decadent confines of the pop music world, Jars of Clay present more of a transforming challenge to the established order than the likes of Ozzy can conceive.

Herman Goodden is a journalist who writes from London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:COLUMNIST
Author:Goodden, Herman
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Concert review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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