Katy Perry and “Gospel” Music

I remember when Katy Perry did Christian music. I never bought her album, but I was a huge fan of her label head and fellow artist, Jennifer Knapp. I remember hanging out on Jennifer Knapp’s online fan forum (haha… remember message boards?!) and seeing ads for Katy Hudson. I remember thinking that I should try her out. Of course, Katy came and went….as did Jennifer Knapp for that matter, and message boards as well.

Somewhere about half a decade later, I found myself curiously drawn to this odd girl singing, “I Kissed a Girl (and I Liked It).” Something about her intrigued me. Her style, her manner of dress, her saucy, taunting demeanor. I instantly liked her. And for no real reason I could think of.

I’d never kissed a girl, and I was sure I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t have a boyfriend to mind, or not mind. And I may have had some cherry chapstick around, but it was the dead of summer. Who needs that?!

So I Googled her.

When I found she had had a short career in “gospel” music under her former name, I immediately remembered her. I was mystified. Granted, I never heard her album, but I knew Jennifer Knapp. And I knew the sleepy choir sounds associated with the term “gospel music” were…uh…well…not her shtick.

Over the next several years,  I would see Katy Perry interviews, where she talked about how she “cut a gospel record,” as if she were Johnny Cash doing a collection of spirituals and hymns on vinyl. It was a Christian pop CD ! Pretty much the same stuff she’s doing now, just minus the cupcake bra and songs about genitals!

I would hear that she was raised to only listen to “gospel” music and I would roll my eyes. Because  I knew what she was doing. What was she doing? Well, here’s the cheap marketing trick her publicist used.

The entire professional Christian music industry, a multi-billion dollar operation, legally falls under the Gospel Music Association (GMA). In 1998, GMA defined gospel music as:

“Gospel music is music in any style whose lyric is substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in, or derived from, the Holy Bible; and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works, and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view.”

Read again in the first clause, “in any style.” This means everything from Amy Grant, to POD, Switchfoot, to early Chevelle and Underoath,legally are all “gospel” music. I highly doubt the tatted up guys from POD would appreciate being called “gospel” musicians.

Furthermore, read the last clause, “prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.” Hymns and church music fall under another clause. But this clause means  that a “gospel” song can be about anything the artist wants, as long as they do it from a Christian viewpoint.

They can also play any instrument they want in any style they choose. Within the genre of “gospel” music, there is pop, rock, metal, country, rap, swing, hardcore/screamo, and even rasta. Gospel music is only defined by lyrics. It’s right there in the first clause “music whose lyrics…” (And, yes, this is how it plays out in practice as well).

But, when secular artists with a Christian background refer to their Christian music roots, they are urged to call it by its legal name. This makes them sound oppressed and like they have finally gotten free from sleepy, outdated choir music and found “real” music.

They did this with Creed’s Scott Stapp. According to his marketing, growing up, he was only allowed to listen to “gospel” music. This made him sound abused and oppressed by his super religious parents. In reality, not only was this a fairly common rule in Christian households, but when Scott was growing up, Christian music was growing and changing rapidly.

Katy Perry had the same “oppressive” childhood. She too, was only allowed to “gospel” music. She grew up in the 1990’s, the same decade I did. This was a very exciting time in Christian music. It was a huge, burgeoning industry that was actually getting noticed by mainstream music, albeit reluctantly. While these days it can be argued that Christian music is imploding, at that time, it was in its golden age.

In the 1990’s, Christian music was exploding with celebrities, tabloids, and underground hipster labels within underground hipster labels. There were national tours, and huge names some of which were being played on secular stations. There were Woodstock-style festivals held every summer all over the country, some catered toward the indie crowd. There were even a couple of cable channels dedicated to only Christian music videos. Some of those videos even got on regular MTV rotation. So, growing up only on “gospel music” was hardly this Hairspray-esque childhood of being forced to listen to Jimmy Swaggart sing “How Great Thou Art,” on LP records.

So, then, why are they using this terminology? Well other than anti-religious bias, I have another idea.

I read one time about Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) being reluctant to call himself a “Christian musician.” Once you’re in that genre, he reasoned, it’s almost impossible to get out. I can see that actually. Christians think you’re a backsliding sellout and call you a hypocrite. Non-Christians think you’re a religious Trojan horse, trying to sneak up on them so you can beat them with a Bible. And you’re stuck in the middle with no fan base, when all you ever wanted to do is play guitar. I get it.

Perhaps Christian music is such a recognized part of our culture, that to dissociate from it, you have to invent another terminology. But really, do you have to be so eager to get out of what’s been termed the “Christian music ghetto,” that you’re ashamed of it? Eh, what do I know? I’m just an innocent girl, who grew up obsessed with Gospel music.


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