The human brand
We like our heroes to be linear. We like to see them grow at a steady incline until they transcend all possibility of self-doubt and failure. Ideally, they’ll do more than show us the way — they’ll walk it on our behalf. And if they stumble, they’ll at least deliver a handsome public apology. It’s a branding progression, rather than a human progression.
By contrast, the Derek Webb brand is all too human. Just when you think he’s this kind of artist, with this kind of message, he takes a sharp left turn. For the Christian music world, he’s the guy at the party that you’ve learned not to leave alone for too long. You never know what you don’t know about him.
If he has a consistent branding tactic, it’s that of using whatever pedestal he’s been placed on as an opportunity to take better aim. Over the last twenty years and any number of left turns, people have loved and excoriated Webb with equal dedication for the way he refuses to play by the rules of Christian music. It seems that every past interview has revolved around some kind of “why do you make so much trouble” question. When I spoke with him on the phone last week, I just wanted to know if he enjoyed it.
“I feel a particular giftedness in agitating people. I’m either good at doing it, or I’m good at not caring about the results of having done it,” he told me. “I try to use my powers for good. I try not to enjoy it too much.”
I first encountered Webb’s music when my youth pastor’s wife gave me the debut CD of a new band called Caedmon’s Call. At that time, adolescents were being enthusiastically plied with the music of the newly minted Contemporary Christian music genre (CCM) by elders grateful for a non-threatening alternative to the mainstream artists of our day. (“You like Alanis Morissette? Listen to this Rebecca St. James CD!”) For me, ignoring my emotions seemed preferable over adjusting them to CCM dimensions.
Caedmon’s Call was less derivative than many of the musical outfits spawned by early CCM. It was a good, sincerely produced record, infused with doctrinal themes that would soon make the band darlings of the Reformed theology movement. But amid the lyrics of explicit piety, there was one track that caught my attention differently. It’s the only one that I still remember.
The song “Bus Driver” was a twangy, blues-tinged number about a blue-collar worker musing on the hidden significance of his daily routine. Musically, between the tack piano and the freight-train cadence, the song was disarmingly simple, free of the arm-tugging earnestness plied by other Christian music toward my demographic.
But what really set this song apart from the rest of the album, and from CCM as a whole, was that it didn’t attempt to draft my emotions for spiritual duty. Looking back, I think it was somehow connecting directly to spirit. This was something I’d never encountered before, in the Christian enclave or anywhere else. It made me uncomfortable, in a way I didn’t understand and didn’t want to lose. I played it on repeat for months.
I wish now that I’d thought during our phone conversation to ask Webb about this song, and why he didn’t write another narrative like it until a couple years ago. He did, however, say something that confirmed what I saw in the song, and what made it unique.
“My favorite kind of music is folk music. Now when I say folk music, I don’t mean acoustic music. I mean like not as a style, as much as an ethic. I feel like what folk singers do is they tell the unfiltered stories of the people, the viewpoints that you’re not hearing anywhere else.”
By the time I resurfaced from “Bus Driver” and from high school, Webb was leaving the band. Their music, he told me, had become too thematically entrenched for the songs he wanted to develop. In truth, Webb’s tunes were always the outliers on any Caedmon’s Call record. They just seemed to be looking in a different direction from the rest. And as time went on, his lyrical content grew too stringent and too specific to fit into the band’s successful formula.
On going solo
An artist leaving a band is like a believer leaving a church, in that it’s usually not accomplished without rancor, and it’s definitely not viewed favorably unless the defector has a solid landing place in sight. Webb had neither bad blood nor a new band to justify his transition.
Webb told me he has no negative memories of working with Caedmon’s Call. In fact, he produced their most recent album. It seems he just wanted to write his own songs.
“I’ve always been kind of restless in that regard,” he said. “Caedmon’s [was] such an unbelievable experience. But what it did was really lock us into doing one thing for a long time. Since I’ve been on my own, I can take a lot sharper turns nowadays. I like to experiment. That’s what I’m in it for.”
Webb launched his solo career with 2003’s She Must and Shall Go Free, wisely rooted in the country-folk-rock his erstwhile band was known for. Having musically lured the Caedmon’s Call fan base in for a listen, he dropped a moderate bomb with the song “Wedding Dress,” a fairly explicit indictment of materialistic church culture. But since the song was written in the first person, the pill of self-indictment went down without choking out too many CCM listeners. The nascent “sacred romance” movement carried the song to prominence, launching a thousand rededication ceremonies where the conscience-stricken sobbed, “I am a whore, I do confess,” on each other’s shoulders.
I think that’s when I started to begrudge Webb my admiration. Without question, I resonated with “Wedding Dress.” In fact, I resonated with several tracks on the album—”She Must and Shall Go Free,” which exulted in guaranteed sanctification, and the rueful (but unapologetic) “Nobody Loves Me.” But the interiority he expressed was all over the map; I had a hard time squaring so many disparate emotions. I would have doubted his authenticity if I could. But Webb’s voice, possessed of more character than culture, seals personal fervor into every song he sings.
The emotional counterpoint of “She Must and Shall Go Free”, and the hope implied in its internal conflict, was sometimes more than I could deal with. It wasn’t unlike the strange disenfranchisement of seeing your best friend develop her first crush, while you’re still in the throes of boy-hatred. Rather than try to live with the contrast, it was easier to just not listen.
‘Christian’ as a marketing term
Webb’s next studio release, i see things upside down (2004), introduced a slight change of focus, clothed in a shimmery post-punk sound. Not surprisingly, fans latched onto the single “I Repent,” which represented the self-reproaching Derek Webb they recognized from years past. The following year brought Mockingbird, which Webb said he intended for the socio-political conversation he was hearing around him. In producing the songs, Webb allowed himself only eight instruments, in order to bring a cohesive sound to what became a sonic diatribe against unthinking conservatism. It was getting harder for old-guard fans to find a single to hang their hats on.
The Ringing Bell brought a further complication, in that it had no specific ideology or ethic to proclaim. In Webb’s words, the record was an attempt to remake the Beatles’ “Revolver.” The music on this record feels emancipated, with a “come on, let’s go” energy behind it. It’s as if Webb had shucked off any lingering concern for what constitutes Christian music.
“I don’t believe there’s any such thing as Christian music,” he told me. “In my opinion, the word “Christian,” other than applied to human beings, is a marketing term. Art has so many purposes, and if we’re truly diverse members of one body, then we’re not all going to have that same ethic.”
Years later, my dad brought my attention to a video on YouTube. “Listen to this song and tell me what you think it’s about,” he requested.
I found myself watching Derek Webb sing in black-and-white frames cut together with images of a giant mixing board. His eyes were squinted shut, his voice as earnestly strained as ever, but this time he was backed by a completely different sound. That mixing board was a visual clue, in case you couldn’t believe what you were hearing, that Webb had gone electronic.
I looked at my dad. “It’s about AIDS,” I said.
The song’s reference to 100 million dying people might not have been specific to AIDS. But the lyrics came down on the “God Hates Fags” crowd like a piano dropped from a rooftop. And while he hadn’t used the prefix “homo-,” Webb did use the word “sexuality,” and another S-word, as well. The one with four letters. On a Christian record.
The air of controversy that had always smoldered around his music burst into gleeful flame. His label dropped him. The blogs blew up. A lot of people stopped listening to his music. But a lot of new people began to.
“Controversy is never something I aim for,” he told me. However, he admitted, “I had some things I wanted to say. I had some people I wanted to say some things to. The moment that I was writing [the 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome], I was seeing a lot of my friends and family at the business end of the church’s judgment on homosexuality. I just felt like I could no longer not write about it. ”
For my part, I enjoyed seeing Webb use his powers to light some real brushfires. His reliance on grace was looking backward less, leading him forward into risky territory. And he was moving forward to the beat of some juicy, club-flavored loops that gave his latest left turn an insouciant edge. He was coming out bolder than ever before; it was impossible to resist.
He told me that his musical rebranding wasn’t simply a surfeit with coffee-shop alt-rock. He has rediscovered the narrative thread that drew him to folk music in hip hop. “Hip hop is where you can hear, today, the unfiltered stories of the people. It’s unbelievably poetic and honest music.”
Webb admitted that the music also communicates a degree of aggression that “can be too much for some people.” But he sees his job as being an honest portrayal of “moments” as he sees them.
“I think people have come to the conclusion that I squint my eyes to see anything that might be polarizing or provocative,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t feel like I have nearly that much control over what I write, or what seems important to me at any given moment. I don’t really understand how that works.”
When you’re artistically gifted and eloquently outspoken, the Christian community will assimilate you if it possibly can. (Look at Bono. Look at Shakespeare.) But Webb had outstayed his welcome among traditionalists. These days, Webb is no longer the church-sanctioned safe house for believers with a countercultural streak. Instead, Webb’s effigy is now bearing the flag for “progressives,” “liberals,” and those disillusioned with the church.
A new kind of artist
Webb stated that he doesn’t kindly receive being hauled onto yet another ideological platform.
“I’m just as uncomfortable with progressive, more liberal Christians doing it as I was with the more conservative. People seem to be so focused on the one thing that they wrapped their theological identity in, that they keep themselves from responding to [others] in the way that Jesus might. That’s a concern, you know. It feels like gang mentality.
Every time I put a record out, I get a lot of feedback that people wish I would go back and make my first album again, something that’s more explicitly to or for the church, even more acoustic. My response is, I made my first album, and I’ve done nothing to unmake it. I’m still making those same confessions. And I look at the songs that I have and the songs that I feel like I need to have, in order to tell a more updated story . . . you know, these newer songs, I imagine them alongside songs like “I Repent” and “Wedding Dress.” Because that’s hopefully how I’m going to experience them.”
I find it kind of staggering that Webb has time to listen for feedback, let alone respond to it. Between his online project Noisetrade, speaking engagements, and frequent guest artist stints, there’s also the touring schedule and the occasional collaboration with Caedmon’s Call. But this array of projects is mere water-treading for Webb who doesn’t see himself as being all that prolific. (Um, excuse me?) When I pressed him, he conceded, “In terms of sheer output, it does seem like a lot. I guess I keep busy.” The real force will be back this year, in the follow-up to Stockholm Syndrome. He wouldn’t give me much on it, but my educated guess is that fans (and foes) can expect the tight beats and polemical attitude that made the last release such a lead zeppelin, in the best possible sense.
And if the backlash grows in proportion?
“If I dig into that moment, and that’s the result, I actually feel fine about that. Not because I want to make people angry. But I was thrilled by the fact that people were listening and they responded,” said Webb.
Rebel with a cause
“I think it’s just an instinct that I have. As a kid, I was a real discipline case. And when I first started following Jesus, I thought that surely I was going to have to get rewired or something, because that didn’t seem congruent with the Christian culture where I was living. The better part of my adult life up to this point – what am I, 37 or 38 now? – has been spent not being less rebellious, [but] being more discerning about the right things to rebel against. I think there are a lot of them, and I don’t mind writing the soundtrack for it.”
That’s when I realized what I really wanted to ask him about. Webb’s music had first attracted me with its advocacy of those unknown and outside. But how do you get your own people to join you there? Especially when your shortcomings threaten to put you on the outside, too?
I wanted him to tell me what galvanizes a spirit crippled by self-reproach, so that its convictions and imperfections can not only coexist, but maybe result in something worth showing to others. This is the story implied in the arc of his music. Having posed the question, I waited, feeling an immoderate anticipation that he would clear it up for me.
“All I can really do,” he said, “is tell my own story. If I’m not really aware of what kind of person I am, of what I’m capable of, if that is not enabling me to move towards and love people better, because I realize how not-different we are . . . “
“That is the way I feel you move forward and progress honestly in your life. I feel like the art would suffer tremendously if I was under some sort of delusion about being a better person, as if I’m not among the things that need to be corrected in the world I look at. That self-awareness is going to either beat you down, or is going to restore your sanity in a way.”
The head of Webb’s former record label said, upon their parting of ways, “Hopefully what we do will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And Derek knows how to do the latter very well.”
But I’ll say that in doing the latter, Webb also comforts those afflicted with both an acute conviction of sin, and an uneasy gift for rebellion.
Photos courtesy of Derek Webb. This article was originally published in print in Converge issue 6