Katy Perry and the Evangelicals

In this week’s blog, Professor Crawford Gribben (QUB), discusses Katy Perry’s recent court case and the historical relationship between the cultural artefacts of American evangelicalism and the cultural mainstream: 

It has been a bad summer for Katy Perry. Fending off several allegations of harassment, she has also had to deal with the fall-out of a court case that overturned accepted ideas of musical plagiarism to arrive a surprise decision concerning what might be her most famous song. The court in Los Angeles determined that her hit song, “Dark horse” (2014) – the first song by a female artist to achieve one billion hits on Youtube and Vevo, and a number-one hit in the United States and several other countries besides – copied elements of an earlier song, “Joyful noise,” by an evangelical rapper called Flame, who now stands to win damages of $2.7m.

The case illustrates the complex relationship that exists between the cultural artefacts of American evangelicalism and the so-called cultural mainstream. While faith-based rapping may not be a widely recognised musical idiom in many other parts of the world, it is an element of one of the largest and most commercially significant musical sectors in the United States. There, the genre of “contemporary Christian music” has become very big business, representing a market sector that is larger than classical, jazz and new age combined, and which is defined by its lyrics rather than by its style. Emerging in the 1970s, and with a history documented by scholars such as Heather Hendershot, contemporary Christian music has generally offered a sanctified alternative to the most popular musical preferences of the day, creating musical products that reflect the aesthetic of rock’n’roll without embracing its less than respectable values, emulating rather than innovating, in an effort to provide alternative patterns of consumption for Christian teens. This genre has become a metaphor to explain the derivative relationship between Christian artists and those they mimic. Christian pop offers a pallid and generally slightly dated reflection of the angst and energy of the secular hit parade, and in its evisceration of rock rebellion it captures the lacklustre aspiration of a community that too often wants to be of the world without actually being in it. Following broader cultural trends, and finding ways to accommodate itself to the tastes and preferences of the mainstream, contemporary Christian music might provide a perfect metaphor to describe the current state of American evangelicalism.

Katy Perry almost certainly knows this. She has had more experience than she likely prefers of contemporary Christian music and the movement from which it emerged. Growing up in an evangelical family, she first sought fame within this world of religious rock. Her first album, Katy Hudson (2001), focused on the struggles faced by believing teens in an unbelieving world. But the album was not a success. Released by an evangelical label just as it ceased operations, Katy Hudson sold fewer than 200 copies, becoming an ironic collector’s item. In the years that followed, Katy Hudson morphed into Katy Perry, and “I kissed a girl” (2008), her first release with a new deal from Capitol, and a break-through success, signalled more than a musical change of direction. Katy Perry’s meteoric rise to stardom came after she left behind her creatively limiting background.

Katy Hudson (2001)

But, as recent the verdict of the Los Angeles court suggests, the relationship between the artefacts of evangelicalism and those of the so-called cultural mainstream is beginning to change. An increasing number of secular creative artists are looking to the evangelical world for inspiration. In musical preferences, as in other creative fashions, the church has long emulated the world, but, increasingly, the world is also emulating the church. The distinction between the church and the world is breaking down. Nowadays, the similarities that exist between evangelical and mainstream cultural products might just as easily be explained by the mainstream’s emulation of evangelicalism. The question might not be “why does the devil have all the good music,” as Salvation Army founder William Booth wondered, Christian rocker Larry Norman quoted, and Cliff Richard covered – but “where did the devil get the good music from?”

Of course, although the point has not often been noted, the world has been emulating the church for a very long time – and that, as historians including Randall J. Stephens have recently argued, explains how gospel music mutated into the language of rock’n’roll. We are all familiar with the movement from sanctuary to stage of acts from Elvis Presley to Evanescence, and of the telling similarities between pioneering pianist Jerry Lee Lewis and his televangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart. But the relationship between the music of worship and the commercially worthwhile extends to individual songs too. One of the most blatant instances of similarity might be the almost identical melodic structures of the popular religious song “Give thanks with a grateful heart” (1978) and “Go west,” most famously recorded by the Village People (1978) and the Pet Shop Boys (1993).

Randall Stephens.jpg
Randall J. Stephens, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (Harvard, 2018).

This phenomenon is evident in popular literature too – and sometimes in the most unlikely ways. From 1995 until 2006, two evangelical authors published a series of prophecy novels which sold over 65 million copies and were read by one in nine of the American population. The Left Behind series was encoded with the politics of the war on terror as much as it reflected a popular end-of-the-world-view that circulated among around 100 million American believers. The claims of this apocalyptic theology were precise – predicting a schema that involved the rapture, followed by a seven-year tribulation, during which the antichrist would rise to power and initiate the most awful scheme of persecution in human history, which would be followed by the second coming of Jesus Christ, the one-thousand years of his millennial rule over the world from Jerusalem, the judgement of the wicked and the inauguration of the new heavens and earth. Secular reviewers found this narrative abhorrent, and struggled to understand what social and political implications might be, though that did not stop a re-make of the series’ first film adaptation being released with Nicholas Cage in a leading role. But commercial publishers took note of the appeal of these themes, and the early interest in this prophetic scheme as it was parodied in The Simpsons gave way to more serious explorations of its implications for sexual politics in incredibly popular television shows such as HBO’s The Leftovers. The idea of the rapture is now a mainstay of American popular culture, a referent that circulates widely and far outside the boundaries of the movement from which it emerged. Perhaps the point is not that evangelicals are meant to be in the world but not of it, nor that evangelicals too often find themselves of the world without being in it, but that the distinction between the church and the world that these familiar in-group mottos presuppose is slowing withering away.

 Katy Hudson learned the hard way how limiting the evangelical market could be. But the court case surrounding Katy Perry’s biggest hit suggests that the influence of evangelical culture isn’t so easy to escape. And maybe that is because the artefacts of evangelicalism now litter the mainstream market – for these believers are in the world, and of it too.

Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast. You can find him online at @GribbenC.



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