Ichthus notebook: 2011 festival shows Christian music doesn’t fit into one category

Worship artist Matthew West talked to the crowd at the main stage at Ichthus on June 18, 2011. (c) Lexington Herald-Leader photos by Rich Copley.

Worship artist Matthew West talked to the crowd at the main stage at Ichthus on June 18, 2011. (c) Lexington Herald-Leader photos by Rich Copley.

Saturday night at the Ichthus Festival, I arrived in the photo pit at the Deep End stage and saw a familiar face on the front row: Jenny Green, a teen from Crawfordsville, Ind., who I had met the day before hanging out at the front row fence at the main stage.

Friday, she had arrived at the big stage at 10:30 a.m. to stake out a spot for Skillet and Family Force Five. But Saturday night, with a lineup including Disciple and The Almost, Jenny assured me that the Deep End was the place to be.

Jenny Green (glasses and raised arm) of Crawfordsville, Ind., and others cheer a performance by Disciple on the Deep End Stage at the Ichthus Festival on June 18, 2011.

Jenny Green (glasses and raised arm) of Crawfordsville, Ind., and others cheer a performance by Disciple on the Deep End Stage at the Ichthus Festival on June 18, 2011.

For her, at least.

The main stage had not closed Saturday. There were in fact thousands of people gathered for festival closers Matthew West and Chris Tomlin. But the worship artists were not going to make your ears bleed and pop your eyes out with pyrotechnics, as cool as How Great is Our God might be punctuated with some fireworks.

But the shifting stages and fan bases were part of why this year’s Ichthus demonstrated something serious Christian music fans have known for a long time: You cannot neatly categorize Christian music under one heading, though that is what the music industry has long tried to do.

It was always a little funny back in the 1980s that though your favorite record store would have separate sections for rock, pop, urban and country music, Christian artists as diverse as Amy Grant, Stryper, dc talk and Steve Taylor were all grouped under one label: Christian. Now, if you tried to persuade a long-haired, guyliner-wearing Stryper fan that Amy Grant was someone he should see because he’s a Christian, you would have had a challenge on your hands.

But that’s sort of how the music industry saw it.

And because of that, it was often the top-selling artists that defined the genre, which was misleading. To a generation of casual observers, Amy Grant is contemporary Christian music. And Grant earned her place atop the genre with her great songwriting and performances. But in reality, she no more defined Christian music in the 1980s than Madonna defined mainstream pop. They were each distinct artists that had developed big followings, but they were not for everyone.

Red brought its big pyro show to the Ichthus Festival June 16.

Red brought its big pyro show to the Ichthus Festival June 16.

In it’s programming this year, Ichthus sort of crystalized changes that have been taking place over the years in Christian music as it has increasingly diversified, and in numerous cases even strayed from under the umbrella of the Christian genre.  Arguably the best-known band on this year’s lineup was Thursday-night headliner Red, who came to the festival with a list of national TV appearances on programs like Conan and looked every bit like mainstream arena rockers with their pyrotechnic show. Preceding them on the main stage was Anberlin, who took off the next day to go open for Linkin Park in Europe. Neither group fit under an Amy Grant definition of Christian music, but then if that’s all Ichthus offered, it may have had far fewer happy customers.

Walking through the camp ground, numerous adults told me that what they liked about Ichthus was that musically there was something for everyone. The kids in their youth groups could go listen to screamo or hip hop while they maybe checked out an acoustic worship act on the Galleria stage. The main stage served to highlight top artists from a variety of genres, and then the side stages helped make it a more complete festival for fans of each, like the Jenny Greens of the audience.

The future of Christian pop music is a constant topic of discussion among its adherents, particularly as changes in the music industry have impacted traditionally faith-based labels and organizations and more and more bands have opted to focus on taking their messages into the mainstream market.

It has made Christian music harder to define. But then again, it never really was that easy, was it?

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