I have thoughts and feelings about a 35-year-old album you have probably never heard of.
I never understood Christian rock. The conceptual underpinning of the entire genre just doesn’t make sense to me. Even when I was young and suffered frequently-recurring incidents of direct exposure to it, I could never quite figure out what it wanted to be. I’ve always suspected its practitioners had the same problem.
If you grew up white and agnostic in the 1980s South like I did, someone almost certainly tried to get you into Christian rock at one point or another. Maybe it was one of your churchier friends. (We all had them, even us heathens.) Maybe—and I’m just speculating here—that friend suckered you into going to a youth group meeting at First Baptist or wherever one Wednesday night, and the Dockers-wearing youth pastor with acne scars and a fuzz mustache slipped you a totally rad Petra tape, which you accepted out of politeness even though you realized it meant you’d have to come back next week to return it.
My churchy friend was some gangly goofball I knew from my geometry class who willingly answered to the nickname of Skippy. He walked around like he had a stick up his ass and his balls were too heavy. Sometime during the first couple of weeks of tenth grade, he took one look at my Metallica t-shirt and decided to make me his reclamation project. He had his work cut out for him, the poor bastard. He had no idea.
But he was smart, I’ll give him that. He opted for the path of lesser resistance, step one of which was making me a Whitecross tape. It was metal, or metal enough, anyway, so I listened to it from time to time. I lost that tape decades ago, but even now, I cannot deny that ”Who Will You Follow” is a total banger if you can overlook the simplistic finger-wagging lyrics, which I never could. But nothing even came close to earning its way into my regular cassette rotation until he lent me a copy of Steve Taylor’s I Predict 1990.
Until that point, all the bands Skippy introduced me to had put their agenda front-and-center: they wanted to bring me to Jesus, and they were not going to shut up about it until I either gave in or left the room. I mean, the Whitecross song I mentioned even features the couplet “Jesus is King / He’s why we sing,” for crying out loud. Steve Taylor’s appeal hinged on the fact that he did the opposite of this. At no point on I Predict 1990 does he even mention Jesus by name. The word “God” is only used twice, both times in an offhand manner that’s easy enough to miss—like saying “God knows I tried,” or something similarly anodyne.
I don’t need to badger you, he seems to be saying. This tape is not a déclassé proselytization tool. It will not try to scare you into belief with lurid speculation on the consequence of sin. I wouldn’t do that to you, dear listener. I respect your brain too much for that. Instead, I engage with ideas, the philosophical underpinnings of faith, things like that. You know, smart person stuff, befitting a budding young intellectual like yourself. Just open your mind and press PLAY.
The truth was, I was primed for a message like that. At that age, I was equal parts smug and insecure about my own intellect. Kind of like most teenage Rush fans (the Canadian band, I mean, and not the odious right-wing American gasbag), but without the Libertarianism. And since I considered myself more agnostic than atheistic at the time, I prided myself on being willing to listen, to be convinced—but by logic and reason, and not by anything so subjective and ephemeral as feelings. Feelings were not to be trusted.
So I listened.
Side One opens with a track called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” I know, I know, but bear with me here, because it turns out that Taylor is just doing a satire, one told from the perspective of an ice-cream truck driver who’s worried that easy access to abortion will rob him of his livelihood. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be too clever by half for much of his target audience: the story is that Taylor had to spend countless hours on the phone with Christian bookstores (the main distribution channel for this sort of record back then) and Christian radio hosts explaining himself. Side two features a tale of death-row redemption that, even though it ends up exactly where you’d expect it to, is more nuanced than you’d generally encounter in Christian rock. (For years, I understood this song to be an anti-death penalty statement, probably because “Clinic” convinced me Taylor’s worldview wasn’t all that different from mine; turns out, this reading is not supported by the actual lyrics.)
On another track, Taylor—cleverly, as he does; he’s a witty, literary lyricist working in a genre where those traits were not only not appreciated, but often actively mistrusted—stakes out his anti-psychotherapy bona fides, a perfectly mainstream position to take in the conservative Christianity of the day. I rolled my eyes at it back then—they’re worried about Freud? In this economy?—but now, as the beneficiary of therapy myself, I understand how dangerous it can be to neglect serious mental or emotional issues in favor of “trusting God.” If I’d tried that … well, I shudder to think, and I’ll leave it at that. And of course, he just can’t resist flogging the evergreen trope of morally relativistic college professors corrupting the minds of our youth by banishing God from the quad, and it’s a testament to his skill as a lyricist that he’s able to make his point crystal-clear without actually invoking the name of God in the process.
Okay, cool. But how did it sound?
Well, if you like ‘80s rock, you’re in luck, because I Predict 1990 is an almost ideal representation of the form: layers of synths, keyboards, and horns—some real, some not—each polished and honed to within an inch of its life. But Taylor and his co-producer Dave Perkins seemed to know exactly where to stop. The record sidles right up to that smudged line separating genuine enthusiasm for the work from outright ‘80s cheesiness, but never quite crosses over. There’s something about 1990 that just sounds fundamentally different from the other Christian rock of the era: something more professional, yes, but also more authentic.
Ugh, now I’ve gone and done it: I’ve used the A-word.
What I mean by that is, this is a record that sounds like it was made by people who understood rock well, and knew how to distill the real thing. But now that I’ve brought it up, let’s talk about authenticity for a moment, in art generally and rock specifically.
When I first encountered I Predict 1990, the idea of authenticity was important to me. The question of who was a real headbanger and who was just pretending—of course, why someone would pretend to be such a thing was never explored—occupied a lot of our time and headspace back then. “Any song with a synthesizer in it is not metal” was the kind of thing I’d say from time to time, as if it was true or even remotely important. But it was important, in its way: We were so concerned with gatekeeping because finding ourselves on the other side of that gate was the worst fate we could think of.
I’d be the first to admit that you could do an autopsy on the bloated corpse of rock’n’roll (1955 – ca.2009) and find only trace amounts of the rebellion and anger that birthed it. It was there once—not in every band, and not in equal amounts—but you won’t find any of that in Christian rock. It has nothing to do with rebellion, or yelling “fuck the man” and throwing empty beer bottles at cop cars, or any of the things we talked (or maybe just deluded) ourselves into thinking rock was about. Instead it tried to recast conformity itself as rebellion, being, as it was, in the service of the most inflexible hierarchy of them all. Its entire purpose is to stand in for real rock as a safer alternative, and it’s usually so obvious about it that it fools no one, except for those who have had only the most fleeting of encounters with the genuine article, or a vested interest in selling the ersatz.
Then again, how long has it been since rock really had any claim on standing for rebellion against pretty much anything? Let’s not forget that conformity of one type or another was always a requirement of admission to any rock subculture: you always had to dress the part, whether you were metal, punk, hardcore, or goth. Rock died because it got too comfortable and stagnant. How is late-stage corporo-rock any more authentic than this record? It isn’t. At least Taylor had the courage of his convictions to fall back on here.
Ultimately, authenticity in music isn’t important. There’s only what works, and what doesn’t. But insofar as the goals of mainstream rock and Christian rock were in conflict, Taylor had a choice to make. And listening to 1990 all these years later, I can’t shake the feeling that the choice he made was to try to thread an unthreadable needle. Throughout the record, he’s trying to hide his convictions from us behind clever song titles (“The Jung and the Restless”, “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel A Lot Better”) and his oblique lyrical approach. I listened to this record for years before I caught on, before I came to see there’s a lot less depth to it than there had once appeared to be. Taylor’s ideas are the same ones we’d already heard since forever, are still hearing about today, and will probably continue to hear about until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all. If he had anything truly new to say, I can’t find it.
He could have made an album that stood on its own as a work of Christianity, or as a work of rock. Instead, he tried to have it both ways. We know how that usually works out, but lucky for Taylor, failing ambitiously is one of the most rock and roll things there ever was.