By 2009, the impact of “American Idol” on the Christianization of American pop music was crystal clear, even to the most casual observer, when it produced a showdown between two artists, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert.
Allen, it turns out, was a “worship leader” at his church, which in non-evangeli-speak roughly translates to “guy who leads the singing,” while Lambert was the contestant who had seen photographs of himself kissing men splashed across the internet.
Although Lambert didn’t exactly confirm his sexual orientation at the time, it was widely seen as the showdown between the gay guy and the Christian guy, with a judgment to be rendered by Middle America.
Apparently, it took the Allen-Lambert showdown for media outlets such as Newsweek to figure out what had been happening all along with “American Idol”—the return of people of faith into the mainstream of American popular music, both as voters and performers.
“Most of [Lambert’s] groupies have overlooked a possible roadblock to the title,” the publication observed. “Idol is the No. 1 show on TV at least in part because it’s so family-friendly, and it also appeals to a large demographic of Christian viewers. … Many of Idol’s previous winners—Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard—are devout Christians. Coincidence? Perhaps. But we don’t know much about Lambert’s faith, and that might hurt him with Christian voters. He could be extremely religious, but he’s kept his religious beliefs quiet.”
The votes of millions of average Americans put Allen over the top, and he went on to secure a recording contract and sell millions of records while Lambert, who would easily have been the choice in a pre-Idol world, in which rock stars were picked by the likes of Davis and David Geffen, finished in second place.
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It was quickly becoming obvious to even the most casual observer that “American Idol had” become the conduit for dozens—perhaps hundreds—of Christian-oriented artists, including Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, to reach the heights of fame by serving as a sort of farm team.
This resulted in young Christians from around America being able to directly access the big leagues of pop culture, bypassing the gatekeepers and short-circuiting the system that had reigned for half a century, where secular white males from the coasts picked America’s pop stars.
One of the founders of the Christian rock industry, Billy Ray Hearn, who had taken the sincere desires of young and devout artists to bring their beliefs and their music to the mainstream and effectively silenced them by marketing to fellow believers, once remarked, “I didn’t want to be a part of the world and I got out.”
He had gotten his wish and dragged with him a generation of talented but stifled artists who would have little meaningful impact on the mainstream music world. But “American Idol” was changing the equation and giving these artists a shot at taking their music and their message to the world.
The long-held philosophy of cultural separatism that had once kept Christians from the mainstream of American pop culture life was rapidly fading, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the world of the “American Idol” television series, which created numerous superstars, such as Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Kris Allen, Clay Aiken, RJ Helton, Diana DeGarmo, and many other winners who were vocal about their Christian faith.
But had the governing philosophy that created the Christian music industry still been in place, the result would likely have been the creation of a separatist Christian “American Idol” contest, walled off from the main show and likely featuring Christian artists facing off against one another, performing gospel songs.
Diana DeGarmo’s second-place finish in particular was of symbolic import because her uncle was the legendary ’70s contemporary Christian music pioneer Eddie DeGarmo, who had been a fierce champion of cultural separation and had at times encouraged young rock bands not to cross over and record for a mainstream audience.
His 16-year-old niece, on the other hand, had pointedly skipped the Christian music circuit where her uncle worked as a label vice president, and gone straight to “American Idol” instead.
But there were other challenges for Christian performers who aspired to make it to the top of the heap on Idol, for outside the safe and comfortable walls of friendly Christian music executives, they would face pressures to change their music and please their musical mentors.
In the case of Clay Aiken, for example, that meant having to listen to legendary music mogul Clive Davis, who had signed the likes of Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, and others.
But when it came to the intersection of God and rock ’n’ roll, most notable was the artist Davis hadn’t signed: a singer named Keith Green, who is to the contemporary Christian music community what John Lennon is to mainstream music: a legend who died too young.
Green was a child prodigy who had become a born-again Christian intent on taking his message to the “secular” world he had once been a part of. Although he was flown to New York for a meeting with Davis, Green’s hopes were dashed by an executive who likely couldn’t fathom what Green was trying to do.
“Clive Davis … kept me waiting for almost two hours,” Green wrote in his journal. “It was a failure, but I took it so well I couldn’t believe it. … [I] kept telling myself that the Lord wanted me to do a Christian album. It depressed me, but I kept my chin up.”
Passed over by Davis, Green was picked up by Davis’ Christian world counterpart, a canny record executive named Billy Ray Hearn, who quickly signed Green to make “Christian” records, which he intended to market exclusively to fellow Christians.
Three decades later, Davis would face a new crop of Christians, but this time he wouldn’t be able to keep them down since they were winners of a contest that he couldn’t control. “American Idol” had circumvented the process of rock stars being picked by a handful of typically secular executives, and stars were now being picked by the American people themselves.
Davis was there to sign “American Idol” winners to his label, yet despite his weakened position, he still appeared to have definite ideas about the direction artists like Aiken should take. Recounting conversations with Davis, Aiken gave fans a peek into the kinds of pressures that are put on artists who want to bring their beliefs into a mainstream setting.
“Clive tried to tell me that saying certain words in a song—or as he says, ‘putting some balls into it’—isn’t bad, it’s just strong emotion,” Aiken recalled to Star Magazine. “Well there are certain words and emotions I don’t want kids hearing, and I’m not changing because they think it’s going to sell better.”
This excerpt has been republished with permission from Mark Joseph’s book, “Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil’s Music” (2017, BP Books).