WARNING: the following sentence may cause you to vomit a little bit in your mouth.
Creed have reunited and are releasing a new album.
When these four "good Christian lads" rocketed to the top in the late '90s, it was because there was damn little happening in rock 'n' roll. Grunge, which had shaken the very foundations of popular music earlier in the decade, had receded. Rock returned remarkably fast to a plain, unassuming status quo.
Nickelback. Three Doors Down. Limp Bizkit. This was the company Creed was in (and I apologize if I just made you upchuck for the second time in this article). All of a sudden it seemed as if making it in rock required little more than meat-headed guitars, a vague machismo, and a garbled, throaty singing voice that sounded like you had a dead ferret stuck in your throat.
These were strange years--the transition between Clintonian pseudo-liberalism and Dubya-style conservatism. And even before Bush geared up to steal the 2000 election, Slick Willy managed to find a place at the table for the Christian Right.
And Creed were the kind of group that could only find such a wide audience in a country where these knuckle-draggers still held social and political sway. Sure, Creed were never officially a "Christian rock" band; they were never signed to an Evangelical label or played at Christian venues. But singer Scott Stapp, the son of a Florida preacher, has been open about the band's message of "faith," and their own brand of fundamentalism was barely veiled within their lyrics.
If you haven't noticed this Bible tapping (it's not quite overt enough to call "thumping"), then go back and listen again. It's there. The imagery invoked in songs like "Torn" and "Higher" is taken directly from the rhetoric of the "born again" crew. The lyrics of "My Own Prison" directly "cry out to God, seeking only his decision."
All of this might be harmless enough. Atheist though I might be, I hold nothing against anyone's personal faith. Their songs take on a more insidious form, however, especially when viewed in a bigger context.
The band's 1997 hit "One," went out of its way to lambast affirmative action, calling it "discrimination now on both sides." This kind of reverse racism rhetoric dominated political debate on both sides of the aisle during that year, opening the door for Bush and company to come out on the side of white applicants to the University of Michigan who felt "discriminated against" in 2003.
Then, of course, there was Creed's most recognized single: "With Arms Wide Open." Far be it from any family-hating lefty to begrudge Stapp's elation at his impending fatherhood, but "Arms" is once again laced with Christian references. Not a problem, until one thinks about how those images are applied to the topic of pregnancy:
"I close my eyes, begin to pray
Then tears of joy stream down my face...
"I'll take a breath, take her by my side
We stand in awe, we've created life."
Aside from the sickeningly sappy-sweet words, there is something seriously alarming about this song being so popular. Stapp is free to write the songs he wants to, but it's worth noting that not once does he mention what his wife thinks about being pregnant (she is, after all, the one actually having the baby--maybe this is why she divorced him a few years later?).
In the visual sense, "Arms" was a bit more overt. The cover art for the single--a baby's hand reaching for an adult's--looks like it was taken straight from a billboard for one of those fake "pregnancy counseling centers" that the anti-choice crowd use as a front for their cause.
That this song didn't cause outrage--or at least a few raised eyebrows--from the pro-choice movement speaks to how much ground they had given to the right in recent years. Nobody seemed offended that the music industry was cramming a man's take on pregnancy down countless teenage throats several times a day on the radio.
By the time Bush was to take office (about eighteen months after the release of "Arms"), almost 90 percent of counties in America would have no abortion provider. Even nominally pro-choice politicians would talk about decreasing the number of abortions each year. It's certainly impossible to measure the effect that songs like this had on teenage opinions on a woman's right to choose, but in this climate, to say there wasn't one would be simply naive.
It might have been hard for the industry to market this kind of otherwise controversial material if Creed's music hadn't been what it was: safe, slick, bereft of any kind of jagged edge or artistic risk. In short, it was the perfect formula for marketing to privileged frat-boys (you know, the kind that are everywhere at modern music festivals), sheltered high school students and suburban parents looking for ways to bond with their kids. And like a test patient who's had the placebo switched with the real meds, these demographics swallowed the pill without any argument.
Never underestimate the ability for good frames to save bad paintings. After all, the music industry has made an art-form out of it.
When Creed announced their break-up five years ago, thousands of real music fans most likely shrugged and then went to the kitchen to make themselves a sandwich. Now, they have inexplicably decided that 2009 is the perfect time to make a comeback. And any notion that this new Creed might be any better was dashed from the get-go. Stapp couldn't wait to lay the Christianity on as thick as possible, calling the reunion "a rebirth."
Stapp and company may not find today's audience as "reborn" as they are, however. The political and musical landscape have shifted drastically over the past few years. Falwell is dead. The Christian Right, whose "morality platform" has held a stranglehold over politics for the past thirty years, was dealt a powerful blow in the 2008 elections, and ordinary Americans' views have swung to the left.
Hand in hand with this is the way in which popular music has changed. By now, Creed's "post-grunge" sound is yesterday's news, thankfully dethroned by the sounds of indie and garage rock. Hip-hop is also the most influential it has ever been. And in all genres, a spirit of experimentation and pushing the boundaries is beginning to take form, from the unexpected popularity of of acts like M.I.A. to the ever-presence of the White Stripes.
Whether Creed manages to sell out stadiums and go platinum with their next release isn't really the issue--because they very well may. The point, though, is that the times, they do a-change, and the ones that have taken place in recent years have not only re-focused the way folks look at music, but have made the possibility of substantial, even fundamental change very real.
When that change comes, it will make our music a lot more rewarding--and our gag reflexes can finally relax.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, cultural critic and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts. He is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.