Twenty five years ago this week, one of the most influential records in my life was released. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak is still cited as one of Contemporary Christian Music’s most influential albums and is still the subject of praise and criticism. I thought I would revisit a review of the book Jesus Freak to celebrate its continuing influence in my life and the lives of many others.
If, as Rob Sheffield suggests, “Love is a mixtape,” then for a generation of Christians growing up in the nineties, that mixtape was dominated by the group dc Talk. By declaring a fierce loyalty and love for all things Christian, Jesus Freak then emerges as the song and album that dominates that mix. In dc Talk’s Jesus Freak—their contribution to Bloomsbury’s 33⅓ Series—Will Stockton and D. Gilson explore this 1995, genre-crossing, hit-making album by the Christian pop/rock/rap trio. As queer scholars with evangelical roots, Stockton and Gilson offer aunique understanding of how the band—with this album in particular—served to shape the theological and cultural understandings of young Christians. Simultaneously, the album provides a subversive subtext which may inform the identity and sexual orientation trajectories of many who enjoyed the music, a trajectory certainly never intended by the message of Jesus Freak.
In fact, both Stockton and Gilson assert “Jesus Freak presented Christ as the solution to despair, loneliness, isolation, and apathy—problems that ostensibly afflicted the new generation of youth consumers … both song and album invited listeners to join a sacred, but also countercultural, community of Jesus Freaks.” Comprised of Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max, dc Talk formed when the three were students at Jerry Falwell’s conservative Liberty University, and with the release of the 1995 album and its title track, “self-consciously worked to replicate and sanctify the sonic patterns and lyrical terrain of grunge and alternative music…” while the central message of the album and title song “Jesus Freak” seeks to provide clarity where “historical distance, theological differences, and political complexities all vanish in the album’s creation of a universal Jesus Freak identity, an ahistorical community of nonconformist in which modern believers mingle with ancient ones.”
The message becomes increasingly abstruse as Stockton and Gilson examine the lyrical content and received meanings from multiple perspectives. For example, the lyrics of the album’s second track “Colored People” offers insight into the often-problematic nature that its intended verses communicate. The performance and lyrical content of “Colored People,” a song which pays homage to the neoliberal zeitgeist of the mid-1990’s that embraced “racial difference when economically or politically beneficial, while casting such differences as divisive when they are not” demonstrates the further difficulties of the band’s attempts to at best impersonate, or at worse appropriate, the musical and cultural styles of people of color.
As Gilson observes, “the lyric discourages the audience from perceiving any significant difference between Tait, McKeehan, and Max. It encourages the audience to perceive all three men as both white and black, to consider whiteness as itself a color, and therefore to recognize, even if only tacitly, McKeehan’s claim to black artistic and cultural forms.” What some readers may find the most challenging about Stockton and Gilson’s critique is their claim that dc Talk’s work served to inform certain sexual angsts and identity anxieties, stating that dc Talk “were men teenage Christian boys wanted to emulate and girls wanted to marry, and at times whom D. and I wanted to both emulate and marry.” Stockton and Gilson make it clear that their examination of dc Talk—as both artists and authors of Jesus Freak—isn’t a mere dismantling of an artifact of their Christian youth, but rather, they argue that “perhaps in queering Jesus Freak, we have shattered nostalgia for our Christian youths into some useful force of shame.”
What all readers will find helpful is the understanding that the past, including all cultural artifacts, are mitigated. We interpret, understand, reflect, keep, and dispense with the items of our history based upon the lens through which we see them, and the utility with which we still find them helpful or deem them hurtful. Music is one such artifact, that even when possessing a sense of romantic nostalgia, can serve to inform or infuriate. As Stockton and Gilson conclude, “in our look backwards, that stubborn queer desire colors what we see. It minimizes the angsty memory of salvation anxiety, but it also encourages us to probe the queer faultiness of the very theology that sustained us as young Christian men.”
Nostalgia often romanticizes our past experiences and influences. With dc Talk’s Jesus Freak, Stockton and Gilson demonstrate that nostalgic reflections may also reveal complicated conclusions, resulting in unexpected answers to the query, “what will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?”
Originally shared https://readingreligion.org/books/dc-talks-jesus-freak