Electronic Dance Music’s Divine Transformation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for some Christians, raves aren’t about wearing itty-bitty getups or dropping E — they’re a way to feel closer to God.
Raves like the Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) and Ultra Music Festival have come to define millennial excess — tens of thousands of sweaty bodies tripping on Ecstasy, ravers clad in furry Day-Glo boots and floral pasties, music building to a climactic bass drop.
But in some quarters, electronic dance music (EDM) and its hedonism have undergone a divine transformation — they’ve turned to Jesus. Events like The Future Sound of Worship feature the same thumping bass and laser lights as an EDC set, but the lyrics are Christian, if subtly so. The fanbase includes teens hooked on EDM’s addictive sound as well as ex-ravers abandoning sex and Molly to shepherd other lost souls. EDM DJs are remixing Christian worship songs, while online Christian EDM communities are offering music downloads and faith-based substance abuse counseling.
As EDM continues to infiltrate Top 40 airwaves, Christian EDM could make for a powerful ministry tool. Although there are Christian brands of every genre, from punk to hip-hop, EDM boasts wider demographic appeal, says L.A.-based Christian DJ AJ Mora, because it appeals to Gen X ravers as well as millennials. The raves themselves — huge gatherings around a single DJ, pulsing with sound and light — can make for intensely spiritual experiences.
People come together, literally worshipping the DJ as a minister.
Christian EDM will likely remain a small subgenre for some time, partly because of the same theological rifts that fracture the Christian music industry. Christian music “is either vertical or horizontal,” says Scott Blackwell, widely considered the first Christian DJ. Vertical, or worship, music typically features overtly Christian lyrics directed toward God. But horizontal music reaches out to listeners through subtler themes, like love or struggle, often with more commercial appeal. Some criticize horizontal music as too secular, while still others condemn dance music altogether. As a result, “there isn’t a united major label, but a lot of fragmented … dance music producers,” Mora says.
And many artists simply lack the resources to produce music and live shows of the same caliber as their secular peers. Christian music saw huge growth in the ’90s, and eventually surpassed classical, new age and jazz sales. But sales took the same blows as they did in the secular industry, largely from piracy and streaming. Struggling Christian labels let themselves be bought by major secular labels. “Artists lost shelf space, and if you can’t get enough of your product out there, you’re dead in the water before you’re out of the gate,” Blackwell says.
Still, Mora thinks Christian EDM “is growing, but in different roots separately, not a big tree.”
Christian EDM boasts the same broad palette of styles as mainstream EDM — from robotic dubstep to chilled-out deep house — although less of the up-tempo, swaying beats of “booty-shaking house.” Most tracks sound indistinguishable from secular EDM. Progressive/electro-house duo Rubicon 7, for example, produces bass-heavy music with infectious vocals, similar to mainstream artists Armin van Buuren and Tiësto. Capital Kings remixes Christian pop into festival-friendly tracks reminiscent of Afrojack’s signature party sound. Usually only a careful listen to the lyrics reveals the tracks’ Christian message, like in Rubicon 7’s “Wait For You”: Distances fall worlds apart away from me/I’ll wait for You/I’ll wait for You.
The basic structure follows the Gospel’s narrative arc: creation, fall and exile, and resurrection.
While it may upend the candlelit, robed solemnity and acoustic guitars of conventional worship services, EDM can make for a powerful ministry and worship medium, with songs that naturally lend themselves to spiritual experiences. Their basic structure — an intro, followed by a slow buildup to an ecstatic beat drop — also follows the Gospel’s narrative arc: creation, fall and exile, and resurrection, writes Zac Hicks at Liberate.org. Dance itself is the “fullest expression of abundant, overflowing joy,” he argues.
Mora concedes that “the idea of walking into a church with lasers and loudspeakers is a little out of the norm for most people.” But he argues that raves aren’t that much different from worship services. “People come together, literally worshipping the DJ as a minister. … You focus your feelings on something bigger than the individual.” And while raves might lure some Christians to the shadowy side of the lifestyle, Blackwell points out that temptation lurks “everywhere, not just in EDM.”
Christian raves are often held at local high schools or churches, or as part of larger music festivals. Christian EDM community GodsDJs.com hosts a yearly Future Sound of Worship — billed as “North America’s largest annual Christian EDM worship service.” At June’s event at Grace Christian Church outside Detroit, Ravers Against World Starvation traded glow toys and plastic neon bracelets, or “kandi,” for canned food, as girls shimmied in glow-in-the-dark Hula-Hoops. The crowd can get pretty crazy — no Molly necessary. At one event, “security had to keep pulling people from out of the rafters,” wrote Dave Richardson, founder of (now-defunct) Christian EDM community Tastyfresh. “So Christian raves get hype, too.”
The crowd can get pretty crazy — no Molly necessary.
The main difference between a Christian rave and, say, an EDC set? “Production quality,” Blackwell says. Since many labels work on a shoestring budget, the “talent isn’t as good, and the lighting and sound’s not anywhere near” a mainstream festival performance. “It’s more like what you’d find in your neighborhood warehouse party.”
Christian EDM traces its roots to DJs in the U.K., like Karl Allison and Steve Nixon. But Blackwell’s L.A.-based label, N-Soul, founded in 1994, put Christian EDM — or “sanctified dance” — on the American map, too. N-Soul is best known for its Nitro Praise album series, which features EDM remixes of worship songs — a relevant alternative to folksy, ’70s-style “Jesus music.”
But Blackwell left N-Soul in 1999, and some argue that for now, Christian EDM is less a movement than an idea. What’s needed is for “somebody really able get to behind a Christian artist that produces quality EDM,” Mora says.
Blackwell, for his part, argues that the answer could come in the newest crop of EDM artists. “Rubicon 7 and Capital Kings could break,” he says. “They’re young, good-looking kids with songs about love and life that are very cleverly written.” If God is a DJ, maybe Christian EDM will have its time in the sun.