In the late 90s, there was a certain sound taking over the airwaves. It had hints of rock, a little bit of folk, but it was nothing like Alanis Morissette or Fiona Apple. It also came in other flavors, like hip-hop, punk, and even ska. This sound had a message, one that made loving God and following the word of Jesus…cool.
This was Contemporary Christian music—known by insiders as CCM. And these weren’t your parents’ hymns.
Ooh, baby. The best. The hits. We're talkin’ Wow, This Is What I Call M—Do you know Wow? The mix tapes?
This is Grace Baldridge, a queer, nonbinary Christian music artist who performs as Semler. Semler grew up in the 90s, and their dad was a minister, as well as a Christian concert promoter. So they listened to a lot of Christian music.
Okay so Wow was like—you know how there's like Now, That’s What I Call Music?
So this was during the era of there always had to be a Christian alternative. So there was, Wow. That's What I Call Music.
Does Wow, like, stand for something Christian?
I don't think so. It's just a Christian knockoff that's just simply—they were just like, the secular people have Now, That’s What I Call Music? Well, we have Wow. And it was like Third Day and DC Talk and they had an Eminem equivalent in Christian music named KJ-52—
Wait, like a—like explicitly an Eminem equivalent.
He had a song called “Dear Slim.” You know how there was Stan?
KJ-52 had a song to Eminem called “Dear Slim.”
Song excerpt (KJ-52):
Dear Slim, I never wrote you or been callin’
This is my second letter ‘cause see, song, I got some real problems
‘Cause they would have these charts growing up where it'd be like, Does your kid like Papa Roach? Then you should get them P.O.D.
Like that—they literally had, like, we have the Christian equivalent.
These charts are absolutely wild. Semler sent me one made by a company called Interlinc. At the top it says, “Who Sounds Like Who?” And then, just like Semler said, there are lists of secular artists and their Christian counterparts. And there are almost 500 artists listed.
Say you’re a pop punk fan. Check out Avril Lavigne equivalent Krystal Meyers!
Song excerpt (Krystal Meyers):
So I’m anticonformity
I don’t try too hard to be
Maybe you’re more of a riot grrrl. Try Bikini Kill equivalent Inhabited!
Song excerpt (Inhabited):
I’m cryin’ out to you.
Ooh! Rescue me.
But wait, you’re probably thinking. Surely there’s no Christian equivalent to my favorite band, Celtic punk outfit Dropkick Murphys. That’s where you’re wrong. Let me introduce you to Flatfoot 56.
Song excerpt (Flatfoot 56):
As I walk through this land
I remember the boys who took a stand
Here’s the weird part. This massive, powerful industry, these hundreds upon hundreds of Christian equivalent artists and bands, the charts—none of that exists anymore. Or at least, the version of it that exists today is a fraction of what it used to be. Now, the vast majority of the Christian music genre is made up of worship music. Songs that are meant to be played in churches, during worship services.
So today we’re asking: What happened? Why did the industry change? And what does that change mean for queer, Christian artists like Semler?
I’m Sarah Esocoff and this is Sounds Gay, a podcast about the intersection of music and queerness.
Over the next seven episodes, I’ll take you with me to the middle of a trans mosh pit and to a heated rap battle. You’ll go with me to the shores of the Pacific ocean, where we’ll fly remote control airplanes with an 86-year-old pioneering sound artist. You’ll witness firsthand the songwriting process of two friends as they explore nonbinary and Filipino identity by writing an emo song. And together we’ll attempt to unravel the legacy of a controversial composer whose death remains a mystery.
Today we’re focusing on a musical genre that you might not associate with queer culture. A genre you might even assume is homophobic. We’re talking about Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM—which one former CCM artist describes as “music made by Christians, for Christians, with the intent of creating more Christians.” And we’re zooming in around the year 2000, when the industry was at its biggest and most influential.
We’ll get back to Semler, but first I want you to meet an artist who was a CCM star in the late 90s, and who would later come out as a lesbian: Jennifer Knapp.
You're in an autograph line, in an arena, signing autographs and taking pictures and kids are coming through the line just super fast, you know? And this one girl comes up to me and leans into my leans across the table into my ear and goes, “Thank you so much. This music saved me from a life of homosexuality.”
Jennifer didn’t grow up religious, but she did always feel a connection to the divine.
I definitely was asking God questions, I think privately from early adolescence. And so I had this kind of an awareness of my own spiritual need.
When Jennifer went to college, she made friends with Christians who encouraged her to make a commitment to Jesus.
So that's what I did. In the totally evangelical model I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior and got baptized.
Jennifer started playing music around the time she was baptized. And her new, Christian friends told her: You need to use your talent to spread the word of Jesus—and nothing else. They said stuff like:
You can't play the indigo girls anymore. If you're gonna play songs, you need to play songs about Jesus. Don't play songs from the world.
Jennifer took her friends’ advice and started playing shows during college.
Sunday night gigs at churches or youth camps or coffee houses and things like that.
And after a few years in the indie scene, her career was gaining steam. Gotee Records, a major Christian label, invited her to play a showcase in Nashville.
I took a big breath. I'm like, I got this. I went and played my show and everyone went nuts.
Jennifer ended up signing with Gotee, and all of a sudden, she was living the rockstar life. The rooms she played in were packed and fans were asking for autographs.
But being a hit in the Christian music world was about more than just the star treatment. Jennifer was expected to model Christian values and behavior. And a big part of that was sexual purity.
If I was too close to a male, I'd had multiple times where people would come up to me and go, “We're concerned about that relationship.”
Jennifer had committed to celibacy when she got baptized. But that didn’t stop people in the industry from scrutinizing her every move when it came to relationships.
“It looks like you're shagging this person. You're too close to them. And if you're having sex with them, we're not gonna play you on the radio. You're gonna lose your record contract.”
And it wasn’t just men. Her relationships with women raised eyebrows too.
And I knew that—I definitely knew that hom—like being in a same sex relationship was off the cards because any female that I was even remotely close to, people were like, “That—you need to shut that down. Like, that is not cool.” I'd been admonished for relationships that I'd had with other women that weren't even sexual.
How are you supposed to have friends? Like you can't be friends with men or women?
Jennifer: I didn't have friends. I didn't have friends! I mean, I had people that I worked with. But people who knew me? I didn't have any meaningful relationships with anybody.
Jennifer was lonely. She was exhausted after back-to-back tours. And she privately disagreed with the industry’s stances on sexual purity and homosexuality. The fan who told Jennifer that her music saved her from being gay was one of Jennifer’s breaking points.
That person might as well have said to me, “You wouldn't have loved me unless I came up to you and told you that I wasn't gay anymore. It was one of those critical moments where I started to realize the implications of—that art can have. How influential it can be and how—how it can be used as propaganda, even outside of your own self.
All the trophies I got as a kid were Bible quizzing related or memorizing your Bible.
This is Caris Adel. Caris grew up, as she puts it, in a Christian bubble.
And so I was not allowed to listen to any secular music or read secular books.
But these days she’s a Master’s Student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. And she’s writing a book about how CCM was used to advance evangelical values, like sexual purity, traditional gender roles, and outlawing abortion.
In the 90s, Christianity was booming in pop culture—even in the secular world. Friends I’ve talked to about this episode have been like, yeah, my parents weren’t even Christian, but somehow I’ve seen like, all of Veggie Tales? And Caris says, that was no accident.
They wanted to have explicit Christian products, but in a way that was non-threatening so that the wider culture could embrace it.
The “they” Caris is referring here is the evangelical church. Which actually isn’t a single church or denomination. Evangelicalism is a movement within the wider Christian religion. Lots of different kinds of churches use the Evangelical model, but what unites them is a focus on being “born again,” which is when someone personally accepts Jesus as their lord and savior, like Jennifer Knapp did in college.
Throughout the 1980s, the numbers of evangelicals in the US were growing. And so was the cultural awareness of the evangelical church.
By the nineties, when people say “Christian,” they kind of mean evangelical.
This growth continued into the 90s. It was the age of megachurches, and even smaller churches focused on being “seeker-sensitive”—meaning, geared toward non-Christians, who could be converted.
You know, you can wear jeans to church, you don't have to dress up, like, “Come as you are” was like a really common tagline for a lot of churches.
At the same time, the Christian consumer industry was taking off. Churches encouraged their members to make being Christian a visible part of their lives.
The idea that you're living a Christian lifestyle becomes really important. And you live a Christian lifestyle by, one, being moral and doing all these white conservative things, but also by consuming Christian products and showing off those Christian products to people. And so the, you know, music you listen to is like one aspect of performing your Christianity.
CDs, concert tickets, merch—it was all a way to show how Christian you were.
And as Semler was describing, CCM in the 90s was a massive, sprawling industry. There were pop CCM artists on the radio, like Amy Grant and Sixpence None the Richer.
Song excerpt (Sixpence None the Richer):
Kiss me, out of the bearded barley…
There were hugely popular Christian rappers.
Song excerpt (DC Talk):
To the ones that think they heard
I did use the J-word
There were Christian punk, hardcore, and heavy metal scenes.
Song excerpt (The Overseer)
I don’t want to wait
I don’t want to—
Importantly, though, almost all of these artists were white. The CCM industry was considered a white genre—separate from Black Christian music, which was placed under the gospel umbrella by music executives, and marketed separately.
I was just reading, um, a magazine article from 1989 yesterday. And people were arguing to like—you know, like a letter to the editor—to, like, include black artists just as music. And the editor of the magazine is like, Well, you know, gospel music and CCM are completely separate things and so they just—it's a very white industry and I think intentionally it was maintained that way.
CCM artists were marketed primarily to teenagers and parents of teenagers. And, what’s interesting about CCM as an industry, is that the goal of this marketing wasn’t just to make money. It was also to perpetuate evangelical Christianity.
They're intentionally creating culture warriors. You know, their focus was on teenagers and like, shaping them into Christians. But like, really, Christians who, you go stand out at your flag pole and pray in the morning in front of your school to show them how much more devout you are.
Caris’ favorite Christian band as a teenager, Audio Adrenaline, encouraged these public displays of worship.
You're, you know, praying around your flag pole in the morning before school and everyone's staring at you. You know you're weird and you know you stick out, but also you're holier than everybody else and you're better than everybody else. And so like, there's this like sense of empowerment of like knowing that you're doing the right thing and everyone else is gonna regret it—either now or, you know, when they die and they're entering hell and they're gonna be like, oh man, that weird girl in high school was right about this. And so like, just that sense of like rightness—that it's like this, you know, eternal rightness.
The kids praying at the flagpole stood out, and that was the point. There was this phrase: “living differently.”
People should be able to look at you and look at the way you live and tell there's something different about you.
This was how the Christian music industry made its appeal to teenagers in the 90s. The message was: don’t be afraid to stand out…for being Christian! Will and Grace and Friends are on TV, preaching the gospel of casual sex and gay pride. Your friends at school are probably having premarital sex. That’s normal now. So, if popular culture is embracing gay people and promiscuity, that makes Christianity counterculture. And by this logic, the most rebellious, anti-establishment thing you can do, is love Jesus.
That song I played earlier by the Avril Lavigne Christian equivalent Krystal Meyers is literally called “Anticonformity.”
Song excerpt (Krystal Meyers):
I’m so anticonformity
I don’t try too hard to be—
She sings: It’s all around, pressure from my so-called friends.
It’s all around, everyone is just like them
The next verse goes:
They conform un-individuality
They conform, they don’t know what they believe
They conform, they conform, they conform
In the chorus, Krystal sings:
Image is overrated
If it washes off in the rain
You know you gotta go deeper
To go against the grain
Anticonformity was released in 2005. And you’re unlikely to find something like it now. Experts like Caris agree that by 2010, the CCM landscape as it existed in the late 90s and early 2000s, had disintegrated. This was thanks in part to the rise of music streaming. Today, secular music is more accessible than ever. And there seems to be growing acknowledgement, even in evangelical circles, that Christian teenagers are going to hear it.
Remember the company I mentioned that made the Christian equivalent music chart, Interlinc? These days it also publishes discussion guides on how to use secular pop music to talk to your kids about Christian concepts. Like, how to use Lil Nas X’s Montero (Call Me By Your Name) to talk about biblical love. And how to use Cardi B’s WAP to talk about God’s creation. Those are both real.
Contemporary Christian Music does still exist. Some of the Christian bands that were around in the early 2000s still perform. And there are occasional newcomers who make a big splash, like Lauren Daigle, whose single “You Say” was a crossover success that made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019.
But mostly, nowadays, CCM is dominated by worship music. Music that’s specifically meant to be played during church services.
A good songwriting practice that I've heard before is that you wanna get really, really specific in the verses. The verses should be straight ripped out of your heart.
This is Semler again. The queer, Christian artist.
And then in the chorus you're bringing in the rest of the room. Something that we can all, you know, relate to, something a bit more broad. Where I find Christian music comes up short is that they go broad immediately. Like we're—we're starting broad. We're starting broad and then we're going to build up to something even more broad. Like, [sings] “Your love is a river.” Like something that like is—water, metaphors are huge. Just something that every single person can relate to.
During the early, isolated days of the pandemic, Semler was working on an EP, Preacher’s Kid, when, suddenly, a memory they didn’t realize they had appeared in their brain.
The thing with repressed memories that I've learned is that the first time they come back, they're really vivid because your brain hasn't thought about it before. So it's like this uncorrupted file that re-enters your mind.
The memory was about something they witnessed as a teenager, during a mission trip to Romania. On the trip, there was an evening where kids were invited to perform, and one girl did something onstage that alarmed the youth group leaders.
She'd introduced a song that she'd written and the song was about David and Jonathan—the story in the Bible—and how she related to it with a friend.
In the Bible, David and Jonathan are described as two very close friends who make a covenant to each other that involves Jonathan stripping himself of his robe and giving it to David because Jonathan loved David, quote, “as his own soul.”
I know that there are a lot of people who may have a very heterosexual interpretation of the story of David and Jonathan. However, a lot of times I've heard people talk about it like you have to push someone away because they're, like, tempting you and that—that your desire to be close to each other is pushing you away from God and it was that type of rhetoric and it was that type of a song. And then afterwards they separated the girls from the guys and we were called to pray over this person. And we just, you know, gathered around her in the tent.
And are you stand—Is it like she’s in the middle and you’re standing around her? Are you touching her, or like…?
Our—We had our arms wrapped around each other. It was like a group of us, of girls. We had our arms wrapped around each other and I'm pretty sure she was like on the ground with one of the leaders. Like she was like knelt over with one of the leaders and we were like huddled around her, like a team huddle almost. I remember she was crying.
And it was like midway through the prayer that I realized that we were praying over her because of a gay reason. And it was very disturbing. And I felt sad for her and I was feeling confused for me and also pretty aware that I was not gonna be talking about anything that was going on in my head with any of the present company for a while.
A lot has changed since that night in Romania. Semler is 32 now, and very much out of the closet. They have a good relationship with their minister dad and they’re still Christian. But they want to use their music to explore the complicated parts of faith, like doubt. Which most CCM music doesn’t do.
And it turns out, people relate to Semler’s complicated approach to Christian music. Their EP Preacher’s Kid went number one on the Christian charts, unseating Lauren Daigle. Their second EP, Late Bloomer, went number one too, and last spring, they toured with Reliant K, one of their favorite Christian bands from growing up.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve been embraced by the CCM industry.
I totally feel like an outsider. I mean, if circumstances were different, if I was sitting before you and I was—presented totally differently and I was married to a man and I'd put out this record about my formative experience growing up in the church and how it brought me closer to God and I never had any questions and I released it independently on DistroKid and it went number 1 and I only promoted it through TikTok, let's be real, I would be signed to a Christian label by now. I would be a darling. I would be at the Dove Awards. I would've performed, they would've brought me under their wing. What's different is that I'm gay. And I swear. And I talk about my doubt. And I talk about my faith. And that is not welcome in the industry.
And why did you decide to brand yourself as like explicitly in the Christian music genre instead of just like, here's my album about like my experiences and I'm a Christian and that's in here sort of? You know?
Um, I was just thinking about the body of work that I'd created and the feelings that went into this project, the meditation, and I was reflecting on it and I was reflecting on the songs that were eventually going to make up Preachers Kid. And I was like this—I know that there's swearing on this, but if there wasn't, like this would just be a Switchfoot or a Reliant K record. There’s no—thematically, it is a Christian project. That's the only thing I'm really thinking about here. This is what I'm reflecting on. So why am I so scared to call it that? Why am I saying that I'm unworthy to participate in this genre and to have my own expression and perspective on faith because of who I am?
Semler still has not been signed to a CCM label, in all likelihood because they’re queer. But they’re not planning to change their approach in order to be embraced. You won’t catch them writing vague worship songs that everyone can relate to.
Because I think that they say like, no, Christian music, we're all about unifying, unifying, unifying. It's bringing people together, no division, no division. I'm like, you know what? I'm actually cool with dividing from people who have regressive and harmful views. I'm actually really cool to make that division. And it's strange to me that, uh, a genre informed by faith on how we look at humanity as image bearers of God, would not be comfortable with that. Would not be comfortable to say like—if, if your music is getting played at a church that, you know, has been called out for homophobia or racism or something, you should be uncomfortable that they felt your music was so universal that it could be played there.
So, what’s the deal with this universal worship music, anyway? Why is it all there is now? Why aren’t there Christian equivalents of Lizzo or Phoebe Bridgers?
Caris, the CCM scholar we heard from earlier, has a hypothesis.
My theory is that Contemporary Christian Music turned kids into culture warriors during the nineties. And then, they turned them into actual warriors. Like, my theory is George W. Bush gets elected, conservative—what is it—compassionate conservatism wins, like evangelicals win. And then we go to war and you send off all of these, you know, people that supported him and support the war and go fight in the war. And then once you've won this like battle that you've been fighting for 20 years, the only thing left to do is praise God.
As evangelicals were growing in numbers in the 90s, they were also gaining political power. And the two issues they were most concerned with were abortion and gay rights.
As a teenager growing up in the church, Caris felt a huge sense of responsibility.
So it was always, like, phrased as like, this generation. And so like I graduated high school in 2000 and there was always this sense, like all growing up, that like you're graduating in 2000, like you guys are like the special class, and like in in church and stuff, it was always like, this generation's gonna be the one that like changes everything. And just like this immense pressure that, like, we're the ones that are gonna change the culture. We're the ones that are gonna, like, fix the country and, like, save everything. But like, man, when I voted for George W. Bush, like I just, like—it felt like, finally I'm old enough to like—I might not be able to save anybody from Hell, but I can at least do my part and like save the country.
Yeah. How do you feel now looking back on that George W. Bush vote?
Oh, everything I do now is like motivated by trying to repair that and like feeling a sense of responsibility for everything that he did.
Caris feels like the Christian bubble she grew up in, that was so closed off from the secular world, doesn’t really exist anymore.
Like I have a couple of nieces and nephews who are in the church right now and listen to Christian music and go to Christian concerts, but it's like one—they also listen to secular music and it's like one—it's just like one extra thing that they do. And I mean, they, you know, go to church camp and stuff, but it's just like an equivalent activity to everything else. I feel like you're not defined by being different in a way that we were in the nineties.
And your kind of theory is that that's because evangelicalism or like evangelical values have kind of filtered into the wider culture so that it doesn't need to be like that anymore.
I—yeah. In like the early two thousands, yes. I would not say that now, but yeah.
I mean, would you say that that's not happening now? Like we just had Roe V Wade overturned.
Yeah, which is like—that was super weird to like, you know, spend your whole life like rooting for something and then like be on the other side when it happens and like be sad about it, but not as like emotionally attached? Like that was a very discombobulating thing.
For me, it’s easy to see a direct line from CCM marketing to teenagers in the 90s, branding Christianity as a rebellious counter-cultural movement, to those teenagers, like Caris, voting for George W. Bush, to our current Supreme Court. And in some ways, Caris agrees:
I don't think you get to Trump without this Christian industry of the nineties.
On the pop culture side, we don’t have as many major CCM artists today. But we do have secular pop stars like Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, and Selena Gomez, who have all attended services at the homophobic megachurch Hillsong. And Amy Grant received a Kennedy Center Honor last year.
In the ‘90s, the Evangelical church made the argument that mainstream culture had become so feminist, so sexually liberated, and so gay, that Christianity was now the counter-culture.
And these tactics are still being used. Moral panic around queerness and transness becoming mainstream remains a talking point in conservative media.
In 2022, the power of science and literature crumble in the face of the trans lobby.
They are trying to redefine basic categories. In fact, categories supplied by nature itself.
62 percent of likely voters think that the gender activists have just gone too far.
But the United States was founded on Puritan ideals, which are woven into the very fabric of our society.
Christianity, even delivered in the form of heavy metal music, can never truly be counterculture.
Queerness is counter-culture. To be queer is to live differently. Differently from the Christian values of sexual purity and heterosexual marriage.
When Semler was praying over the girl on the mission trip, they didn’t know how they would reconcile these two parts of themself—their faith and their queerness. But now these parts aren’t just reconciled; their queerness makes their faith stronger.
I view my queerness as such a blessing now. It used to be this sort of this burden, this secret, for so long, but now I really view it as this way of understanding the world and understanding myself and God and how I was able to really unpack what is assigned to God as a kid, of like man on a cloud. I think through queerness, I was able to break open whatever boundaries I had placed on the creator.
Jennifer Knapp, the lesbian CCM artist from the beginning of the episode, feels the same way. When she left the industry, she worried that making music wouldn’t fulfill her in the same way anymore.
It’s like this idea that anything that I did in a non-context of that would be empty. Right? That I was just creating music for money. That I was just doing a job that didn't have any value anymore. And I really wondered when I came back and started playing again, whether that was gonna be true. And I was like, great, I'm gonna have this empty life now.
But she hasn’t found that to be the case at all.
Now I feel like I have way more of a ministry than I ever did because I'm genuinely open to people and I'm connecting to people and I, like, I get to say what I'm responsible for. And I'm not, you know, there's no intermediary in between me and somebody taking what I have to say and twisting it for their own agenda.
After Jennifer quit CCM, she fell in love with her road manager and moved with her to Australia. They’re still together. And while she didn’t know she was lesbian at the time, I highly recommend her 2000 album Lay It Down if you want to hear some of the gayest music ever written.
I am wanting, needing, guilty and greedy
Unrighteous, unholy undo me undo me
In case you didn’t catch that, those lyrics are:
"I am wanting, needing, guilty and greedy
Unrighteous, unholy undo me undo me"
Now I don’t know about you, but to me…that sounds gay.
Sounds Gay is created and produced by me, Sarah Esocoff.
Our story editor is JT Green of Molten Heart.
Cass Adair is our consulting producer.
Additional editing by Gianna Palmer.
Original music by Kris McCormick.
Mixing and sound design by Casey Holford.
Fact-checking by Serena Solin.
Our program manager is Sam Termine.
Sounds Gay is a Stitcher Studios production, and is executive produced by Sarah Bentley, Bill Crandall, Jen Derwin, Mike Spinella, Kameel Stanley, and myself.
Special thanks this episode to:
Lisa and Bob McCormick.
And to Andrew Mall, Leah Payne, and Jon Schneck, whose expertise helped me understand the world of CCM.
You can find Sounds Gay on the SiriusXM App, Pandora, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show, please rate, review and share so other people can find us.