If you were an evangelical teenager in the 90s, you listened to DC Talk. They were the compass by which all Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was measured. There are plenty of explanations for their surge to the very top of our greatest rock stars, but the primary reason was because they were more wickedly talented and diverse than most Christian music could ever dream of being, with their fusion of rap, hip hop, pop, and good old rock and roll. They were the closest thing to “cool” that Christian teenagers had to bring to the table when our friends wanted to talk about Nirvana or Backstreet Boys. DC Talk was so eclectic and diverse that they somehow managed to compare to both in Christian subculture – and that’s actually pretty impressive.
Whatever the case, it is clear that this trio was very, very talented together. The three voices of DC Talk comprised of Toby McKeehan, who provided the hip hop, Michael Tait, who provided the soul, and Kevin Max, who provided the rock and roll. They all met and formed their group while students at Liberty University, an indoctrination center disguised as higher education founded by Moral Majority superstar Jerry Falwell as an evangelical alternative to the liberal lies being taught in Ivy League schools. DC Talk developed a fan base among that crowd of college-age Christians looking for halfway decent music in their gated community.
In a few years, word of mouth led to a record deal – and Falwell’s people noticed. The Moral Majority had CCM rock bands in the 80s like Petra and Stryper to reach the hard rock crowd, but DC Talk had the potential to reach a much larger audience. They were the best recruitment tool Falwell and his ilk had to keep teenagers in step with the Church, so they spared no expense to make sure DC Talk and similar bands had the resources they needed – even certain creative freedom – to make music that would keep us hooked. The group would subsequently explode as the biggest band in Christian history – packing out stadiums, taking world tours, and even getting some play on MTV. Aresnio Hall invited them to his show twice. Christian teens watched them like “secular” kids watched their favorite bands. My sister had DC Talk posters on her walls. They headlined CCM-magazines like they were pop idols. We were convinced that they were the real deal, and we read all the gossip about them in order to remember to pray for their ministry.
For many of us fringe teens interested in the music of Nine Inch Nails or Smashing Pumpkins but told that we must not conform to the patterns of this world, DC Talk was offered up as Christ’s alternative. I saw them in concert twice, the second time as the leader of my youth group when I was close enough to see the white in their eyes. They put on a hell of a show – kind of this big tent revival feel with a hip hop DJ, special effects, stunning visuals, crowd surfing, professional dancers; the trio strutted all over the stage like the smoking hot evangelical shit they were, providing as close to an authentic rock concert as most of us were ever going to get.
The live experience DC Talk provided was considerable. Their backup band was bad ass – the trio didn’t play instruments, but sang and danced and played off each other so brilliantly that you’d believe that they were all best friends, coming together to preach the Word in a way that actually made us feel excited about it. And sometimes they’d sit in a circle and lead us in some quieter songs, improvising and moving around them in a natural way that made us truly feel like the Spirit was stirring. It was practically the real thing, with the notable exception that everyone was supposed to be there to praise God and lead people to Jesus. Certainly no expense was spared to make sure God had as good of a time as we did, and that His message was forefront; Toby always preached the Gospel at the very end.
I listened to some of their songs for the first time in years before sitting down to write this article, and I was pretty stunned to hear that some of it actually holds up. The blends of rock, grunge and rap with which they played, fused with some catchy hooks, upbeat lyrics, and a really fascinating blend of three distinct voices – it’s not great, but it is at times very, very good. “Jesus Freak,” released first as a single in 1994, is the song for which they are most remembered, in which the lyrics “People say I’m strange, does it make me a stranger/that my best friend was born in a manger?” are run through a “Heart-Shaped Box” filter in a way that actually makes the idea of being a Christian kid feel a little more grunge. It was my teenage anthem.
Listening to these songs today, I confess that some of their lyrics are still pretty triggering. They provide catchy hooks promoting abusive theology that has destroyed many lives in my generation. “A disease of self run through my blood, it is a cancer fatal to my soul” is simply not a message that a teenage evangelical being told that masturbation is evil needs to hear. DC Talk was used to spread evangelical propaganda: They had their proverbial anti-abortion song, their Sinner’s Prayer songs, their moral positions that agreed with the Evangelical platform. Their songs promoting purity culture were played at every True Love Waits rally (though I don’t think DC Talk ever actually showed up to those). To hear their music now reminds me of how it reinforced some very dark times in my life.
On the other hand, there are also some lovely memories found returning to these halls. DC Talk is not afraid to express a rare and honest vulnerability about the evangelical experience: Songs expressing doubt and hardships; songs rallying for racial justice (VERY rare for a community saturated in white supremacy); songs in which the speaker is honest about their flaws and strives to do better; songs about asking for forgiveness not just from God, but from each other. I had bared my heart to God when some of these songs played throughout my teenage years – got real honest with Him in ways that made it feel okay to speak up for myself a little. I’m grateful for that. DC Talk spread propaganda in the same way that I preached it to youth groups; we indoctrinate because we were indoctrinated. They seemed like very talented artists with sincere faiths, unaware of the man behind the curtain to whom we were all instructed to pay no attention.
When I was a teenage evangelical, it was Toby with whom I thought I resonated the most. He was clearly the team’s minister and captain of the ship – always pointing the festivities straight back toward Heaven. As a young minister still being groomed, I knew that his devotion to the Lord was his greatest asset, and there was something I could learn from that. He didn’t seem particularly thoughtful in his interviews, but he knew all the right vocabulary. Michael was a great entertainer, polite and frank – better than this genre deserved. Man, he could sing – his voice set the tone of each of their songs. It also seemed that he clearly agreed with what Toby believed was DC Talk’s mission. They were in the soul-saving trade.
Kevin, on the other hand, always seemed to be on a slightly different frequency. He was a little more eccentric and off-the-cuff in interviews, more theatrical on stage, a lot more subversive when spotted in public. From where I was standing in the audience, it seemed like Toby and Michael were mostly about the mission, and Kevin was mostly about the music. I respected that when I’d watched him perform; the man had talent and showmanship to burn, and the most toe-curlingly awesome, slingshot of a tenor voice that I’ve still ever heard live. He didn’t have to be completely in-step with the evangelical track, because he was doing God’s work.
In every church I attended, the evangelical subculture eyed Kevin with particular suspicion. Toby and Mike simply were not scrutinized quite like he was. Reasons why were always vague – some suggested his vibrato revealed vanity, or his public appearances raised some alarm because he’d been seen with a beer. All the while, Kevin kept showing up to the CCM festivals to sing his heart out for them – giving them all that he had in service to their cause. He sang at every Billy Graham rally, attended the Dove Awards, appeared on the soundtrack of our Jesus-filled lives. He was saturated in the CCM community.
But from the outside looking in, it seemed like the more Kevin tried to embrace the Church, the more they pushed him away. They simply refused to accept anyone into their fold who did not walk completely in step, but his popularity among the teenagers forced them to bend and look the other way when he wanted a beer. That’s the sort of thorn in their sides that the Evangelical Church hates. So they start to stir seeds of doubt about someone’s true faith in order to transmit their resentment toward their base. It’s a method cults use to shame their followers into submission, and it’s literally the only tactic the Church knows how to effectively implement in order to keep people under their control.
There are many reasons for why the Contemporary Christian Music industry treats its most talented performers the way they treated Kevin Max, even as he sat among them polishing his Dove Awards (and Grammies, for that matter). Here is the one that I believe is the most important in this case: CCM is an industry that really doesn’t care about the quality of its product. It preaches the message of those who have manufactured it, to keep its flock under the Church’s control. CCM bands are promoted as thematically-appropriate alternatives to the outside’s music – labeled “secular” – that kids really want to be listening to. The Church has manufactured a CCM band for every conceivable genre, and Christian crowds show up in droves. Together, CCM bands and their audiences exist in a bubble universe in which they believe that any of this is what real rock and roll is like. (Case in point: I’ve heard stories about CCM bands who *pretended* to play instruments, because soul-saving was more important than having any discernible musical talent. For fuck’s sake.)
So when a truly talented artist finds themselves swept into CCM’s vacuum only to realize that it is a black hole from which they may never be able to emerge, you may notice if they’re slightly out of step with the rest of their Jesus-preaching peers. They’re frankly panicking: With rare exception, it is very, very hard to escape from CCM’s stigma. Those bands suck – that’s the “secular” perception, and their themes are repetitive, conforming, and don’t reflect the rebellious spirit that is the essence of rock and roll. It is hard to get a job in the real industry with that shit on your resume.
On the other hand, if you’ve built an audience who measure their loyalty to your act exclusively on how many words you can rhyme with “Jesus,” you’ve got a base you have to cater to if you intend to ever eat again. So you do what you have to do in order to survive, for listeners who don’t even notice if the music is good – they just want it to be theirs. When you step slightly off their frequency, they intend to punish you for it until you are back in your proper place. Help us keep the teenagers indoctrinated, or you will pay the price.
The reason Kevin Max is one of my heroes is because he’s never stopped fighting back against that punishment, no matter the price he’s had to pay.
Today (I write this on August 25, 2021) is the 20th anniversary of his 2001 solo album STEREOTYPE BE. It was put out by a Christian label, and promoted as the third exciting part of a trilogy of solo works from the DC Talk trio before they got back together and kept leading legions of teenagers down the narrow road. Toby and Michael’s solo works – evangelical fluff with a few bursts of creative ingenuity – made clear that they were ready to step back in line. But Kevin’s album wasn’t that easy to peg. In fact, it didn’t feel at all like an intermission. It felt much more like a debut of an artist ready to escape and evolve.
First of all, these lyrics were NOT Christian. They were too abstract, too poetic. “Like a cherub left to gather moss,” is one that has always lingered. And how about this: “And I am all to blame/This is my parade of broken, hollow words/I feel them all and learn their shame./Please catch me when I fall/ And turn me from this wall I’ve faced for far too long/ This lonely sonnet seeds a throng.” That’s beautiful, honest, and non-conformist – still some of my favorite lines of any song. CCM music didn’t have lyrics like this – observations and reflections and metaphors that truly explored the full spectrum of the human condition. Spirituality was certainly present in STEREOTYPE BE – a deep devotion to an Ideal – but it wasn’t the focus. Rather, it was just one flavor in a musical journey encouraging its listeners to embrace their own path.
And the music – it was unpredictable and exciting. CCM riffs infamously are easy to impersonate. But this album was so eclectic – drawing from world music and Euro-rock, from the Beatles to Echo & the Bunnymen to New Wave artists I’d never heard of at the time that I first listened to STEREOTYPE BE. If you don’t know the name Adrian Belew, you’ve certainly heard him play – he’s one of the founders of King Crimson, and Bowie’s personal guitarist. Kevin had somehow managed to recruit Belew for this album, who’d brought with him Peter Gabriel’s bass player (Tony Levin) and Tori Amos’s drummer (Matt Chamberlin). If any of these names are familiar to you, I don’t have to tell you – this album has some goddamn brilliant music that pushes the edges of genre and convention.
And it was all produced, released, and distributed by a CCM label manufactured to make music about conformity.
The CCM world didn’t know what to do with STEREOTYPE BE. They COULDN’T do anything with it, because it didn’t belong to them. Kevin had forged his own path, toward the music he wanted to make. There was simply no going back now, because compared to standard CCM fare, STEREOTYPE BE was an act of revolution. It let us in the evangelical community know that whatever Kevin had been listening to that inspired this album, it wasn’t the Gaithers. I can’t imagine what DC Talk’s conservative Evangelical music label thought the first time they heard it – it would have seemed so other-wordly that Kevin may have been able to convince them that the whole thing was made with him speaking in tongues. If CCM has a protest album, STEREOTYPE BE is it.
Whether Kevin intended this or not – if this was strategic or if it was just him being his remarkable self – I cannot say, because I do not know. But I’ll tell you what STEREOTYPE BE did for me: It helped me escape the limited trappings of CCM. It led me by the hand toward all those great rock and roll artists waiting for me outside of the Church’s walls. It was just a matter of following the breadcrumbs that Kevin left. It was reading the liner notes and looking up the names Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. It was hearing someone listening to the album with me and muttering, “This has a George Harrison vibe.” It was having a literature professor considering the lyrics and telling me, “That’s something Tom Waits could have written.” Or a co-worker saying, “The eyeliner and feather boa – that’s a little Bowie, but that song sounds more like Sting with a bit of Kate Bush.”
I was remembering all these names for later. Because when Kevin Max released STEREOTYPE BE, he was cracking doors that I really needed opened: Music I’d never been told existed that offered perspective beyond what I’d been indoctrinated into believing. Later, once I really couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the isolated world in which I lived was not offering me the complete Truth (the first step in deconstruction), I needed places to look. To Kevin Max, I owe Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Ani DiFranco, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Tori Amos – the endless sea of great musicians that has helped me swim through the deepest waves of despair. It was Kevin that did that, by using his first album as a platform to point us toward a better soundtrack for our lives. I never understood what music was supposed to be until I listened to STEREOTYPE BE.
And because I was so deeply entrenched in the evangelical community at the time that STEREOTYPE BE came out, I know that I am not the only one for whom this album had a profound affect. I remember message boards that Kevin used to host, with all sorts of CCM kids who’d wandered in because they were looking for decent music after being so utterly spoiled by his solo work. These boards actually had a few non-believers around because they dug Kevin’s stuff. It was an early version of the community that Kevin has always built around himself: An inclusive one, where it is safe to ask questions, to express doubts, to simply be yourself. In these communities, we have often talked about how important Kevin’s first album was to us. How it pushed us to think a little more for ourselves – the essence of rock and roll.
It has been an interesting experience, watching Kevin from a distance over the years pay the price for the fearlessness of this album, trying so hard to never compromise his vision to make exactly the music he wants to with the increasingly limited resources that he has. The Evangelical church has continued to scrutinize him at every turn for not fitting into their perfect narrative. It’s not that he wants to forsake the Jesus Freak crowd – it’s just that he wants to keep evolving from the limitations found within its artistic walls. The problem is, the Church isn’t okay with you doing that. If you’re changing, they can’t control you. So instead, they openly shame you to keep their base from following your example.
Against these handicaps, Kevin nevertheless has released some remarkable work over the years – a few relapses here and there into CCM to pay the bills, but mostly really interesting stuff in which he bends genres together and keeps staying honest with his listeners about his questions, his frailty, his humanity. Some of the best friendships I’ve ever forged was through Kevin’s music. Like my old housemate and I cranking Kevin on our speakers for nights that we painted and drank bourbon in the garage. Or watching kids in treatment centers really responding to certain songs that spoke toward their feelings of being social outcasts. Long road trips with dear friends, where only a round of Kevin’s dark, spoken-word album would do. So many of Kevin’s songs remind me of the people I love the most.
When I was really in the depths of my despair after walking away from my faith, an album of Kevin’s called COTES D’ARMOR was the light at the end of a tunnel. I didn’t have a word for this album’s theme when I first heard it; today, we’d call what Kevin does within its songs “deconstructing.” The album chronicles a journey into self-empowerment despite incredible adversity – summoning strength to push forward, even when it hurts (it includes a song called “The Death of CCM”). The album beautifully questions what it means to be human, to be a believer, to be evolving. The final track is a lamentation depicting doubt’s loneliness, and you realize that this song also belongs at the album’s beginning. It’s all a loop – an ebb and a flow. Darkness and light, in constant conversation. Listening for the first time, I realized I was going to be okay. I chose not to give up.
This is the first time ever I’ve told that story. I’m glad I’m here to tell it.
Kevin didn’t have to create music for the misfits and the ghouls. He had it made as a CCM icon. All he had to do was keep making music for the evangelical teenage masses that was of slightly higher quality than most of its mediocre beats. He even could have had a little fun with it by positioning himself in that tricky niche as a Bowie and Queen alternative – the CCM market mostly just doesn’t know what to do with that crowd. That’s basically what Toby and Mike do – play it safe, with polished-up big tent revival songs. Their stuff might be catchy, but it is exactly what the Church ordered. They’ve been successful in ways that Kevin hasn’t been, simply because making music he loved is more important to him. He has put everything on the line, consistently risking his career, because he has somehow summoned the courage to push through the Church’s shame tactics. It seems that the harder they push, the more he encourages his listeners to think for themselves.
That courage has found him a small but loyal group of fans – misfits and ghouls all – who will listen to his music until the day we die. In fact, play STEREOTYPE BE at my funeral. It is one of the seeds from which a forest grew that I think has sometimes kept that day from coming sooner.
As to Kevin’s own spiritual journey – that’s his alone, and none of our fucking business. The man has paid his evangelical dues, and it’s time we leave him be. I was fascinated and appalled to watch the evangelical community respond to his late-night Twitter post from back in May, when he formally made his deconstruction public. The pearl-grasping from that crowd makes clear that they hadn’t been listening to a word of his solo work for the past twenty years. Look up his 2020 spoken-word album RADIO TEKNIKA; he’s done fucking around with metaphor and brazenly throws some punches at Evangelicalism’s Trump worship. All this to say, Kevin coming out as one of us shouldn’t have registered with such shockwaves across the Christian Internet. Perhaps he’d stepped so far out of the Church’s walls for so long that those within just forgot about him and just figured he was still in there somewhere. I wonder how many of us get lost that way?
Whatever the case, no one longs for a Judas like the Evangelicals. They’ve spent months now filleting him with their assaultive, gaslighting talking points that they’ve all got memorized. He was never really saved. He was just in it for the money. He just wants attention, because he’s washed up. Well, we never really liked him anyway. Had to “check my spirit” when he was around behind the scenes at those CCM festivals where he showed up and put on the best goddamned show any of us had ever seen. I told you that his vibrato was a sign of vanity.
I don’t want to dwell on this, but I think it’s pretty damned telling that neither mutual member of DC Talk had anything to say about Kevin’s tweets publicly – probably because they knew it would be career suicide to stand by their friend. Albeit, I don’t know any of them, and I don’t know their stories or their journey – I’m just speculating based on what I know about the Evangelical Church. But when Kevin posted, “Hello, my name is Kevin Max. And I am an #exvangelical,” he set the Christian headlines ablaze, and they still haven’t stopped screeching their petty protests, which hurt like nothing else I’ve ever known hurts – because they don’t just come from strangers who would presume to know the status of your soul. They come from the ones you love the most, who are still plugged into the evangelical matrix. Like I said: It’s how cults work.
But I’ll say this: What’s more important to me is the tweet that Kevin posted immediately afterwards: “Goodnight, we are all going through this.” Everyone seems to have missed that one, but it strikes me as the point of it all. That was Kevin telling those of us quietly struggling through our religious abuse that he’s with us – and that he always has been. He’s letting us know that one of the singers of “Jesus Freak” is down here in the trenches now – deconstructing, asking questions, realizing that there is simply more to the story than what we’ve always been told. The Evangelicals took that first tweet as a personal attack, because they’ve fetishized religious persecution and love to make everything about them. But that second tweet makes it pretty clear that Kevin’s message wasn’t for evangelicals. It was for those of us cowering from their abuse. It was Kevin telling us that he cowers with us, and he chooses to do it out in the open on behalf of those for whom it is still not safe to utter our grievances out loud.
Frankly, it was Christ-like.
He’s got a new band called Sad Astronauts. Their first album, ADULT FEARS, is coming out sometime this year. Kevin’s released some lyrics which seem partially based on the theology of Richard Rohr – a man whose writings I love. Rohr’s path forward for Christianity is one filled with inclusiveness and grace – the notion that Jesus the Man was our most perfect model for following the Universal Christ living inside all of us, uniting us as One. This is exactly the sort of theology that Evangelicals love to mock, because it doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve created to keep their people conformed to its oppressive and controlling dogma of shame and fear. Rohr sounds like a perfect direction for Kevin to steer audience members who want to know if being a Jesus Freak still means anything. I’m looking forward to it, as I look forward to listening to anything with Kevin’s fingerprints on it.
But today, I’m listening to STEREOTYPE BE on its twentieth birthday. You should too. It’s a hell of an album, by a real musician that the evangelicals have never deserved. And as someone who also identifies as an exvangelical, let me state with unequivocal conviction that I’m honored to stand beside Kevin, stunned and inspired by both his courage and – most especially – his music. His voice provided the anthems for my years as an evangelical, and it feels so good to carry that voice with me onto my path toward liberation.
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