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Hostage to Nobody: Derek Webb’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

posted by Paul O'Donnell

derekwebbpic.jpgA few minutes of footage from the making of Derek Webb’s new, stunningly successful album, “Stockholm Syndrome” explains a lot about what Webb, the consciously controversial Christian singer-songwriter, is up to with his latest release. In the docu-video released last week on Webb’s personal site , along with the album (which comes out, minus a crucial track from INO Records in September), Webb discusses some song lyrics with his former bandmate and current producer Josh Moore. Moore, lighting a cigarette, asks. “Well, what specifically are you talking about?”
“Nuthin’,” says Webb, before mentioning unleaded gas, Indian casinos and bad credit, and finallly citing the Founding Fathers: “giving up security for freedom.”
In his career, Webb has repeatedly given up security–of the Dove Award-winning band Caedmon’s Call, which he quit in 2003; of a recording career safe in the Christian niche–for the freedom to be what he wants to be. Right now, that looks like an evangelical Justin Timberlake, with a nearly bald head and a fluting R&B voice, who adds crispness to his exacting techno songs by pronouncing “sex” as if it still had the power to provoke.


In Webb’s Christian venue, of course, words still have that power. The closest thing to an official explanation I’ve heard for why INO won’t release the song “What Matters More” is that it includes a dirty word beginning with “s.” (In some evangelical circles, the shot of Moore smoking tobacco on his own Texas porch is proof enough that “Stockholm Syndrome” grew out of an atmosphere of moral lassitude.) Another strike, obviously, is Webb’s thorough-going critique of the evangelical culture’s moral self-regard, particularly its “reckless” rejection of homosexuals. “If I can tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth,” he sings on “What Matters More, “it sure seems like being straight is what this is all about.”
But this kind of attack on Christian complacency is not news. In books, speeches and songs, evangelical thinkers and artists have been openly questioning their culture’s strident emphasis on sexuality. The critique is not even a departure for Webb. His Dylan-esque 2007 album “The Ringing Bell” became notorious for its song “Savior on Capitol Hill,” chiding Christians for trying to restore the Christian nation through politics. The news here is Webb’s reinvention as a techno-beat wizard, and that, with his latest turnover in style, controversy has become Webb’s only constant.
This makes for a slippery soapbox. Webb wants his fellow Christians to see how they have adopted the principles of the larger culture that has taken them hostage. (Stockholm Syndrome refers to the tendency of hostages to sympathize with the goals of their kidnappers.) Webb’s refusal to fit a format, to accept what’s merely working, to be hostage to an audience, is exciting to watch. But to see him do it while aiming for the Billboard Hot List risks confusion or, worse, disingenuousness. But the charge in “Stockholm Syndrome” is precisely its ambiguity, something few Christian artists have achieved, or even attempted.
Nothing points up the precariousness of Webb’s stance more than his readiness to document the album’s inner workings on film. That scene on the porch exposes the omnivorous quality of Webb’s social criticism: the focus of the song “What You Give Up to Get It” is “nuthin'”–and “anything,” Moore chimes in, “that can be given up.” We’re invited to agree with Webb’s protest music, all buttoned down with beats and digital widgets, even after watching him tap like a blind man for his point.
Seeing both produces a queasy feeling in the consumer’s gut. In one segment of the film, what looks like a pure documentary shot of Webb singing to the camera suddenly turns out to be a music video, as Webb smears black greasepaint under his eye. (The concerts supporting the album is called “The Black Eye Tour.”) We never quite know if the landscape Webb occupies–literally, a weedy Texas ranch less than an hour from the hipster hub of Austin–is outside or inside the rock mystique.
Which is all to say that Webb has mastered the tools of modern entertainment, in which a driving bass, recorded and corrected by a computer, signifies stripped down truth and cinema verite postures as reality. “Stockholm Syndrome” is sexy Christian music that tells the truth over completely confected, computerized sounds. The shocking thing is that Webb and Moore twist these ironies into a serious moral challenge, and a hot bunch of music.
Check out Derek Webb’s video for “What Matters More” on Gospel Soundcheck.



  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/gospelsoundcheck/ Joanne Brokaw

    Paul, this is a very well written commentary about Derek’s new project! Kudos!
    Joanne Brokaw

  • Your Name

    As much as I’ve enjoyed the music of both Derek Webb and Caedmon’s Call, the whole “controversy” controversy that has followed Webb since his departure from Caedmon’s is stale. Yes, I think Derek is saying good things that do need to be heard by the church, but it’s become quite muddied by the reactions that I don’t see anyone actually making, but feel as though I’m reading about everytime I look at anything involving Webb. Maybe it is the doing of the Christian sub-culture that Webb has spoken about, or maybe it his intention to get a reaction, either way, it’s taking away from the message of a good song writter who has something to say.

  • http://twitter.com/devchap devchap

    I like the record and find his lyrics thoughtful and welcome in a sea of Christian music. Some say there is offense in his language, his” point” and his communication style–and I could agree. I don’t agree with everything he says and I don’t find his expressions worthy to” build a house” on. However, equally offensive is the vast collection of Christian music that makes the “point” so blatantly obvious that my heart and mind are unaffected. Listen, learn and repeat; like Top 40, but “safer.” IMO, the church needs more radical, thought provoking dialogue through artistic medium–not to create unified agreement, but to catalyze thought and progress the ability for the Church to introduce the world the person of Jesus–the true foundation.

  • http://daveherring.net Dave Herring

    I am a Christian and I hate Christian music. I don’t like categorizing any music into “Christian” because it’s just music. Webb is an amazing artist, point blank. His lyrics are challenging and well placed. Good job on the album! If the “Christian” music market is upset, well done.

  • Eric Howell

    I think it is so great that as a Christian Sub-Culture bi-product you think that smoking is the root of all evil but you probably wrote this article at some Christian owned coffee shop called “He-Brews.” While sipping on the Christian safe stimulant of Coffee. As for purposely offending. I’m sure your article was written with pure intentions of not rippling the water.
    It must suck to be so intimidated by someone who can be so creative with so many different medias. If you really care or “Give a Shit” why don’t you criticize the artist who will sell all the regurgitated crap and sell wwjd glowsticks lighters, and bracelets leading the youth of this nation to thinking that God really wants their “Best Life Now”.

  • http://www.waxandwires.com Tim Eagerton

    First off, I dig the music itself.
    However, if it wasn’t for all of the press and shenanigans telling me how “controversial” it is, I wouldn’t have thought it was stirring up anything at all. I have yet to actually hear somebody speak a foul word about the content or lyrics; all I have are reports by the press, such as this, that there are people out there complaining somewhere. I don’t live in the Bible Belt, so maybe that’s part of it, but the press all feels a bit too much like manufactured marketing to me.
    So the big news is that a musician put out a song that’s supposed to shock people? Last time I checked, we’ve been doing that since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; that sort of comes with the job.
    Let the music be what it is. If the music and lyrics twist people up inside just like you intended, then you’ve done your job. If you have to tell people that something’s controversial, it’s probably not.

  • ssyndrome

    Here’s a video of the controversial song from Stockholm Syndrome.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC0j6FTg1xU

  • Ron

    What makes you say the album is “stunningly successful”? Do you have online sales numbers?

  • Shane

    “it sure seems like being straight is what this is all about.”
    Correction –
    “it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about”

  • Paul O’Donnell

    I want to respond to a couple of comments about my above review of Derek Webb’s new album “Stockholm Syndrome.”
    To Tim Eagerton, who writes that the media are creating controversy where there is none, I’d say that it’s possible that the label omitted one of his songs from the album in order to drive up sales, and the media (I guess that’s me) took the bait. But when an artist with Webb’s track record has to release a song himself rather than see it die in the dark, that’s what’s defined as controversy on my beat, and I’d be remiss to ignore it.
    In answer to Ron’s question about what makes the album “stunningly successful”: that’s a critical judgment on my part. When I heard that Webb was making a techno album, I was flabbergasted by the change in his sound, but he pulls it off.
    Lastly, Eric Howell entirely misses his guess about my habits, of mind, spirit and stimulants.

  • David Woll

    Would the album really be “controversial” to the people buying it? Who would knowingly buy the censored version? Most likely if a person had a problem with those two little words, they would not buy the rest of the songs, which would be at least as offensive to their world view if they listened to the lyrics. So with whom is the controversy?
    My guess is that this is no publicity stunt. INO is a division of the Integrity/Hosanna label (See the about tab at http://www.integritymusic.com/), which puts out worship music. I’m sure they had an honest problem with putting it out, and I’m sure DW had an honest problem with being censored. I bet the label people would be amused to see their decision labeled as a “stunt.”
    The next question would be, how much longer will Mr. Webb be with his label? Does he have to fulfill a contract?

  • Your sister in Christ

    Derek’s new CD brings the wrong message at the wrong time. The church is getting too much pressure from outside forces to keep quiet about homosexuality. We don’t need more of that pressure from within our own ranks. The CD is being portrayed as anti-establishment. It really isn’t. It is so much easier to take a stand for keeping quiet, than it is to actually say anything that anyone could ever construe as anti-homosexual. Derek is so politically correct. And the problems don’t end with that one song. The CD enters into territory that should have been off limits.

  • Your Name

    I thought when I heard the line about sexuality that it was regarding current evangelical Christianity’s obsession with orientation. In the eyes of many churched and unchurched, the prerequisite now for salvation isn’t a heart of belief, but being straight. It has become, in my experience, an idol. Yes, there is a battle right now about this and rightly so (God help us), but orientation is not the unpardonable sin.
    Additionally, I saw a bit where Webb was speaking about how current “Christian” music only tackles about 2% of life topics, ie worship, the afterlife, etc. Yes, those are important, but the other 98% are being left out. He says the Bible tackles 100% of all life issues, and so should our art. I agree.

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