Idol Chatter

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.

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