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A Fight Worth Having
Amy Grant and the CCM industry
The end of the semester caught up with me and I got behind with the newsletter; I really wanted to do something on Amy Grant to celebrate her Kennedy Center honors which bookend December, and what it turned into was an essay on one aspect of her legacy that I realized was really important. Some of the mentioned articles are at the bottom. Enjoy this old-school style of newsletter!
Other women could have been contemporary Christian music’s inaugural national pop star. In fact, there were other women, two of them, who were both stars and successful in their own right. One, Debby Boone, won a Grammy in 1977 for Best New Artist and had a national #1 hit song, “You Light Up My Life.” She and her sisters were even on the first issue of CCM magazine. The other, Evie was an even bigger Christian artist, popular in the U.S. and Europe with best-selling albums. She showed that a person could sing Christian music and a lot of people would buy it.
Yet, unless you’re deep into the weeds of CCM, you probably haven’t heard of them. I certainly hadn’t as a teenager. The reason these women have faded from popular memory, and why they didn’t become the first modern female Christian pop star, is because they got married, had kids, and prioritized their families. While Evie and Debbie would continue to sing and record, it was on a smaller scale, more intentionally directed toward the church, which allowed them the freedom to be the type of people the church expected women to be.
Amy Grant emerged 45 years ago as the star that she would become for many reasons. While wealth and whiteness were certainly primary ones, she also became Amy Grant™ because she did not let being a wife, mother, or even a Christian woman limit or define her. In reading through the issues of CCM, it has been easy for news of Amy to become white noise, ever-present and overlooked, because she is always there in one way or another. Album reviews, interviews, news of her comings and goings, awards she won. But one time, what caught my eye as I skimmed was that they called her “Mrs. Chapman.” That comment has been nagging at me as I’ve continued to read, wondering, how did the magazine ultimately treat Amy Grant?
As a big part of my thesis research, I’ve been reading through the magazine in chronological order, usually 4-5 issues per year to get a solid overview of that year in Christian music, and so far I’ve read and taken notes on 45 issues. Last week I made it to the year 1997 and was taken with an interview Amy gave in September. Reading interviews in retrospect is fascinating, because you know things they don’t know. Or maybe the artist knows something and the interviewer doesn’t, but you know how all the pieces will fall together. It can be very revealing sometimes.
Knowing the future, the part of the interview that grabbed my attention was the way he described her album as “uncomfortably vulnerable.” In a genre that claims to exist so that the message of Jesus can affect every aspect of life, for artists who repeatedly talked about ‘the messiness of life’ in vague platitudes while pointing constantly to grace and forgiveness, and in an industry that built the pedestals these artists stood on – what does vulnerability actually mean, and how was it uncomfortable? I was intrigued.
The interview was to promote her latest album, Behind the Eyes, and in going down a research trail, I saw one person refer to as her ‘divorce’ album. Ah. Uncomfortably vulnerable was starting to make sense.
Reading over interviews Amy gave during the 80s and 90s, a persistent theme she talked about was how hard her marriage was. She described how Gary Chapman had essentially pestered her into marrying him. The magazine does briefly mention how he had struggled with substance abuse, but using that phrase and then moving on is glossing over the day-to-day difficulties that it must’ve had on a wife and a family. Other than that, there is never any discussion of what made it difficult, and understandably Amy never spilled details. But there also was never any empathy or curiosity about what it does to people to be in difficult relationships for years on end. When Amy finally did divorce and the magazine addressed it, they said that it was no secret to people in the industry that it was a struggling marriage. Reading back over the interviews, there is no way to prove this of course, but it feels as if the magazine itself was forcing them into this image of a happy marriage, of a Christian celebrity couple, as if to counter the reality that everyone but the readers knew existed.
There is a story about a young Amy at a large concert at a Florida beach with thousands of teenagers. She tells them that she knows everyone is there for Jesus, but also, everyone has hormones, and she just wants to be honest and acknowledge that everyone there, including her, was horny. It feels like even early on, the industry knew what they were getting into when it came to her honesty and authenticity.
What Amy always did was be honest and unashamed of her reality, refusing to pose on the pedestal. That uncomfortable vulnerability in her lyrics? It was a diluted form of honesty she was giving the public. Reading between the lines of the interview now, you can see how she was already standing up for herself in what was to come. She also said that they recorded 31 songs, but only 12 appeared on the album. When I read that, I wished all of them had been released, because it would have been really interesting to see what other vulnerability was churning at that time. It turns out that the Amy Grant team released a 25th anniversary edition of the album a couple of months ago. (The tour for it is what got canceled in the wake of her bike accident.)
This new edition is the full 30 songs. And listening to it as an adult woman at a similar stage in life, well it, as the kids say, slaps. The song “Walk on Water” is just so brutally good. Upon listening to the unreleased songs, what is more surprising to me is that she waited over a year after Behind the Eyes came out to separate.
Amy Grant leaving her husband made her a problem for the CCM industry, but in reality she had been a problem for them since almost the very beginning. From her clothes to her lyrics to her comments, she made the industry have to defend her. Her success in both the Christian and secular markets and the way she defied the ideas of how a Christian woman and wife should be, I think, contributed significantly to the industry’s obsessive internal debates about what makes Christian music Christian.
If Amy Grant was just a pop star, then nothing about her life would matter, and there would be no problem. If she was truly a Christian artist, then the precedent they had set with Pam Mark Hall (1987), Sandi Patty (1992), and Michael English (1994) meant that because she left her husband, she needed to be cast out. But if they did that, then they couldn’t claim her as a reason that Christian music was so successful and should be taken seriously by the secular world, and also, she made them a lot of money. There were two main debates that occur ad nauseum in the pages of the magazine – the sacred/secular divide and also the question of, is Christian music a ministry or is it a money-making business? Amy Grant became the embodiment of both debates.
The magazine did ask other married artists what it’s like, touring while married. For women, some husbands come with, some have their own busy work schedule to occupy them, and of course sometimes they get asked about submission. As married Christian women artists, they talk about what a joy married life is, and even when the schedule is hard, they stay connected and reconnect with their spouses. They all prioritize their husband and do this job with their husband’s support; these women perform the role of contented woman artist, and because they only perform for the Christian market, there is no divide to debate. Ultimately, they serve as the model against which Amy is judged.
In November 1999, CCM ran an interview with Amy in the light of her divorce announcement. The title of that article is “Judging Amy,” which is a play on the tv show that had just come out, but also because her Christianity was on trial. Now of course it is true that wealth, power, and clout give a person freedom that others don’t have. By 1999, she didn’t need the Christian music industry the way it needed Amy Grant™. And of course, we also know that by this point, the industry itself was on its way out – but they didn’t know that. What I love about this article is that she refuses to let herself be defined or limited by her identities of wife, mother, or Christian. She refuses a sanitized faith, and refuses to even accept the premise that the failure to keep up the façade of a happy family somehow means that she has failed as a Christian artist.
Instead, she argues that either the Jesus this industry has been preaching for over 20 years can handle her, or there’s no point. She forces them to confront the reality behind their platitudes, and in doing so, she makes room for more people to feel included in this particular form of American Christianity. Knowing the industry as intimately as she did, Amy knew what she was walking into, and she did it anyway, because she knew that being happy was a fight worth having. Looking back on that time now, when happiness was equated with selfishness and a supposed ‘me first culture’ was set in opposition to Christian sacrifice, it really was a courageous stand to take.
The magazine, for its part, forced to contend with a strong successful woman who couldn’t be cast out, used not only the strength of its editorial pen to condemn her decision (in addition to telling their readers that their judgment on her will decide the future of Christian music, putting on them the requirement of forming an opinion), but also the logistics of its calendar. Another difference between the other Christian women artists and Amy is that the other husbands were never interviewed. Amy’s divorce interview came out in November 1999, while the magazine reserved the January 2000 issue for Gary to offer his rebuttal, and the last word.
From the vantage point of the present, this all seems to be a hullabaloo about nothing. The world did not crack because of her divorce, evangelicalism did not shatter for that reason, and Amy Grant has been happily remarried for longer than she was married to Gary. People magazine even covered their daughter Millie’s wedding a few years ago. It seems silly, almost, that people were so existentially worried about a marriage. Yet, as many of us know, the threat was not really about marriage, but about control. If this male-dominated industry could not control a woman, and a woman who represented them and all they stood for; if God’s acceptance and love included even those who defied the conventions of conservative Christianity, then what else might happen?
In her divorce interview, Amy is insistent that Jesus is worth something, and that he is bigger than the walls of exclusion they were desperately trying to build. She refused to let white Christian men, and the court of public opinion that they cultivated, define her worth and her identity, and that’s a powerful legacy to leave in the wake of a faith system that has done so much damage. (It is worth noting that both Amy and Gary’s labels stood behind them and were supportive of them.)
I imagine that’s one reason she is the one who is finally fulfilling the ultimate dream that John Styll, John Fischer, and all the other industry executives had for the contemporary Christian music industry – receiving prominent secular recognition for a Christian musical job well done. Amy’s Kennedy Center Honors, which occurred on December 4th and will air on December 28th, honor a not only a wildly successful Christian artist, but also a person who was authentic and honest from the very beginning about what being a Christian woman was like. Amy has endured as a singer and an icon because she knew that a Christian woman could live more expansively than as just a wife and mother, and at the time, there were so few voices saying so, and even fewer people doing so. And she’s not done pushing the boundaries on what being a Christian person looks like, affirming the expansive reach of God again and again, such as with her early affirming and promoting of Brandi Carlile, and now with hosting her niece’s upcoming same-sex wedding.
It is hard to find much to admire in the Christian music industry of the 1980s and 90s, or white women in general, especially in white Christian women. And while there are critiques that can be made about her career, the legacy of Amy Grant for Christian women is important. In her life we find not only a body of music that is good and honest and fun, but we find someone who shows us who it really is that love is for.