I spent this last weekend listening to the 2006 release of +44, When Your Heart Stops Beating. For those of you unfamiliar with +44, they are the supposed Phoenix rising from the ashes of the now dissolved Blink 182. Just before the split both Travis Barker (drums) and Mark Hoppus (bass) were working on a side project with Barker’s other former bandmates from The Transplants. The side-project quickly became their sole focus in the aftermath of the Blink break-up. The album is, I am sure, refreshing to Blink fans who were somewhat disappointed with Tom Delonge’s new project Angels & Airwaves. In fact, the reason it is perhaps so refreshing for Blink fans is the reason that I felt compelled to write.

+ 44 sounds pretty much like a carbon copy of Blink 182. Their songs may be a bit more “mature” in the sense that Hoppus doesn’t sing about “seeing girls after class” and “farts,” but the style and sound are almost identical (with the exception, perhaps, of “Make You Smile”).

This commonality sent me off on a trail of thought: why is it that artists are considered good if they remain the same? Shouldn’t there be a level of maturation, development of skill, style, and general growth as musicians that attracts audiences. Why is it that so few artists actually grow over the years? I think of bands like MxPx and Green Day who always sound exactly the same (this is perhaps more a problem of “punk” music than any other style). But even more popular “rock” bands like The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith don’t show any real growth for all their years at the wheel of their music.

In an age where genre identification is increasingly hard (think of labels like “Post-Hardcore,” and bands like Showbread who classify themselves as “raw rock”), one can’t help but wonder if musicians are still settling for the pragmatic. Whatever worked on their last album must be good for this one. One can hardly blame them: we live in a culture of pragmatism, and for the most part fans continue to buy what they like and don’t do much venturing into the unknown.

But I wonder if it strikes more at the heart of a Christian appreciation of art to view the advantageous and the “boldly new” as better than the “old stand by.” Whatever one might think of the lyrics of Derek Webb he’s gone in a direction stylistically that is vastly different than Caedmon’s Call. And whatever one might say of Relient K’s “Deathbed” the song is a fresh take for a standard “pop-punk,” “Christian” band.

I confess my own thoughts on this subject are as immature and undeveloped as + 44’s sound is, and there will be more questions from this topic than answers. But I can’t help but wonder: Is it more “Christian” for an artist to pursue maturation, development, and creativity of his style and skill than to simply reproduce what worked last album. I think it must be if to be made in the image of God means partly to be instilled with the power to be creative and reflect the beautiful. A Theology of art seems to cry out for continued growth and development and not reproduction. It’s a lesson that is certainly for Christians, but I must advise + 44 to pick up on it too!

And for those of us who are musical consumers, let me recommend that you take an adventure into the unknown every now and again and learn to appreciate the progressive development of musical skill and to step outside the comforts of your favorite genre. In so doing you just might catch a glimpse of some truly beautiful music, and not a reproduction of last year’s somewhat decent work. You might just learn to see the beauty of our creative God as well, who makes no two things identical!


  1. This is precisely why my favorite punk bands are the likes of Ninety Pound Wuss, Frodus, Refused, At The Drive-In, mewithoutYou, The Mars Volta, The Fall Of Troy, and others who utterly shattered the idea that one can merely sit idly by and create cliche, passe, music.

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  2. Refused’s “The Shape of Punk to Come” (I hope I got that title right) is one of the greatest hardcore/punk albums I’ve ever heard. Amazing. And At The Drive-In was great too.

  3. The problem for bands that actually make a living at what they do is that while fans say they want growth, they really just want more of the same.

    Case in point.

    Weezer’s first album (Blue) garnered them a ton of fans and made them radio darlings on Alt-Rock stations. Anticipation was pretty high for Weezer’s second album. When Pinkerton arrived, it was a disaster. The album showed maturity and growth over the prior album and despite having since become acclaimed critically as being Weezer’s best album, it wasn’t what listening wanted.

    Neither their label nor their fanbase were particularly amused.

    It’s much easier for indie bands to experiment and grow than it is for established bands to do so. If Havalina Rail Co. wanted to depart from swing/folk/bluegrass and try out some imaginary Russian music, who was going to care? If Wilco wanted to ditch their country-ish sound and create Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they were pretty much free to do so.

    But if the Rolling Stones came out with a techno album or if Metallica went reggae, heads would roll.

    So add to the expectation factor the fact that growth isn’t easy. How many authors (and great authors) have one style that they excel at and never really leave home to try out new things. Same with artists. Most musicians are really good with the music that they are good at—the music they feel deep in their soul—but when even able to cross genres with some degree of confidence, they’ll never be as good in the new territory as they were in their home region.

    Jefferson could do a great airplane, but their starship would never be worthwhile.

    Very few musicians even have the talent to grow. That’s why we praise even moderate growth in musicians. Fiona Apple’s transition from Tidal to When the Pawn… to Extraordinary Machine,/i> is heartening even though the growth is not vast. Same with Pixies as they moved from Surfer Rosa to Doolittle and then to Bossanova. These may be safe moves, but at least we’re happy to say we see movement.

    It’s always sad for me to see that bands like Steely Dan or Jethro Tull or whatever are playing at the Orange County Fair or at Verizon Amphitheater because I know that they are only playing their hits from thirty years ago. Even if they have new stuff, no one wants to hear it.

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  4. This was very clear with the Smashing Pumpkins as well. At the end of their career (originally) with the commercially unsuccessful (but artistically forward-thinking) Adore and Machina, they released the song Untitled, which was a complete throwback to their sound from Siamese Dream.

    Corgan’s comment was that they could write those songs anytime, but in order to grow they had to do something else…even at the expense of some of their fanbase.

    Not all bands can afford that drop, as Dane mentioned, and those that try usually pay the price. The few exceptions (Radiohead, Thrice) don’t necessarily negate the rule.

    Jordan Peacocks last blog post..The Ordinary Radicals – Trailer

  5. I agree that some bands have done a good job at this (Mewithoutyou, Frodus is a good exmaple), and I agree that for some bands it’s simply not possible…But my main question has remained untouched by you all: Should Christians celebrate more progressive music than simply the same-old stuff? I don’t have an answer so I’d actually like your thoughts on this folks.

  6. I didn’t think anyone else on the planet liked Relient K’s “Deathbed” (okay, so you didn’t actually say you “liked it”)… weird, but I want to cry like a baby when I listen to that song. Something about life starting out with so much promise and then “BOOM!” it’s all gone and wasted away… makes me sad.

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  7. I tend to lean toward this idea;
    “A Theology of art seems to cry out for continued growth and development and not reproduction.”

    I have a hard time answering your question in terms of “should” or “should not,” however. While it will probably mature me artistically to listen to more progressively changing music, I can’t say whether I think I’d be wrong for not doing so. It’s not best for me to eat a bag of potato chips with my sandwich as oppsed to, say, an apple, but I don’t think I could say that it’s SINFUL… but maybe that’s not what you meant(?)

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  8. First, I would argue that Green Day’s music has matured over the years. “American Idiot” was much different (and better) than “Dookie”, IMO.

    I’m confused as to how you make a “theology of art” translating into requiring “continued growth”. Are you referring to improved skills? Changing style? I don’t see the connection.

    If an artist creates because they recognized their innate/God-given drive to do so, what does that mean their style must evolve?

    With secular bands like +44, I’d say you completely ignored the business aspects. Pragmatism means you keep making what people want to buy. Furthermore, do you honestly think a major record label is going to let a band create albums with no input or boundaries?

    This is a very interesting topic–but I’d say you missed some important aspects of the equation.

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  9. Erik,

    Thanks for your comments. I think if you look back over my article you find that I more than readily acknowledge the pragmatic side of making records.

    Furthermore, I point out that this is a question I am raising. I am not giving a definitive answer. I am simply wondering if progressive growth and development of skill reflects a more ideal manifestation of God-given creative ability as opposed to reproduction.

    Also, I’d be interested to know how “American Idiot” stands as such a significant improvement to “Dookie.” At this point I would simply disagree.

  10. David, on the subject of American Idiot I’m with Erik. While Dookie was very much the typical 3 chord catchy punk song format, American Idiot adds a whole dimension, which was really gradually built up to throughout their career. Each song is profound both musically and lyrically. Have you listened to the whole album?

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