“Why would you waste your beautiful voice on that noise?”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that one when I started practicing harsh vocals…
Any youth group kid in the contemporary church will tell you that they were exposed to all the greats in the CCM industry growing up. Tomlin. Hillsong. Casting Crowns. All the rest. However, growing up in a rock n’ roll household, I was also exposed to the other greats. Aerosmith. Queen. Ozzy. Kiss. Elton John. Living in a home where art could be art and I was free to express myself through it, I found my own greats. Underøath. Good Charlotte. Brand New. Looking back, there’s probably nothing I am more grateful for than my parents allowing truth to do its work in us naturally, especially through art. It is because of this that I found my best friends in rock bands who knew how to point me back to God. In fact, the secular music that I discovered was far more rich and nourishing to my faith than much of the contemporary worship that I heard in church.
Contrary to popular belief, the stories of life and relationship that I heard from these bands did not misguide me. Instead, they found me off my crooked paths and reminded me of what is good. Whether the lyrics were hopeful or agonizing, they always illuminated some truth through positive or negative space. I found God through reality and passionate art. It's the passion itself, the awareness of creation and culture that has God's fingerprint on it. The meaning. And if that's the case, then why do sacred and secular music even exist within the church? Music does not need to be played on Christian radio to be honest and useful in faith.
I was always the girl who led worship in youth group. I know that people didn’t necessarily like me because I was a spectacular vocalist or musician, but because I was emotional. When my voice cracked, it was most likely because I was crying. Since I was given the freedom to interact with art for art's sake, I intimately got to know the power of music and could allow it to take over me in a way that brought me face to face with the depth of my faith every single time. It’s this very quality that led me to screaming.
Screaming is a misunderstood art. To those who do not consume a regular diet of heavy music, all screaming sounds like noise that is damaging to the voice. Just like a language, it requires study and practice to develop the skills to even decipher harmful screams from safe ones, not to mention producing a safe sound. Even then, it requires diligent practice and research to perfect and grow in the skill. My friends who are screaming vocalists work harder at their craft than many other musicians that I've met, mostly because we are re-learning how to tap into sounds that have matured out of us since we no longer wail like infants. That is not to say that other musicians don't have challenges in their craft - not at all. However, I do think that those who practice harsh vocals get overlooked for their hard work and craftsmanship.
I also don't speak as an expert here. Screaming has been my battle for many years, and still is today. I wrestle with my own limitations and often times, I'm way too hard on myself. Ask any of my bandmates - I struggle. Not only is it physically difficult to master, but it's also emotionally demanding and mentally straining. It's a sound that relies so heavily on what's going on around you that it's nearly impossible to focus and not be shaken by the room, the music, the people, the words, everything. But even though I battle my way through practice and performance, it's still my conviction to learn this language and use it to whatever capacity my voice allows. I could make very successful music in other genres - I know. But I have to do this. There's more at risk if I don't.
Why "waste" my voice on screaming? Because it’s better than wasting my heart on singing “pretty.” The gospel I know isn't quiet and pretty. It is violently powerful and full of aggressive beauty. It is dynamic. The Jesus that saves me has a name that is too intense to be sung in perfect pitch. The God I know furiously loves me out of my sin every single time. My desperate need of Him is harsh, with jagged edges, and His glory demands every fiber of my being to praise His name. When my soul truly cries out, my body can’t take it in beautiful strides. I limp and crawl to the foot of the cross and scream His name with every broken piece of myself. That may not make a beautiful sound by the world’s standard. But I would bet to say that Almighty God hears a symphony of praise.
“How can that music bring any good into the world?”
What most people don't recognize in heavy music is the opportunity to be a part of a special kind of beauty. Singing and making art about joy is important, but there is no way to experience that joy to its fullest capacity if we can't acknowledge the pain that it springs from. Closing ourselves off to the pain or the rawness of life does not make us holy. Ignoring the suffering in the world is not only foolish, but it's incomplete theology.
One of my favorite directors, Scott Derrickson has degrees in filmmaking with a minor in theology. He is well known for his work in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. His philosophy on horror movies is similar to my philosophy on metal music. He says,
"To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world and recognizing that there is evil within us and that we're not in control and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear."
Not only is it important to acknowledge both sides of reality in art, but it's also important to remember our goal in faith and in life. We are not called to win numbers for the church. We're called to tell people about the good news. If knowing the good news is where it stops, then we aren't actually fulfilling the Great Commission. We need to know how to tell it. For many, "goodness" in life is a distant fantasy. There is no way to reach that place of truth with another person without wading through the painful reality of suffering and brokenness. As the church, are we patient enough and willing enough to wade through that pain? Are we willing to admit that we also suffer that pain? Are we willing to speak the language of pain?
I'll tell you how heavy music brings good into the world - by offering an opportunity to express what's real. Screaming allows for an entire room of intricately designed people to be imperfect, raw, and vulnerable. Metal allows complex emotions to be processed safely through art - anger, yes, but also fear, sorrow, need, bravery, vulnerability, honesty, truth, hope, and love. The underground heavy music scene is a community of supporters, where any person of any background with any belief can come and connect to another human being in the areas that are shared. It's a place where we are truly one. It's a place to build and till common ground, so that one day we will all be standing on the same land.
Friends in the faith, I challenge you to listen. Just listen to those bands who claim their faith through aggressive worship . We are not rebelling against our upbringing, we are clinging to it with every fiber of our being, our gifts, and our understanding. Our hearts break like a violent storm in response to the pain in the world. Our bodies force those emotions out with power and grace so that they aren't just thrown away, but so that they are made new, baptized by art and renewed by the act of creation. We are not always angry. We are not always violent for the sake of violence. We are aggressive in our praise. We are passionate in our empathy. And we are extreme in our love.
There is nothing wrong with worship music. Most metal musicians are well aware that their genre is not the majority's cup of tea. Most are okay with that. We don't need to scream in church. But would it be the end of the world if we did? There is also plenty of metal music that is destructive. My point here is not that all metal is righteous. I am just suggesting that metal can be. Just as country music or pop or rock n' roll can be.
Here's what I ask - no matter what genre of music it is, offer it the courtesy of really hearing the meaning before writing it off. There is a lot of good (and bad) in every musical style. There are also many ways to make a joyful noise... I wonder if art were truly appreciated for art's sake, if we would not know with more clarity the nature of the Artist and our place in the opus.
1. Term credited to my brothers in aggressive worship, Convictions.