Steve Taylor: Rebel with a Reason

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CCM Magazine
February 1986 Volume 8 Number 8
© 1986 CCM Publications, Inc.
Cover story, Pages 3, 26-29

From out of the fritz and into the limelight, this lanky, kinetic rocker's mind works as fast as his feet.

by Davin Seay

"If people think they can pin you down--put you in a box and stick a label on you--then they don't have to pay attention to what you're saying because they've already figured out what you're all about. If they think I'm just sitting on the sidelines being cynical and taking potshots, then I've lost whatever usefulness I have. I just can't kick back and let that happen. Unless you're moving forward, you're going to stagnate. If I ever thought I was losing my relevance, I'd quit. I'm not worried about making a living. I mean, who gives a rip about the career?"

It's a good question, especially considering that the career of Steve Taylor--songwriter, singer, agitator--has been the focus of some of the sharpest criticism and most lavish praise being heard in the Christian music arena these days. Consider, for instance, the following remarks written recently for a popular magazine catering to a born-again readership: "...the guy is completely off-base in most of his attempts at Christian protest...His voice is obnoxiously and inappropriately mocking...Repeatedly, the ear catches on some incredibly irresponsible lyrics...In Taylor's attack, unfair, unthought-out generalities are flaunted..."

Now contrast, if you will, this sampling of critical response: "Taylor has an edge and vitality in his songs that is rare for any act..."; "Steve Taylor churns out strong message music, laced with subtle humor and snarling satire..."; "One of Christian music's most fertile creative minds..."; and "Steve Taylor...a wolfhound among dinosaurs...He's a star if he wants to be."

If controversy, originality, and the ability to polarize an audience are measures of star quality, then there's no question about it. Steve Taylor's got what it takes.

But does he want what he has? In point of fact, the mantle of Christian music's rabble-rousing bad boy sits uneasily on the bony brow of this 27-year-old former youth pastor. Taylor, with a face so mobile and expressive it could almost be formed from rubber, is an odd, appealing, an ultimately complex mix of humility, impatience, galvanizing energy, and flaky good humor. He really doesn't seem to fit any of the various molds--pretense-puncturing wise guy, angry and impassioned protestor, or the incarnate Future of Contemporary Christian Music, to name a few--that so many have tried to squeeze him into. In short, he's just not that easy to pin down, put in a box, and stick with a label.

Take now, for instance. Taylor hunches over a plate of sliced turkey and veggies that slowly grows cold as he tries to find words to describe the motive that lies behind his confrontive, compelling methods. All around him swirl music business insiders shaking hands and slapping backs at the Billboard Video Conference being held in a dazzingly modern hotel beneath the leaden skies of a winter's day in L.A. Taylor has spent the morning at the conference attending seminars and soaking in all he can of the techniques, terminology, and targets of the burgeoning music video industry. In the midst of editing a concert video filmed at last summer's Greenbelt festival, he's anxious to learn all he can of the state of the video art.

In the meantime, he struggles over lunch to articulate the potentials and challenges that come with the musical turf. Leaving thoughts hanging, stopping and starting sentences in midstream, alternately intense and amused--he gives the impression of a man working his way gingerly through a labyrinth of intriguing concepts and dangerous ideas. Steve Taylor is seeking his own way, determined to express a faith that will make a difference in modern times.

[Photo and caption: In the "Lifeboat" video, Steve portrays Mrs. Aryan, who explains the concept of "values clarification" to her elementary school class.]

All the Options

"I'm tired and bored with trying to figure what's right and wrong in music," he avows. "You know, the whole secular and sacred debate. How did we get off on that tangent? The question I've got to answer, just like every other Christian, is 'What is God telling me to do?' I'm convinced that there are different ways to go about this business of using music to change the world. Why do we insist on reducing it to a formula?

It's a consistent theme for Taylor, this liberating effect of Christianity on the spirit of creativity. And he has little patience for anyone who attempts to limit that freedom. "I heard the other day that Carman had come up with four criteria for Christian concerts," he shares. "One was that you had to talk about a literal devil, one was that you had to give an altar call, and I can't remember the other two. Now Carman's an intelligent guy. Where does he get off laying down these rules?"

"God can and does work through all sorts of voices and all kinds of music," Taylor continues. "When we limit ourselves, we cut off that access, that avenue of communication. People complain about U2 and say that they aren't explicit enough about Jesus in their music. But U2 may be opening the door for other groups that do take a more literal approach, bands with real promise like Undercover. We've got to allow for diversity within our ranks or we'll end up talking to ourselves. I hope I never have to make the choice between evangelizing and singing for other Christians. I mean, where is it written that I have to limit my options to fit someone's preconceived pattern?"

All of which begs the question: has Taylor found a comfortable place for himself within the confines of contemporary Christian music? "Christian music, like the church in many ways, has become an institution and, as such, it perpetuates a subculture. I have no allegiance to contemporary Christian music. I'm just not a part of that machine. For me, the term 'music minister' has really lost its meaning. I just don't believe in the idea of 'a life calling' as if God wanted me to be a musician and that's it and I'm set apart for that job forever. That's why I'm not out to build a career in music. I mean, any album or concert could be my last."

This is Gospel Music?

"You know," he continues, "I appeared on the Dove Awards last year and I still feel uncomfortable about it. I didn't belong there because I'm really not part of that gospel mainstream. Sure, I'm a Christian and that influences the way I wrote songs, but that's just being honest. Everybody pushes a point of view. Is Madonna's music just for whores? Is Prince's music just for sexual deviates? Christian musicians should be less concerned about being accepted by their peers and work on saying something different. I've got to say that when my songs started drawing fire because they were too controversial, I knew I was on the right track." He pauses, laughing. "Everything I do I sort of stumble into, and that gives me the freedom to stumble into anything."

Taylor's career to date has been a case of some very timely stumbling. A critically acclaimed debut EP (I Want to Be a Clone) and two follow-up LPs (Meltdown and 1985's On the Fritz) elevated Taylor to the top ranks of Christian music in a remarkably short time. Extensive touring last year with Sheila Walsh in Europe and the U.S. confirmed his reputation as a powerful new arrival on the scene. His edgy, punk-influenced sound matched perfectly the cutting insights and brittle sense of irony that set his music apart from the often rote retreads of much of the rank and file. But the sudden glare of the spotlight seems to have had little effect on the goals and priorities of a young man who spent five years pastoring teen-agers in his native Denver, Colorado. If anything, Taylor seems intent on puncturing his own image.

His association with Capitol Records as part of a distribution deal signed with Sparrow Records is a good example. With the scent of crossover hanging in the wind, it's easy to imagine that Taylor would see mainstream distribution and heavy promotional muscle as the chance to hit it big in real time rock 'n' roll. Not so. Rather, he seems distinctly underwhelmed.

"I'm not the mega-platinum variety of artist," he says. "I mean, no one's banging down my door. The fact is that Capitol wanted a piece of the Christian market and I come with that piece. The good thing about it is that we'll have access to a serious promotional effort--everything except Top 40 which is all payola anyway." There's a glint in his eyes, but the deadpan delivery makes it hard to tell if he's joking. "I'm not so sure my music is all that commercial. Consequently, I've got pretty low expectations that the Capitol deal is going to make much of a difference..."

Again a long pause as he seeks just the right words. "Don't get me wrong," he says at least. "The more people who hear, the better. Any progress anyone can make toward breaking down the Christian stereotypes that outsiders have is a step in the right direction. What we've got to determine is whether we're transforming the culture or whether they're doing a job on us. It's a question with deeper implications than just specific social issues. Christianity in America is really characterized by these huge, traditional establishments where money talks, and the emphasis is off Jesus and onto the worship of success and self-esteem. We've got to establish a new focus. You know, just because I am a pro-lifer doesn't mean I automatically buy into the full agenda of the Christian right. We've got to question this concept of spiritial authority that makes it so easy to give up the responsibility we all have to make decisions based on what God reveals to each of us as individuals."

Taylor Talk

Taylor is saying a mouthful, and the quick, interconnected flow of ideas is taking the place of the lunch which sits on the plate patiently waiting to be eaten. In the World According to Steve Taylor, one thing leads to another, barely allowing him or his listener a change to breathe. Concepts overlap like waves on the shore. "Spiritual pride is a deadly disease," he asserts, seemingly from out of nowhere. "It creeps up on you, and we need to understand how susceptible we all are to it. Especially in Christian music. Too many of us are out there trying to teach and preach when we've really got no business being spiritual guides. How many Christian musicians can say with conviction that divorce is wrong?" he asks, referring to the recent rash of divorces among Christian artists. "It's sad when you think how tainted we are because it wrecks our effectiveness."

But what precisely is the role of an effective Christian artist? Ministry? Entertainment? Instruction? Taylor has arrived at an answer, but, as usual, he confines it to himself. "I need to be a role model," he says. "Even if my music is no good. I've still got to set an example. When I was growing up, rock music wasn't all that important. The sun didn't rise and set on the Beatles and Stones. But when I found out that Cliff Richard was a Christian, it really made a difference. I looked to him. He was a believer operating in the real world. Kids have got to have new things to catch their attention. They're not rebelling. They just want something that's different from what their parents had. If they're looking to AC/DC or Van Halen to fill that need, then we've got real problems."

[Photo and caption: Taylor was interviewed recently on KROQ in Los Angeles, the new music station that initiated the "Roq of the '80s" format. Announcer Raymond Bannister (l) had been playing cuts from Taylor's On the Fritz album prior to the visit.]

The thoughts are coming faster now, almost too fast to follow. "Christian musicians, some of them, really have a lot of nerve, standing up and preaching spiritual truth and the way we should live our lives. We've got to keep asking ourselves, 'Is what I'm doing on target?' You know, when I started thinking about doing a new album, I looked through issues of Christianity Today and The Wittenburg Door for song ideas. Then I stopped and asked myself, 'What am I doing?' I mean, here I was looking for topics to fill up more grooves on another record. What happened to my burden? It's so easy for this just to become another job, and that's exactly the point when we should be getting out of the way to make room for someone else who's really got something to say and a passion to say it."

The crowds have dispersed, and quiet falls over the hotel coffee shop. Almost as an afterthought, Taylor begins to eat his lunch, chewing the meal as thoughtfully as he chews over his ideas. "One thing I'm sure of," he muses. "Music has the ability to change the way people view things. I get a lot of mail, and most of it says, 'That song really hit me and because of it I'm doing things differently.' That's a big responsibility. I want to do more than just affirm what other people are thinking. I don't think God gets mad at us when we ask questions, and the more I learn, the more questions I ask. I'm changing. I like to be challenged. And I'm no different from anyone else."

There's a little bit of Steve Taylor in all of us. And, depending on how you feel about Christian music's most outspoken original, that's a thought that may or may not be a cause for celebration.

Editor-at-large DAVIN SEAY last wrote about Noel Paul Stookey and Bodyworks in our December 1985 issue.