Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Old Christian Videos: Amy Grant's "Lead Me On"

TELL IT TO MY SACRED HEART"Lead Me On" was the title track of the album I've always half-jokingly referred to as Amy Grant's "Dark Album," but it really is. In the song, Amy sings about slavery, the Holocaust and man's inhumanity to man. "Lead Me On," the album, came out in 1988 and was a financial failure, though years later it would be named the best Christian album of all time by CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) Magazine. They were correct.

When "Lead Me On" came out I was 11 and considered myself Amy Grant's biggest fan. I'd read her unauthorized biography. The only part of it I still remember was about how she got in trouble for saying to the crowd at one of her concerts, "I think we're all a little bit horny tonight!" I chose her hymn "El Shaddai" as the song I would fail to play recognizably in an ill-advised flute recital that year, and my best friend Sarah and I spent most of our playtime choreographing elaborate dances to songs from Amy's previous albums, like "Love Will Find a Way," in the partial hope of one day performing on Star Search.

I was in sixth grade at a tiny unaccredited school in Tallahassee that was owned by a Non-Denominational Charismatic church without a national franchise (just a stand-alone church, basically. This would become a problem later). My favorite activity at that time, other than listening to Amy Grant, was having my parents drop me off at the library where I would spend entire Saturdays reading back issues of Reader's Digest, copies of which the library provided going back to the 60s. I got all of my information about life from church, the church school, the twenty or so mostly crap YA books I read per week, and Reader's Digest. Other than the library, I had no friends or influences that were not directly church-related. Even our math books were Christian.

Anyway, on the day "Lead Me On" was released, I was standing at the counter of the old Christian bookstore on Thomasville Road, allowance money in hand, wondering if I could get away with stealing the life-size cardboard stand-up of Amy that advertised the album's release. I remember jumping in my parent's Toyota minivan and putting the tape in, and basically being in heaven. This was an album like no other I'd ever heard. It was a Christian album, like all of the other non-classical albums I'd heard, but it was about other stuff too. Like history. And romantic love. This was a revelation.

It's easy now to make fun of the video and song "Lead Me On." With the high-tech tools of ironic distance and some-college criticism we have today, a video like this doesn't stand a chance. Amy Grant is scratching her head and throwing up her hands while singing about slavery? Standing in front of a wind machine in a leather jacket while alluding to the horrors of the Holocaust ("Waiting for the train/labeled with a golden star")? Today, Amy Grant wouldn't even be allowed to sing about those things at all, and at the time she kind of wasn't either, but for different reasons — the album was, again, a failure. Her audience, which was at the time all Christian (this was three years before her mainstream transformation) probably balked at the serious themes the album raised, wishing instead for Amy's usual mix of upbeat "I love Jesus!" songs and hymns, like "El Shaddai," that seemed sacred and ancient from the day the album hit the stores. Like many non-denominational churches in the 1980s, we sang "El Shaddai" as a hymn, and often women performed spontaneous interpretive dances to it on stage during the service.

When I watch this video, I get all torn up inside. As someone who makes a living partially from making fun of old videos on YouTube (and don't we all now?), of course it's funny. And of course it's appalling that a pop singer is singing about deep historical wounds felt most strongly by groups to whom she doesn't belong. (The slaves were "wearing their anger like a ball and chain." Ugh.) But there's something else, too. I get goosebumps and chills and little dopamine electrical pleasure zaps watching this video. Every single time. I basically writhe with nostalgic delight. Not just because I realize that this song (and many other Christian rock songs) have been constantly playing on a low level in my head all my life and that I still know all of the words. Because, when it came out, while I'd read about slavery and the Holocaust in books and Reader's Digest, nobody in my life, not teachers, not anybody, ever spoke about things like that. There was no such thing as social justice as a concept, much less a goal, in the fundamentalist Christian church of the 1980s. (Unless you counted abortion, which, oh boy, they did.)

Amy Grant herself probably laughs at this video now, but I'm sure she's aware that in its original cultural situation, this song and this album and this video were an act of incredible courage. At the height of her popularity, Grant used it to draw attention to the things nobody in her audience ever talked about, and not just the "bad things our forefathers did or allowed to be done to other human beings" stuff. If the album has one running theme, it's about doubt, and how doubt is a part of faith, and how faith is really hard, what with all the bad things in the world. "Lead Me On," the song, is specifically about questioning one's faith in a God who would allow such atrocities to happen ("Somebody tell me whyyyyyy"), dressed up a little (but only a little) as a song about how people have always depended on God in times of trial. I would lose my own faith in God permanently just a few years later, and my church would fall apart into tiny angry splinters, ruining more than a few families and lives. Amy Grant was right: life is scary and messy, and faith is almost impossible. But at least this video is hilarious.

Lindsay Robertson contributes to many websites, like Jezebel and Vulture, and can also be found here.

40 Comments / Post A Comment

Ken Layne (#262)

I remember being in some motel in the desert with a rock band when this showed up on the christian music-video channel (!) and then there was much vulgar talk about what everybody would like to do to/with Amy Grant — cocaine & anal sex, mostly. The American Dream.

Christian pop is the only thing dumber than regular pop. And Amy Grant was really the last person to look so eighties, wasn't she? Realize that this record came out the same year as "G'nR Lies" and Jane's Addiction's "Nothing's Shocking" and the Pixies' "Surfer Rosa" and two of the best records ever, "The Trinity Session" and "I'm Your Man." It was a good year for music, somehow!

dippinkind (#3,673)

re: the Pixies, Black Francis has often said he was heavily influenced by the guy often called the father of CCM, Larry Norman… "I dressed like him, I looked like him, he was my total idol." The title of Come On Pilgrim was taken from one of Larry's lyrics.

as far as the Amy Grant album, i'd say The Turning by Leslie/Sam Phillips is better (and also from 1988 i think?)


The best Christian album(s) of all time is/are "God's Son" and/or "Book of Thugs: Chapter AK Verse 47"

Also, Suga Free's "Street Gospel" & "The New Testament".


Daisy (#2,667)

El Shaddai was a heavily haireographed Dance Choir Number for my unfortunate friends and me. That's right! LITURGICAL DANCE.

Bittersweet (#765)

I would love to see this and the spontaneous El Shaddai dances Lindsay mentions – any chance of a YouTube channel?

Daisy (#2,667) is the only thing that comes close.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Any list of "best Christian music" that does not include Tourniquet, DC Talk and Carman is not a list I care to see.

alison (#14)

dc Talk!!!!! I still know all the lyrics to the Free At Last album by heart. I'd add Jars of Clay's first album to your best of list.

kid pretentious (#3,538)

"Jesus Freak" might be the "edgiest" Christian song I remember from back in the day. Grunge! In the late '90s!

It's too bad Lindsay probably wasn't around for Five Iron Frenzy.

Daisy (#2,667)

(Are you sure that's not leaked video of Kate Austen's scenes from the final season of LOST?)

bong hitler (#3,233)

I also thought the lyrical ballad in which Grant addresses the problem of whether or not an omnipotent God could create a rock too heavy for Him to lift had quite an emotional impact.

chrissth (#250)

At a certain point, as a young Christian, I was discouraged from listening to Amy Grant because, as my pastor so poignantly posed, "She crossed over. But did she bring the Cross….over?"

Daisy (#2,667)


judypearl (#3,477)

I really like that you've brought Amy and nostalgic Christian pop to the discussion — thanks!

My family was way into this movement, my Dad was active in the Promise Keepers (memba them) and we had Steven Curtis Chapman on loop at the house. Petra was "too much." We were also big Michael W. Smith fans. It was a happy time for us, a time when we all sang on our way to church.

My sister got into the FFH, Third Day and DC Talk + Jesus Freak crowd.

I don't have anything snarky to say about that time in my life and the time in my family's life. I, like you, have grown in tastes and religious beliefs; but I do love the nostalgia and I just may download For the Sake of the Call when I get home.

Bittersweet (#765)

My parents were main line Protestants-turned-Unitarians and pretty much discouraged any Christian dogmatic thought in our house. But our close relatives were sort of born-again Presbyterians who worried about my soul and gave me Amy Grant albums at birthdays.

As much as I was uncomfortable about all the evangelizing, I listened to my Amy Grant albums along with all my Smiths and OMD and Siouxsie alterna-tunes. Eventually I grew up, read a lot of theology and found Jesus – C.S. Lewis may have pushed me over the edge but I suspect Amy Grant provided a spark. Like you, judypearl, I've moved on but still have a soft spot for that time.

judypearl (#3,477)

Wow – C.S. Lewis and Watchman Nee were turning points in my household's religious affiliations and it influenced us to learn to change and to grow in faith. Glad you found C.S., too.

Bittersweet (#765)

It's hard not to be impressed with Lewis – he just makes so much sense in his apologia. And it's hard not to love his writing when there's so much heart and imagination evident in every sentence.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Two banners:

– "Learn Biblical Hebrew Online / with Israel's best teachers"

– "sc[redacted]"

demograph (#3,589)

Oh, wow, the memories. I too was weaned on CCM, though we were Catholic and there was room for Time and Newsweek and other non-orthodox reading in our house. But as far as music…yeah, a lot of Michael Card and John Michael Talbot and probably a bunch of other folky singers named Michael; Amy Grant was the only woman who became anything of a star.

Considering the low bar the genre sets for musical accomplishment, "Lead Me On" was a remarkably good album and the song "1974" still makes this secular liberal unabashedly nostalgic.

libmas (#231)

I was always impressed that Steve Taylor, on the album "I Predict 1990," included a song based on Flannery O'Connor's statement that "It's harder to believe than not to believe."

Ryan Tracy (#3,685)

My sister bought this album when we were in a K-Mart in our home town in No Cal (that's "Northern California"). I have always been jealous that she got it. The first song (1974?) gives me chills to even think about.

You're right on about Amy Grant as a really iconoclastic artist within Christian music. She was always getting shit for being "contemporary", like when she added electric guitar riffs to the very Jesus-loving Unguarded album. There's always been a deep vein of humanism in her songs. She's an ally of the oppressed, even if she's white as snow and wearing stone-washed denim.

Evan Hurst (#3,398)

Well, of course, this was before Amy Grant became a harlot.

Seriously, though.

It's funny…I have that Christian background too, and those who don't share it, don't get it. I'm an atheist now, but yes, I completely do have Jars of Clay moments, Amy Grant moments, etc…

And I will also point out that Amy Grant is very aware of her large gay following, and is quite supportive. So there's that.

Hard to hate her.

Really wonderful post. It brought back memories of the moment at which the thin line between adult contemporary music and contemporary Christian music thinned, dangerously, to the consistency of Dennis Miller's hair. And although I was not raised in a reddish-purply state (no pun intended), I, too, thought Amy Grant was very — how does one say it? — wholesome-hott. She seemed the kind of woman sturdy enough of heart and loin to birth strong Christian babies. She was a genius at presenting herself as God's favorite … what?

And while "El Shaddai" does seem sacred and ancient, I would direct your attention to the oft-forgotten "Baby, Baby." There is also, we cannot fail to note, Grant's saccharine 1986 duet with Peter Cetera, "The Next Time I Fall." My favorite part of that video is when some 80s man with a pick-up artist hat tries to ply Amy's significant favors with a cute puppy. No, in retrospect that was actually kind of creepy.

As Amy veered towards pop (and got many a red state Christian's head nodding in disapproval) I remember an interview answer she gave: "Every song can't be John 3:16." Amy was righteous, but sometimes she was the bad girl of CCM.

Anyway, thanks for this blast from the past.

Now, can we get an old Christian video of some Michael W. Smith's sincere "Place in this World" up in this?

libmas (#231)

Well, if you're going to dip your toe into the limpid pool that is Grant's secular career, don't you have to mention her cover of "Big Yellow Taxi"?

Better or worse than Counting Crows' cover? Discuss!

My mom loved the crap out of "Place in this World." Though its synth-pop cheesiness doesn't really stand the test of time, she identified with the directionless sentiment of it. At the time this song came out, my dad had just made some business decisions that caused our relatively wealthy family to go totally bankrupt (including in the legal sense), and he was subsequently beginning to drink heavily. My mom knew the life she had anticipated for her family would never be realized, throwing her for a loop. She felt lost, and although she was never overly religious, and did not take the song as a call to Jesus, she appreciated that she was not alone in wondering what she was supposed to do next, and what it was all for.
It's nice to look at these things without a cynical eye once in a while, and man, the Christians could really use somebody like Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith as a representative right now, because most of the wingnuts out there speaking for Christians are pretty piss-poor examples of Christian values. When Amy "crossed over," nobody every really replaced her. And now, pop acts with Christian rock roots go so far as to distance themselves from Christians altogether, because it may hurt their sales (I'm looking at you, Lifehouse).
Anyhow, great stuff, Lindsay!

Mary Mouse (#670)

I love this, Lindsay. I wrote a letter to Amy Grant when I was about 12 and was so sad to only get a flyer for her fan club in return.

keerquie (#3,346)

Lindsay Robertson, here at the Awl? Wonderful.
I relate to your experience with the lack of social justice within my very own non-denominational church as a kid. The concepts of racism and women's rights to my very young (and white/gay) mind were horrifying, and the whole christian worldview seemed to be helpful in denouncing those horrors of the world.

For some reason none of the Christians in my church seemed all that interested in those issues though. Nice to know Amy Grant made some attempt.

Did anyone listen to Avalon? The guy/girl group? I remember I had a tape with them and many other christian artists on it, and I'd listen to one song over and over.

keerquie (#3,346)

that song being Testify to Love.
oh, and I didn't mean to say I was horrified by women having rights. (obviously?)


MichaelBD (#3,115)

On the all-time Christian pop list, I'll throw on Jennifer Knapp, which accidentally came on an old friends Itunes the other night – taking us back to the days when we hung out in youth groups.

And All Together Separate, who had some pretty respectable jamming skills, but absolutely mediocre lyrics.

Anyway, I loved this piece.

dudek (#3,694)

This piece made me a bit teary. It made me remember that idealistic 12 year old that listened to Amy Grant and still believed the Church, and especially the Charismatic Church, was the answer to all the world's hurts.

Thanks for sharing.

I have no Christian music memories to share but I really, really loved this.

Kevin (#2,559)

So many blocked memories resurfacing! Thanks for bringing back what I thought(hoped?)years of rampant sodomy and illicit drug use would have destroyed.

Cliff Spab (#84)

I think we're all missing the over-arching issue here, which is: whither Amy Grant?

JHenryWaugh (#212)

Any other Adam Again fans out there in Awl-land?

Rebecca Sun (#3,710)

I thought I was the only one who had ever choreographed to Amy Grant in middle school.

Thanks for your post, Lindsay. Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith (I used to ship them before I was old enough to know better) were my gateway to CCM and Christian Rock. Like many of you in this thread, my faith and musical tastes have both grown, although somewhat divergently. I look back on CCM with a lot of fond nostalgia, although I'm still a fan of Jars of Clay — their musicianship has evolved over time and they remain awesome.

It's interesting that Lindsay noted the importance of talking about doubt in faith, which is something I feel Jars have always done, and which Derek Webb in particular has done to tremendous effect in his latest album (which everyone should definitely check out).

danielle johnsen (#3,585)

I loved Amy Grant so much when I was kid. Would choreograph dances to her songs and hope to one day be her and it wasn't until I was like 22 I realized she was super Christian. I went to a Lutheran school and was pretty involved in Church (until I "met" Trent Reznor), so I guess at some point Jars of Caly, Michael W Smith and Amy were common denominators when it came to music, but its always so weird to me now how much I loved the uber Christian culture back then.

Mandy (#3,722)

Um. You just unlocked a part of my brain I didn't realize existed, which is the part that remembers all of the lyrics to Amy Grant songs from this album. I was 11 when this came out and I also totally choreographed routines to some of the songs. I just went and listened to the songs I could find online and they made me so nostalgic that I teared up. Weird how something that seems so cheesy now still has that much emotional power, but judging from the number of people who had the same feelings about "Lead Me On," it was actually good and/or special in some way … Great post!

Mick (#3,729)

I remember my youth minister being horrified when Amy Grant wrote a song about her husband, instead of Jesus. "What's wrong with her loving her husband?" I asked. Christians are strange.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

Uh, Amy Grant and related CCM never did much for me (tho I had a Baptist high school girlfriend who sort of tried to win me to the faith with some of that stuff).

But Reader's Digest! I thought I was the only child of the '80s who had consumed mass quantities of RD. The grandparents kept buying us subscriptions as a default Christmas present. It took me a few years to figure out how right-wing it was. Eventually I just flipped thru looking for the reader-submitted humor nuggets ("Life In These United States", "Humor In Uniform", etc.).

barleyherb (#3,744)

Damn. I thought this would be the "lead me on" from the Top Gun soundtrack. That must have been someone else.

Post a Comment