by Lindsay Robertson
“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.