Before we can talk about where contemporary worship music is heading, we have to talk about what has come before.
In the past, only one style of contemporary worship could exist in the collective conscience of the western church. If there was an new style to emerge, it had to first displace the old style. This meant that a contemporary worship leader could only choose songs of one style of music.
The previous style was pioneered by Delirious and made accessible by Hillsong, Passion, and others. In some ways, it was about finding a place for the electric guitar during a Sunday morning worship service. The electric guitar would take a lot of cues from U2’s guitarist, The Edge, and used dotted eighth delays reminiscence of The Joshua Tree.
Many joked that in the first decade of the millennium guitars in the church sounded like U2 from 20 years ago.
Even though there were exceptions, this was pretty much the only style of contemporary worship to choose from. For our purposes, we have dubbed this style P&W 1.0.
What I point out in the previously mentioned post, is that this seems to be changing. Not only is the style of worship naturally progressing, but the collective conscience of the church is actually sustaining two different styles at the same time.
THE WORLD AROUND US
Let’s address the musical landscape outside of the church and contemporary worship.
Recently I was listening to a podcast where they were talking about the Oscars. I believe it was the Vergecast. In that discussion, someone compared the Oscars to the Grammys. When you watch the Oscars, you still see the best movies of the year represented. But not so when you watch the Grammys. The music industry is too diverse to be accurately represented on an awards show.
With the advent of streaming music services, social media, and increasingly more accessible recording technology, anyone can make music and anyone who wants to hear it can find it. The variety of music is mind-boggling.
This is the context of our contemporary worship services. The culture has so many musical options to choose, it’s expanded our ability to assimilate styles into our worship services. Now, instead of just a single style dominating our worship, P&W 1.0, we have two.
I’ll be the first to admit that these names for the various styles are lacking in their “stickiness.” Please be patient with me as I use labels that sound like mid-90s Microsoft software.
P&W 2.0 is the folky/bluegrass/alt-country influence on worship. It’s stripped down and meant to sound under-produced. Ideally, any male worship leader using this style has a beard the size of Chewbacca. Female worship leaders get to forgo the beard. Mandolins? In. Banjos? In. Fiddles? In. You can trade in your Duesenburg and Strymon Timeline for a Telecaster with a G-Bender.
One of the hallmarks of P&W 2.0 is that the instruments don’t need electricity (with the exception of the electric guitar and bass). They are “real” and mostly acoustic. The musical influences come from everywhere from Mumford & Sons, indie rock, and Merle Haggard.
P&W still needs to have a pop sensibility. Most churches have a wide range of ages and demographics in them so there won’t be too much “twang” to turn off people in churches. But a little bit never hurt anyone.
Here’s one example from Red Rocks Church. When you find more, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
But P&W 2.0 is only one side of the coin.
BEATS BY WHO?
Earlier I talked about how diverse the music has become with the advent of technology. While that’s true there is a genre that has a wider appeal than most: Electronic Dance Music, otherwise referred to as EDM.
There are several factors that has led to the growth and popularity of EDM. An intriguing factor is the nature of EDM listeners and corporations. Back in 2014, theverge.com released an article called Shut Up And Spend (I read/listen to the Verge a lot.) The article chronicled how corporations have found ways to market to EDM listeners. You can’t listen to EDM without stylish headphones endorsed by your favorite celebrity. Because of this, many companies have used, backed, and promoted EMD.
What does that mean for us as church goers and worship leaders? It means that EDM is everywhere, at least as much as one genre can be at this time. Just look to see how many DJs have top 40 hits on the radio.
Even though EDM may not have the majority share of the music listening market, it has one of the largest shares.
That brings us to another weird software-sounding name: P&W 2.0x (I really need to work on these names.) P&W 2.0x is the EDM influence on Praise & Worship. Think of it as the opposite end of the spectrum from P&W 2.0. Instead of being filled with acoustic instruments, it is filled with digital instruments.
The way most churches are pulling this off is by using Ableton Live and playing with enhancement tracks. This is allows local worship teams to create sounds and layers they otherwise couldn’t.
Here’s an example of P&W 2.0x from Young & Free. Like before, when you find more examples, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
It’s interesting how this song is co-opting the sound of EDM while rejecting the flaky, superficial nature of it’s culture. It’s as if Young & Free wants their audience to worship long after their sound is relevant.
THE BEST INDICATOR P&W 2.0 AND 2.0x IS HAPPENING
For the last decade Chris Tomlin has epitomized contemporary worship styles. We have been able to look at what he is doing (along with others) to get a summary of what contemporary churches.
It’s telling to look at what Tomlin has done in the last couple years. In 2014 he released the dance/worship song (P&W 2.0x) called Don’t Ever Stop. Take a look if you haven’t heard it before. Keep in mind this video is pretty raw. All of these singers are pretty winded when they’re singing.
But Mr. Tomlin is a pretty smart guy. He knows there is more going on than just disco beats and synth leads. He rushed to the studio to record a version of Good Good Father. Unlike Zealand Worship, he kept the song in a prototypical P&W 2.0 style.
Allow me this geeky rabbit trail. There is a twangy guitar line that happens in the chorus of this song. The only way I can think that it’s being played is with an electric guitar equipped with a G-Bender. If anyone has any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
HOW P&W 1.0 IS BEING IMPROVED
One of the complaints about P&W 1.0 was its lack of musical and emotional diversity. When you think about it, human emotion spans more than any one single genre of music. We may have been asking too much from one type of music.
But what about two different kinds of music?
P&W 2.0 and 2.0x have a very different emotional range. Sure both can do upbeat/happy songs and slow/reflective songs, but they way they do them is fundamentally different. Think about it this way. There are certain “emotional chords” the Civil Wars can hit that David Guetta can’t. And vice-versa.
Having two styles exist at once means we get more musical languages to talk about this thing we call walking with Christ. Don’t complain about the styles. Be thankful there is more than one to choose from.