White Wine Pietist Musicians

White Wine Pietists in the Rehearsal Room

I learned the phrase "White Wine Pietists" from this great article: http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissar111.htm. I like the phrase because the words "white wine" suggest a "half-steppin'"(http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=half-steppin) desire to appear hip or "with it,", without the stigma or risks of consuming a highball of Southern Comfort.

These people are present everywhere in our church's musical communities; the present writing is a perspective on how they came to be. My theory is that the lineage of today's "worship bands" can be easily traced to the largely extinct "cover band."

The Demise of Nightlife

Live Music was once a feature of urban America. Until relatively recently, a musician could make a viable living playing local clubs. Even a mediocre group could play several nights per week, and the better bands would play six nights, allowing its members to pursue the band, full-time.

The most common type of group was the cover band, which played current pop hits for appreciative audiences (original acts were far more rare and financially risky.) It was very easy to become a cover band, and there were guaranteed perks: adoring fans, status in the counterculture, etc. For the amateur musician, it was a heaven, but to the professional musician, a cover band was hell--playing someone else's songs all night was viewed as being a degrading but necessary evil. (For this reason, most trained professionals became studio musicians, independent performers, or teachers--fields inaccessible to the amateur.)

Being in a band was once a common way to "tune in and drop out." In fact, during the "counterculture years," if you wanted to drive your elders crazy while gaining the respect of your peers, simply tell them you weren't going to college, but you were going to join a band! This is significant, for the sense of rebellion that was so common in the youth culture of the 60s and 70s must certainly be present in today's scene as well.

Like a shot of hard liqour, "Nightlife," carried certain risks. Band life often involved the shady world of drunken late-night revelers, payment disputes, illegal drugs, promiscuity, bar fights, stolen musical equipment, highway fatalities, secondhand smoke, and so on.

Worse, beginning in the 1980s, several existential threats began to appear:

  • Music technology -- Synthesizers, MIDI, Sequencers, Samplers, Drum machines
  • Technology-powered new "Urban" genres (hip-hop) involving smaller ensembles and different demographics
  • Karaoke
  • "Alternative" rock, which generally held the bombast of the party life in disdain
  • Increased legal pressure and negative attitudes toward drunk driving
  • Home entertainment (e.g. in-home videogames, cable TV, VCR, surround sound)

The baby boomers were becoming middle-aged, and their changing attitudes toward the club scene certainly played a part in all this--who has time to hit the bars when you've got kids and a day job?

By the mid-1990s, many popular live hot spots shut down or switched formats. Most bands evaporated, others embarked on far-flung tours to find audiences.

Rats and the Sinking Ship

At some point in the early 2000s, videogame sales overtook the sales of recorded Music. The youth markets increasingly turned toward technology as entertainment. The chatroom replaced the barroom.

Record companies began collapsing under their own weight. Unable to support their infrastructures (created during earlier times of prosperity) a wave of consolidations and bankruptcies ensued. Instead of promoting a broad catalog of new artists, an increasing reliance on the back catalog (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac) provided steady revenue. New markets could be tapped through just a handful of megastars like Britney Spears, the forerunner of Justin Bieber.

However, a new market appeared with great promise: The Commercial Christian Music field saw enormous growth from the early 1990s forward. With some retooling, the existing supply of musicians, recording studios, and distribution channels could be brought to bear. A great cleanup occurred: the music had to be sanitized, simplified, and made palatable to the squeaky-clean evangelical market. The industry kicked into high gear, blasting its way through Christian America, and straight into our sanctuaries.

The New Cover Band

The previous generation of nightclub amateur musicians have grasped this opportunity and are now occupied every Sunday morning, as cover bands. Instead of parroting the Billboard Top 40, they reach for Billboard "Christian Songs" and Maranatha lists. As a nod toward congregational participation, song texts are projected onto a screen. How do people know the melodies of these songs? They need to be taught them during the rest of the week, and the music industry is happy to oblige these parishoners with recordings and videos (just make sure you include the CCLI # on any handouts.)

For the "white wine pietist musician," it's a win-win. The barrier to entry in the band is very low, for the songs are simple and easily learned. One is guaranteed an appreciative audience. Nobody needs to quit their day job. Better, the dangers of the old nightlife are gone, and folks can ply their art without risking a barfight. You can even tell your parents you're in a band now, because it's a church band.

Of course, the element of youthful rebellion remains--I'm 100% certain some of the advocates of this style get a sense of satisfaction that they're rebelling against some kind of "old authority," in this case, the traditional Music/Liturgy they were raised with.

Since mainline Christianity has endorsed the new cover band, one can pretend to enjoy all the benefits without any of the risks that plagued earlier generations. Truly these are the "white wine pietist musicians," unable or unwilling to make the committment to taste the hard stuff--to step into the risky real world of music-making, but enamored at the thought of being adored through their sanitized, boxed-wine Sunday experiences.