You will also see, much like secular music festivals, a penchant for emotional extremes. The SoulFest performers have often sung about hopelessness and despair, forging a message of hope by delving, first, into their darkest moments.
SoulFest’s first and last headliners, for KING & COUNTRY (who have 1.8 billion career streams on Spotify) and Skillet (who have sold 12 million albums worldwide), embody that hyper- vulnerable.
Both were also part of my evangelical childhood. I rarely listen to Christian music now, but I still remember how its emotional intensity captivated me.
The same vulnerability that first drew me to contemporary Christian artists has also helped transform Christian music into a multi-million dollar industry in recent decades, with a significantly larger market than classical music. or jazz, according to the Berklee College of Music. Music Business Journal. Christian artists have no problem selling concert tickets either: the popular Christian Winter Jam festival consistently ranks among the country’s top tours year after year.
On the first day of SoulFest, back-to-back afternoon and evening rap performers leaned heavily into this bare-bones atmosphere. Christian rap titan Derek Minor opened up about the depression he battled during the pandemic; Boston’s Caleb McCoy has opened up about his anxiety issues and his “abusive relationship” with social media.
International Show, also from Boston, reported on sleep apnea and a near-fatal car accident. After getting to the part of the story where God saved his life, he invited audience members to join him in a call-and-response worship song.
The heavier the artist’s testimony, the more the audience applauds. Mental health issues and physical injuries were celebrated at SoulFest: they were proof, it seemed, of how much someone needed God.
In this kind of environment, a suicide prevention panel fits perfectly.
“Suicide Prevention” is perhaps too formal a title: the Saturday afternoon event felt more like a group therapy session. Three panelists sat on a stage surrounded by drum kits and microphones and told the audience in detail about the events that led them to consider ending their lives.
Every public seat was occupied; members of the crowd murmured with enthusiastic and grateful approval.
Maybe that was the whole traumatic connection, but SoulFest felt, as one artist after another would describe it, like “family.”
Dozens of people — teenage girls with orange streaks in their hair on a festival shuttle, parking lot volunteers who had been coming to the festival for seven years, a woman from Connecticut who had spent several decades in the Marines — all eagerly asked my story.
I had forgotten how intoxicating it could be to be around people so desperate to figure out how to save you.
So intoxicating, even, that I almost forgot the strings attached.
After a day of rock music, storytelling and worship songs by candlelight, the final day of SoulFest ended with a performance by Skillet.
The multi-platinum kings of “Christian metal” know how to satisfy a crowd hungry for vulnerability. They’re associated with what The Tennessean called “headbanging optimism,” for hard rock and metal music about finding salvation, and the depression, hopelessness, and hopelessness that makes you crave it.
True to form, Skillet frontman John Cooper took time early in the band’s set to talk about how difficult the pandemic is for him. Cooper paused after his first song to name the types of struggles that had affected him or his fans, such as “depression, addiction, and suicide,” as he put it.
“Tonight we say no to depression, to fear,” he urged. “Tonight we rise.”
Cooper again paused the music before launching into “Not Gonna Die”, in which a person on the verge of death proclaims that God is “all I need” to continue. The hope that Cooper had spent a quarter of a century singing (or shouting), he explained, came with conditions.
“Liberal Christians” could not offer you salvation, he told the audience – only those who interpreted the Bible the right way. “Anyone who tells you that you can be an immoral Christian, because Jesus loves you so much he doesn’t care, is lying to you,” he said, his voice rising to a fever pitch.
The group then played a new song called “Dominion”, which they released this year as part of an album of the same name. “Life has become a war / Under our lords,” Cooper sang to a cheering crowd. “Our rebellion has begun,” he continued, before launching into a screaming chorus of “Dominion, dominion!”
For over 10 years I have listened to Skillet sing about voluntary salvation.
But that song’s cries of “rebelling” against the “ruling state” sounded like an allusion to something far more radical: the theology of “Dominionism.” This strain of Christianity teaches that “God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions,” according to the social justice research center Political Research Associates. In other words, it’s the opposite of the separation of church and state – and you can see it in the rise of politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert (who have called separation a Church and State “trash”) and many Christian religious leaders.
Cooper has always talked about “standing up for what you believe in” — which, according to comments he made to Christian outlet CBN News this year, is the message of the song “Dominion.” But in recent years he has also begun to talk more about Donald Trump, the evils of “liberal Christianity” and the need for Christians to “fight” against “anti-Dominionism”. As the SoulFest crowd chanted lyrics like “Revolution from inside / Let the kingdom kingdom begin,” “Dominion” struck me as a battle cry for a more militant method of salvation.
The band moved on to their closing song, “The Resistance”. His final words “this is our resistance, you cannot resist us” echoed through the now darkened mountains.
I searched the crowd for expressions that shared my concern, but I was the only person I could see who had stopped singing. I realized how many thousands of people I was stuck between and tried to twist my angry expression into something safer.
On my way home that night, I replayed old Skillet songs to make sense of a band I loved.
My favorite song is “Awake and Alive”, which I have always considered a hymn to overcoming. “It’s getting harder and harder to stay awake / And my strength is fading fast,” the second verse begins. “You [God] finally breathe within me / I’m awake and alive,” it ends.
I thought back to the suicide prevention panel that kicked off on the last day of the festival – how many times speakers had told us that God was the only thing they could and should cling to as the world drew closer. ‘them.
It turned out to be no coincidence that the festival’s most anticipated final act was a band that married this open vulnerability with a call for radical obedience.
A savvy, faith-based Christian metal show is far more likely to sell modern audiences on the hope and radicalism of conservative evangelicalism than a church choir.
That’s the lure of a Christian music festival like SoulFest – and, perhaps, the danger, too.