Longread: Chris Tomlin’s Performed Modesty

CNN reports that the most popular musician in the world is a Christian worship musician. But who is this man? Why is he so popular? And why does he want to back away from the microphone?

If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of Contemporary Christian worship, or even left your dial on the Christian radio station for a few minutes, you’ve  heard Chris Tomlin. Tomlin has sold 4.2 million records and had 6 million digital downloads. He doesn’t get any radio play in mainstream stations, but according to the CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International, which distributes and licenses songs for use in local churches, six of the twenty five most licensed songs for worship in the last six months are by Chris Tomlin. A recent CNN profile calls Tomlin “the most sung artist on the planet.” They interview a CCLI official, who estimates that, “On any given Sunday, twenty to thirty million people are singing his songs.” I would call that a conservative estimate. (And so does the CNN article)

So, why is he so popular?

Tomlin may not seem like the most likely dude to be the most sung artist of our times. He’s got a clean-cut youth pastor look, alternatively favoring button-ups and jean jackets, with dirty blonde hair that is always in various states of tussled. He sounds sort of like Coldplay, if you took their quasi-Radiohead moroseness and replaced it with sheer earnestness. He seems like the kind of guy you’d meet at your friendly neighborhood hip, growing church, and he sounds like a guy you wouldn’t mind playing guitar for you at a coffee-shop – and yet, he is the most sung artist in the world.

Perhaps the secret of Tomlin’s music is how anyone can sing it. Tomlin grew up listening to country music, and took that form’s simplicity to a whole new level in the genre of worship music. Tomlin has made it clear that  the number one thing he wants out of his songs is to make them easy to sing,

“How can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can’t clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?”

Tomlin isn’t alone in these concerns. Christian pastors interested in using Contemporary worship music have long prioritized the sing-ability of worship music over every single other characteristic, including quality.

So if you ever wondered why the Christian music you hear on the radio sounds simple, even boring: it’s because its supposed to. Everyone is supposed to be able to sing it. In that respect, there’s never going to be a Christian Radiohead. Or even a Christian Ke$ha. Because what Ke$ha wants to do is stand out to you, so you listen to her song again, maybe buy it. Chris Tomlin wants you to be comfortable. He wants to make the elevator music for divine revelation.

The position of the Christian Worship pop star isn’t a comfortable one. After all, Contemporary Christians value humility above all else. One worship pastor wrote that people who aren’t “humble” shouldn’t perform music – no matter how talented they are. And the position of the pop star is inherently an egocentric one. People literally idolize them. That’s a basic second commandment violation.

Maybe this is why Tomlin is anxious to, “step out of the spotlight”, according to the CNN profile:

The spotlight is on Tomlin even more than ever after starting the year a top the Billboard charts. As he tours the country at bigger and bigger venues, he would prefer to step out of the spotlight, away from the microphone, and let everyone else sing.

“People would be mad that they paid for a ticket for that. So I do that just occasionally, but that is what I love.”

He said the night before, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, he took as much time as he could to step back and let everyone else sing.

“It was just so beautiful, because I feel like it says something. It’s not just like, ‘Hey, listen to me sing.’ This is all of us together. I think when you step back from the mic and it is not about you – and yeah, the light may be on you, but this is about all of us singing. This is about a bigger story, it’s about a greater story. It’s about a greater name than my name. My name is on the ticket, but this is about a greater name.”

But backing away from the mic isn’t the only way Tomlin shows he’s being humble. The best work on Christian worship music, Awesome in this Place, a little-known dissertation by Monique Ingalls (now a professor at Rutgers), details how Tomlin deals with the contradictions of being a worship pop star through self-representation. Ingalls notes how Tomlin gives sermons between his songs about the proper way to experience his music to insure that people at his concerts are worshiping God, not him. Ingalls discerns that figures like Tomlin self-conceptualize as, “average believers who have been divinely gifted to point worshipers musically to God, the truly ‘famous one’.” Ultimately  Tomlin believes, “There is only one star of the show: The Lord Jesus!”

Given all these self-effacing statements  it’s easy to read Chris Tomlin either as the most humble man on the planet or entirely full of shit. And let me be clear here: I’m not doing that thing that writers do where I want to imply the latter. I honestly don’t know. I do know that Chris Tomlin must be exceptionally wealthy, that there is a massive corporate structure that profits obscenely on the sales and licensing of his songs. At the same time, I’ve been completely unable to find any indication that Chris Tomlin is a self-interested asshole, other than a thread that relies mainly on blatant hearsay.  He has a 1.3 million dollar house, but wouldn’t you, if you were the most sung artist on the planet? And he seems to really mean what he sings. So I just don’t know if he’s “real” or not, or what that would even mean. I know he makes a lot of money, but hey, so does Thom Yorke. And Ke$ha.

I guess my point is that no matter how many times a popular musician attempts to deflect attention away from themselves, they can’t escape the fact that they’re in the spotlight. People are there to see them sing. People put posters of them on their walls, and not just to think about God. I think that Chris Tomlin knows this, and I think he’s not entirely comfortable with this. I think that his attempts to step out of the spotlight are, in a way, an attempt to become comfortable with the fact that he will never be out of the  spotlight. He can never be sure that his audience is there for God, not him. And he can never prove that he’s not just doing it for the money and the fame, no matter how hard he tries.

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3 responses to “Longread: Chris Tomlin’s Performed Modesty

  1. OK, I’m rather annoyed by your link because my original post is being misread. I said that I originally thought it was an expensive house and then I realized I was being a judgmental jerk. I think you should read the whole post before you link it here saying I am “criticizing” him.

    • I didn’t say you were criticizing him. I just wrote, “He has a 1.3 million dollar house, but wouldn’t you, if you were the most sung artist on the planet?” I linked to your post because it described his house, because I wanted to give an indication of what his lifestyle was like, and because you’re making a similar point – that you can’t just judge somebody based on their house.

      It’s also telling, I suppose, as you indicated in your post, that he brought it for 236,000. Then again, he could also own other homes – he probably has the money, unless he’s in a really exploitative contract.

  2. Well, isn’t this a pip? I’d never heard of this guy until I read your post. I can see how he’d have girls and young women screaming anything he wanted to hear as long as it brought them closer to their idol. Girls and young women want to do him and boys/young men want to be him. I can’t say that his music sucks because it definitely does not, unless, of course, you’re a church trying to license something in his catalog in which case that sucking sound is of parishioners’ money being drawn into Tomlin’s pocket. However, he’s got a right to be compensated for his intellectual property. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, I would love to find out what churches and causes he supports. I’d also like to know his religious affiliation, but that’s just me trying to gauge where he stands on political and social issues.

    After watching the videos, I found myself liking the music, especially in the first video. I believe it was titled “How Great Is Our God.” But for the lyrics, the song and its performance were like any other rock/alternative/pop concert. However, I would love to hear his work dressed in the robes of a black gospel choir. I believe that scenario would bring an entirely new understanding of the works. Perhaps that’s already happened and we just don’t know. Whether it has or hasn’t, that would be one way Tomlin could remove himself from the worshipful, expectant eyes of a packed auditorium and, instead, let the music be performed in a wholly different genre. Now THAT is a concert I’d like to see!

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