Like running into a long-absent friend, listening to music that’s fallen off your radar can be both a pleasure and a revelation.
I recently reacquainted myself with Leslie Phillips’ 1985 release, Black and White in a Grey World (thanks, Spotify!) and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Some of the arrangements which seemed so fresh at the time can induce cringes. The lyrics, however, were another matter: raw, urgent in relevant.
In 1985, there was a divide in pop music that was personified by Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Madonna’s image was that of a sexy, self-assured, glib and glossy Material Girl. Lauper, on the other hand, came off as anything but glossy. Everything from her fashion choices to her hair and that Betty Boop on helium voice was idiosyncratic, or quirky.
Within the more rarefied realm of contemporary Christian music, there was a more subtle divide expressed by Amy Grant and Leslie Phillips. Ms. Grant was one of the highest-profile performers in Christian music, able to fill arenas as a headliner. A good friend introduced me to her music, and he advised me that I’d be happier if I spent time listening to Christ-centered tunes instead risking corruption that was part and parcel of the secular pop of the day.
I found Amy Grant’s music to be agreeable enough, but if asked, I likely would have (somewhat unfairly) as a cheerleader for Jesus. Nothing wrong with that, but the promise that seemed to undergird many of her songs – that a life in Christ solved problems as disparate as acne, halitosis and self doubt – certainly had little in common with my life as a newly minted believer.
Then there was Leslie Phillips. Her music left listeners with no doubt that a life with Christ is far superior to one without. But that doesn’t mean that the life of a believer is easy. In Gina (from her first album, Beyond Saturday Night), she lamented that she’d failed to reach out to a friend who committed suicide the following day. This was far darker than Ms. Grant’s idea of a tough day was one filled with discouragement capped off by a traffic stop (In a Little While, off the album Age to Age). Ms. Phillips watched her parents going through marital strife.
Forays into each other’s territory, on the other hand, yielded results that weren’t always convincing. For her part, Amy Grant seems to never run into a challenge that couldn’t be resolved with a few verses from Scripture and a heart prayer. When Leslie Phillips tries a bubbly praise tune called Hallelujah the unexpectedly chipper lyrics – “Hallelujah, Hallelujah You’re my Lord/And I know loving you is what my heart is for” – is clearly an outlier. The fact that she’s accompanied by a keyboard manufactured by Casio does nothing to help listeners take the song seriously. Given her downbeat output, it’s easy to imagine her being more comfortable covering Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name.
More than 30 years after the fact, I realize that I was drawn to Ms. Phillips’ prophetic voice. Not prophetic in the sense of foretelling the future, but rather, calling people to lives of holiness. It explains her downbeat tunes. As we know from the prophets in the Bible, the life of a prophet is not a fulfilling one: imagine being obedient to God and faithfully communicating His message, only to see it fall on deaf or uncomprehending ears. And dodging the responsibilities of a prophet? Not really an option, as Jonah discovered. Daniel exercised his gift of prophecy as a captive. Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, whose calls to holiness created enough animus among false prophets and idolatrous priests that he became the target of unsuccessful assassination plots
Even in the New Testament, prophets didn’t have an easy life. Many held John the Baptist in high esteem, but he nonetheless came to a grisly end after subsisting on locusts dipped in honey. The fact that even the ostentatiously Christian owners of Chick-fil-A have been able to field a fast-food restaurant called Bugs in a Bucket.
I said earlier that Leslie Phillips called people to holiness. But lyrics in the song Smokescreen seem to predict the causes of the hyper-partisan era we live in. After diagnosing an individual’s need to judge others as being rooted in fear, she sings:
“When someone is wrong
you write them off.
Never give a second chance
What if God had been
that strict with you
And destroyed you
without a second glance?”
Black and White in a Gray World would be Leslie Phillips’ penultimate album for Myrrh Records. After her final Christian album, The Turning, she took the name Sam Phillips and released albums on a succession of smaller labels. Glimpses of her morality still shine sporadically in her later releases. It seems that she’s diffused her message as she has sought a wider audience that was less judgmental.
As Ms. Phillips has sought out a wider audience, I’ve emerged from the gate-guarded community of contemporary Christian music. I’ll listen to it from time to time, but I’m apt to find more delight in a strong message of faith in secular music.
It’s not a good idea to live in the past, but in can be a nice place to visit.
Monsignor David Jennings is the Vicar General for the International Old Catholic Churches. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.