Volume 3, Issue 92: Jesus, Etc.
"You can combine anything you want."
Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it. Also, because I’m about to drive to a college football game that starts at noon, this week’s newsletter, like last week’s, is being sent unusually early. We’ll be back on our usual late morning schedule next week. Good morning.
What band have you seen in concert more than any other? My friend Will is a huge Drive-By Truckers fan, and I asked him one time how many times he thought he had seen them in concert. He said, “well, I wouldn’t consider myself a counter,” which struck me as a pretty good sign the answer was “a lot.” The Drive-By Truckers are a good band to have as the one a person has seen more than any other. Asking this question around this week, I received a lot of different answers from friends: Bob Dylan was a common answer, which makes sense considering he’s been touring non-stop for about 50 years, as were Wilco, U2, Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen, in case you had any doubt that I am a white dad in his mid-40s.
My first thought, when I mulled over the band I’d personally seen the most, was that it had to be R.E.M. They were the fourth big show I ever saw—after Metallica, the Black Crowes and a historically terrible Dylan show in Champaign—and I saw them at every opportunity, in every city I lived in, until the band retired in September 2011. But I don’t think that’s right either. I came across them too late—the first album of theirs I bought new at the store was Automatic For the People—and they retired too early to reach the top spot. I wish it were them. But it’s not them.
This is who it is:
DC Talk was formed, perhaps inevitably, at Liberty University in 1987, with three earnest young Christians who were into hip-hop and looking for a way to incorporate the music with the word of Jesus. They began playing campus shows and immediately sold out all their demo tapes, and they were subsequently signed by Forefront Records, one of the biggest Christian record companies. Their name, “DC Talk,” stood for “Decent, Christian Talk,” a way to contrast themselves with other, more vulgar rap groups at the time. They were an instant hit, and even a bit of a crossover one. Their album Nu Thang sold 200,000 copies, and they even performed on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and “The Tonight Show.”
My parents did not raise me in the church—I was baptized at the First Baptist Church of Mattoon when I was nine, but we stopped going when my grandfather, who always made everybody go to church every Sunday even though he spent the sermon playing Hangman with his grandson, died—but in junior high school, I accepted a neighbor’s invitation to go with them to the Broadway Christian Church, which was across the street from my school and always seemed to have a bunch of happy people hanging around outside of it. I instantly found a place among them, mostly because they loved sports like I did and because they were all extremely nice human beings. I didn’t really have a friend group at the time, so I was grateful to be accepted. I instantly became enmeshed with them, going on every youth group trip with them all around the Midwest, and eventually deciding that I liked it so much that I wanted to be a youth minister. I even took some early-college-prep classes at Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois.
I do not know if being a Christian was far different in 1990 than it is in 2021 or it was the same and I just didn’t notice because I was 14 years old, but I don’t remember any sort of culture war aspect of it. It was not the central part of my identity; I suspect there are friends of mine from junior high who didn’t even know I was an avid churchgoer and wouldn’t have cared if I was. We were not taught that our religion was under assault, or that there was this constant battle against sin and those in our midst who accepted or even promoted it, or that we were the good guys and we had to be on constant vigilance to take down the bad guys. We didn’t have long discussions about abortion, or the death penalty, or politics, or really anything like that at all. We just got together and ate pizza and watched games and went to concerts and acted like normal kids. We just probably got in less trouble than other kids and we all made sure to have a prayer in the van on the way home. Looking back at it now, even though I wanted to be a youth minister, I did not have this overpowering spiritual connection. I did not walk around desperate to share The Word of Jesus. I just liked all the people I was hanging out with, I was eager to be a part of something larger than myself and I was too young to understood what exactly being a youth minister really meant. That sounds overly simplistic, and it surely was: I was 14, after all. That doesn’t mean that it was any less real at the time.
The one constant, at all these events, was DC Talk. The explosion of their success happened to coincide exactly with the time I was most involved with the church. I used to know all their songs backwards and forward: I’m pretty sure I could do the first two bars of “Spinning ‘Round” from memory still today. (“There’s a lot of non-believers out there! Aw, aw, aw aw aw yeah!”) I saw them at Six Flags, I saw them at church summer camp, I saw them after a basketball game, I saw them at multiple civic centers across the greater Midwest. (My first kiss was after a DC Talk concert, actually.) They hit the “modern” Christian music strike zone: They were more interesting than just sitting around singing hymns, but not threatening in any way, shape or form. I might argue they were Christian music for people who wanted to be entertained and coddled more than they wanted to be moved by the spirit of Christ, which is to say, looking around now, they were very much ahead of their time. Listening to their music now, it’s pretty awful in the way all “mainstream rap” was at that time, and it also has that unmistakable vanilla emptiness that I’d argue a lot of Christian pop music has. (Sometimes I wonder if you really do need just a little bit of the devil to truly rock.) But back then, they were exactly what I wanted. They were different, but not interestingly so, which is exactly what I was at the time. (And maybe what I still am.)
I made a turn from the church by my sophomore year of high school, for a variety of reasons. Some were principled (Broadway Christian Church had started to speak out against gay rights, and I sure wasn’t going to sacrifice my family for them), some were less so (I wasn’t particularly close to having premarital sex, but I suddenly wasn’t all that keen about being told it would be off-limits if I were to ever actually get there). The friend group splintered, the madness of high school beckoned, we all ended up crawling our way through everything that would soon be heaved in our direction. I stopped going to church—eventually only going when my parents, who would convert to Catholicism a decade later, asked me to accompany them—and have settled into a general state of secular skepticism crossed with cheerful hopefulness since then. Now I’m 46 years old and just trying to keep my head above water like everybody else.
DC Talk, shortly after I left the Broadway Christian Church, made their own switch. Sensing (incorrectly, I’d argue) a change in musical trends, they transformed themselves from a hip-hop group into a nu-metal band with their album Supernatural. That album outsold their hip-hop albums and won them a Grammy, but it’s somehow even more unlistenable than their early stuff and feels less sincere, like they were just trying on whatever musical fit was popular at the time. The band never released an album after that one. Though, and I’m sorry to make you hear this because you can’t unhear it, they did release a song after September 11 called “Let’s Roll.”
They’ve now disbanded, though they did reunite for a Christian cruise a few years ago. DC Talk’s lead rapper, TobyMac, is now 57 years old. He lost his son to a fentanyl overdose right before the pandemic started. Everybody’s lives just keep on going.
I’m not sure any band, concert-wise, is ever going to catch up with DC Talk. That’s a little embarrassing—though I wouldn’t mind if R.E.M. got back together and made a run at the top spot—but that band, and my church youth group history, are a part of me and my life as much as anything else is. We all want to be belong. We all want to believe. We all want to feel as if we are a part of something larger than ourselves. Back then it was DC Talk. I have surely, consciously or unconsciously, moved onto something else. We’re all just hanging on, doing our best, trying to find people to connect with, to be alongside us on this journey, wherever we’re going, wherever we’ve been. I’m happy to have had that time, and that dopey band, to be a part of it. Lots of non-believers out there. Aw, aw, aw aw aw yeah.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
You Don’t Have to Be Scared of Young People, Because Young People Will Be Old Soon Too, Medium. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and this is a tidy summation of my thoughts, all told.
Let’s Make This a Trump-Free Thanksgiving, Medium. So far so good!
What to Know About MLB’s Looming Labor Headache, New York. I am trying incredibly hard to remain optimistic.
Will Smith Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with King Richard.
Free Agent Power Rankings: Carlos Correa, MLB.com. We’ve got four of these to fit in over the next … well, the next week I guess.
Free Agent Power Rankings: Max Scherzer, MLB.com. So here are the first two.
The Thirty: Something For Every Team to Be Thankful For, MLB.com. A holiday tradition exactly like every other one.
The Friday Five Lists, Medium. I find this a pleasant end-of-week palate cleanser.
The Long Game With LZ and Leitch, discussing the Peng Shuai situation and China’s hold on the sports world, the true absurdity of the Williams’ sisters success story and the looming MLB labor war. We also chat with Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead.
Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “King Richard,” “C’mon C’mon” and “tick, tick…Boom!”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we recapped the Charleston Southern game and previewed the Georgia Tech game.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Why Are the McMichaels So Scared?” Nicole Lewis, Slate. I was relieved by the verdict in Brunswick this week, but the Ahmaud Arbery murder remains so infuriating that it makes me want to throw my desk across the room every time I think about it. This Nicole Lewis piece in Slate is fantastic in the way that it looks at fear: How fear was being used in the trial, whose “fear” seems to matter and how this “fear” is weaponized in corrosive ways.
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Breed,” Nirvana. It’s the 30th anniversary of “Nevermind” this month, holy shit, holy shit, and I’ve been listening to yet-another-remastered version all week. Is it possible that "Breed” is one song off this (perfect) album that isn’t talked about enough? I remember listening to the album when it came out (old) on my cassette Walkman (very old) and loving how it had been mastered, how, with headphones on, it sounded like the guitar solo toward the end of the song sounded like it was circling your head and then finishing smack in the middle of your brain. I know now teenagers wear Nirvana shirts—not in a dissimilar way, I suspect, from how kids were wearing Jim Morrison shirts when I was in high school—and obviously Kurt Cobain will be an icon forever, but as I get older, I find myself just focussing on the music itself. And goddammit the songs are still so fucking great.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
The gang had a grand old time at the last Athens tailgate until next September last weekend.
William and I will be out there at Bobby-Dodd today, our own Thanksgiving tradition. And then things start getting serious.
Have a great weekend, all. I hope you had glorious Thanksgivings.