Making Sense of Carman’s Cultural Legacy
Earlier this week, the news broke that Christian music icon Carman had died at the age of 65 due to complications from hernia surgery. (He’d previously survived a bout with cancer in 2013.) The name Carman may be unknown to many of you, but if you were a church kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, then odds are that Carmelo Domenic Licciardello’s music was a significant part of your childhood’s soundtrack.
Case in point: My wife was recently teaching our kids about David and Goliath when she pulled up Carman’s “Prepare to Die” on a whim to help drive home the lesson, and started singing along. I was surprised that she still knew the words to Carman’s take on that classic story after all these years — “Man, I’m Goliath, I’m your enemy/The power of death is within my command/Man, I’m Goliath, open your eyes/I can bury you right where you stand” — but I really shouldn’t have been.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Carman’s music was nigh-impossible to avoid in church circles thanks to albums like The Champion (1985), Revival in the Land (1989), and Addicted to Jesus (1992). Although his oeuvre contained plenty of praise-and-worship tunes and classic hymns, Carman’s primary claim to fame was an over-the-top and highly theatrical approach to contemporary Christian music (CCM). His best-known songs were, as Relevant described them, “operatic, story-driven songs that often centered around cosmic battles between God and Satan — like Frank Peretti by way of Meatloaf.”
“The Champion” best typifies this approach. Arguably Carman’s signature song, it’s an eight-and-a-half minute epic that describes the final battle between good and evil using sci-fi imagery, boxing metaphors, and surging riffs channeled right from your favorite movie training montage. My young ears had never heard anything like it. Put simply, God and the Christian faith had never sounded so awesome as when Carman sang lyrics like these:
Satan screamed, “I’ll kill you Christ! You’ll never win this fight!“
The demons wheezed, “That’s right, there ain’t no way.“
Satan jeered, “You’re dead meat, Jesus, I’m gonna bust you up tonight!“
Jesus said, “Go ahead, make my day!”
Yes, you read that correctly: Carman had Jesus quote Dirty Harry to Satan and his minions. Hokey? Absolutely. But my nine-year-old self loved it.
“The Champion” is full of this sort of kick-ass imagery — though I never would’ve thought to use that term back in third grade — as Jesus and Satan battle for forty days and nights until Satan finally lands a fatal blow. God begins the count, Satan starts celebrating while the saints look on in shock, and then comes the dramatic twist: in horror, Satan suddenly realizes that God’s counting the wrong way. Despite the devil’s frantic protests, God keeps counting until Jesus has risen and is proclaimed — you guessed it — the Champion!
Lest you think I’m making any of this up, listen to the song for yourself. (I’ll admit, I still get some chills during the song’s opening minutes, thanks to the eerie music and Carman’s vivid lyrics: “In the vast expanse of a timeless place/Where silence ruled the outer space/Ominously, towering it stood/The symbol of a spirit war/Between the one name Lucifer/And the Morning Star, the ultimate of good.”)
Like I said, the faith of my fathers had never sounded so awesome, so epic, so dramatic. I’m pretty sure I melted our cassette copy of The Champion from playing that one song over and over — and I wasn’t alone in my fervor. “The Champion” was constantly requested on the local Christian radio station, beating out every other song. Carman’s hit received so many requests, in fact, that one day, the DJs just announced that they were no longer taking requests for it. I, of course, couldn’t understand their opposition to playing such an awesome song again and again and again. (In hindsight, Carman was probably my first brush with fandom as we commonly understand the phenomenon these days.)
Carman recorded a number of similarly theatrical songs. In “A Witch’s Invitation,” he agrees to meet with a wannabe Anton LaVey named Isaac Horowitz who tries to impress and intimidate the singer with his dark powers — only for Carman to turn the tables on the warlock with a grim warning:
I said “Isaac, I’ll not compare God’s miracles versus Satan’s.
The issue’s not God’s kingdom and Satan’s lair.
The real comparison is the condition of your soul and the condition of mine,
And you puppet of the devil, that I will compare.“
I said, “My friend, one day they’re coming for you,
The soft associates in your incantations,
The friendly demons you think you now control.
The time will come when you’ll be lying in bed
Wheezing like a dying animal
And those spirits lay claim to the rights they own to your soul.”
Again, watch the music video if you don’t believe this is a real thing. (Be sure to keep an eye out for the various symbols confirming Isaac’s evil-ness, which include pentagrams, a Ouija board, and worst of all, a Dungeons & Dragons manual. My favorite detail in the video, however, might be Carman’s address: 77 Righteous Rd, Sunnyville, USA 77777.)
The spaghetti western-themed “Satan, Bite the Dust” finds Carman sauntering into a saloon to face off against Satan and his posse, heavenly six-gun a-blazin’. As he does so, he sings, “I represent a whole new breed of Christian of today/And I’m authorized and deputized to blow you clean away.”
Meanwhile, “Revival in the Land” features Satan and one of his lieutenants confronting the reality that their various infernal operations (e.g., abortion clinics, TV violence, the New Age movement) are at risk because of the titular revival sweeping across the nation.
For more examples, Tyler Huckabee has ranked Carman’s best videos.
With its theatrical nature and overwrought lyrics delivered via “rhyming, spoken word, preach-rap” (to use Huckabee’s description), there’s something undeniably and fundamentally cheesy about Carman’s music, which makes it all too easy to roll one’s eyes at the man’s work. Or, as many of my church kid peers have done, write him off entirely as a joke. (Ages ago, I used to frequent a discussion forum with many others who came from a church background. Carman’s name was the only word that was ever automatically censored by the forum software, such was everyone’s antipathy towards him.)
Carman’s discography certainly contains plenty of cringe-y moments. For instance, “God of All Nations” is an elaborately arranged 21-minute medley from 1988’s Live: Radically Saved in which Carman explores how God is working around the world. It’s an interesting and ambitious concept, and at heart, a noble attempt to remind the American church of Christianity’s global nature — and then you hear Carman adopt a stereotypical African or Mexican accent or sing exaggeratedly in Chinese.
To his credit, though, I think Carman was often in on the joke. How else to explain “Some-O-Dat,” “Spirit Filled Pizza,” or “The Resurrection Rap”? Even “A Witch’s Invitation” contains a certain cheekiness thanks to Carman’s delivery and the music’s slinky funk. And revisiting his music after so long — I’ve listened to more Carman in the last 24 hours than I have in the last 24 years — I’ll admit he wrote some catchy tunes once you get past the hokeyness, like “The Destination Is There” (which gets bonus points for Carman’s Sting impression) and the acid house-tinged “God Is Exalted.” I think this bit from Relevant sums up Carman’s career quite well:
He was a showman, a preacher and a musical chameleon. There was no trend he would not [eagerly] board, from 50s rockabilly to pop country to multiple forays into hip-hop, Carman tried it all with glitz and gusto. His music was loud, ostentatious, unsubtle and deeply earnest. It didn’t age well, but it was clearly not meant to. Carman made music for whatever moment Carman was in. It was the zenith of youth group weirdness, a vanity project that invited you to be a part of it, but it was utterly, incredibly sincere.
However, revisiting Carman’s music out of nostalgia and curiosity after all these years has made some things increasingly clear.
As a kid, his music always seemed edgy because he was unafraid to mention societal ills like poverty, homelessness, suicide, and addiction in his songs (albeit through a very evangelical and charismatic lens). In that sense, Carman might very well have been the first Christian musician that I heard — long before my first Christian punk, metal, or alternative album — who stepped outside the church’s walls to honestly confront the world’s darkness. (Of course, Carman wasn’t really the first Christian artist to do so; Larry Norman, for one, predated him by a decade.)
However, the tough, kick-ass quality that so thrilled me as a kid now seems more disturbing and questionable. “The Champion“ ‘s apocalyptic pugilism, the supernatural shootout in “Satan, Bite the Dust,” the 007-inspired exploits in “Mission 3:16,” “Revival in the Land“ ‘s call for “all Saints of God” to “man your battle stations,” the Braveheart-meets-crusader action in “Great God” — these are certainly great for pumping up and inspiring the faithful to charge the gates of hell, but their triumphalist militancy verges on crass, shallow, and exploitative.
A definite machismo is also present in Carman’s songs. With those classic Italian good looks, New Jersey accent, and charisma to spare, Carman came across as a godly alpha male ready to kick the butts of any demons (and non-Christians) unfortunate enough to cross him — as his many videos attest. Hence Carman’s warning in “A Witch’s Invitation” to “think twice before you rumble with a man of God.”
The irony is that Carman’s militant imagery and tough guy persona actually cheapens and diminishes the terrible reality of spiritual warfare. There’s rarely, if ever, any real struggle in Carman’s songs, nor is there an acknowledgment of weakness, doubt, or the possibility of failure, which is always a reality for us flawed human beings. Any such subtlety or nuance was anathema here.
In Carman’s songs, demons are little more than cheap special effects straight out of an action movie — an action movie where one can be a bad-ass hero just like Carman. And just like any action movie hero, all it really takes to send demons packing is some tough guy bravado, a view of Scripture that treats the Bible like a .44 Magnum, and of course, a clever catchphrase delivered with panache.
Along with the militancy, a very clear “us vs. them” mindset flows through many of Carman’s songs that extends beyond the spiritual realm, where it makes thematic sense (Christians ought to hold the line against Satan), and into physical, social, and even political realms. Though he’s most famous for urging the faithful to take up arms against Satan, Carman wrote plenty of songs in which he points fingers at the usual evangelical villains.
For the hard-rockin’ “Our Turn Now,” Carman joined forces with Petra (another CCM powerhouse) to criticize the Supreme Court for removing God from America’s classrooms, call out gay rights and abortion on demand, and condemn “religious apartheid.” He went even further on “America Again,” delivering a history lesson through a Christian nationalist framework that sees every ill in American society (rape and murder rates, teen pregnancy, divorce, and even astrology) as the direct result of our nation rejecting God contra the will and wisdom of the Founding Fathers.
“We eliminated God from the equation of American life/Thus eliminating the reason this nation first began,” he intones. Later, against a montage of riots, violence, and pro-choice protesters, Carman pleads his case: “The only way this nation can even hope to last this decade/Is put God in America again.” And in Carman’s opinion, the solution is simple: “It’s time to sound the alarm from the church house to the White House/And say, ‘We want God in America again.’ ”
“America Again” appeared on 1993’s The Standard, an album that Carman described as being “about a country that used to have very strong biblical values” and “all the terrible things that have taken place in our land because of our lack of wanting to follow God’s word.”
That year, 1993, also happened to be the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. There was certainly unease and concern (in my circles, anyway) that under Clinton’s liberal presidency, the church and “traditional” morality would come under attack, America would grow more godless, etc. These concerns reached their apotheosis in 1998 when Clinton was impeached following his affair with Monica Lewinsky — a situation that left many Christians aghast and insistent that a president’s character was of the utmost importance.
Nearly thirty years have passed since The Standard’s release, and Carman’s doomsaying has come to pass, though not necessarily in the way he might have envisioned when writing “America Again.” The church is still around, but it’s lost a not-insignificant amount of the cultural capital that it enjoyed even during the “dark times” of 1993. But said loss isn’t due primarily to Carman’s favorite bogeymen like gay rights, New Age religion, and no prayer in schools. Rather, the church has suffered because it did precisely what Carman said it should do when it chose to align itself with right-wing politics — an alliance that’s been great for right-wing politicians seeking legitimacy and power but not so great for the church and its distinctive, prophetic witness.
As a result of Christianity becoming increasingly synonymous with, and influenced by, the GOP’s agenda, many of America’s evangelical Christians have flocked to the banner of a man whom they would have rejected and condemned back in 1993: a twice-divorced adulterer who has cavorted with porn stars and sex traffickers, bragged about sexual assault, doubled down on racist statements, told thousands of lies and falsehoods, and dismissed his need for repentance despite calling himself a Christian. And if “President Trump Blues” is any indication, one of those evangelicals was Carman himself.
Obviously, it’s nonsense to blame Carman for singlehandedly bringing about Donald Trump’s rise to power or the church’s increasing irrelevance. But culture has consequences, and Carman was a consequential figure in Christian circles for decades. Far from existing on Christendom’s fringe, he released multiple gold and platinum albums, was a mainstay on the charts, regularly packed out stadiums around the world, and performed before millions of people.
Given all of this popularity and status, I have no doubts that Carman’s music and its militant, divisive message — along with its theatrical trappings — had far-reaching effects and shaped the artistic, cultural, and political imaginations of countless Christians, for both good and ill.
Some have undoubtedly dismissed Carman as a talentless hack who simply capitalized on whatever musical trend captured his fancy in the moment. But I find that far too easy and simplistic an explanation, one that’s even more so than Carman’s own militant, jingoistic lyrics. The simple fact is that Carman’s music, ministry, and image is irrevocably woven into the DNA of modern American evangelical Christianity. And if one wants to better understand the modern American church, then I wager that one could do far worse than watch a Carman concert or give The Champion or The Standard a listen.
(Admittedly, the sheer strangeness of Carman might make that difficult for folks who weren’t there back in the day. As Matt Conner tweeted, “Tried to explain Carman to someone who didn’t grow up in church and it felt like I was a member of Q-Anon for the duration of that conversation.”)
But even watching the various music videos, concert performances, and even life coach presentations on his YouTube channel, it seems quite obvious that Carman was no mere grifter, but rather, was sincere in his ministry — that he had a true heart for both the gospel and for people. (For example, this exhortation to a person trying to comfort a grieving friend is particularly insightful and moving.) Carman’s music and message, however cheesy it could be, exhorted, uplifted, and ministered to countless individuals in a positive way. We’ve had a recent tragic reminder that even revered figures can be revealed as frauds and predators, but Carman seems like he truly walked the walk and talked the talk, questionable artistic decisions aside. (And I sincerely pray that remains the case.)
On a more personal note, Carman’s music, ministry, and image is irrevocably woven into my spiritual DNA, too. I can’t deny that one of the main draws of Carman’s music is that songs like “The Champion,” “A Witch’s Invitation,” and “Revival in the Land” made me — a Christian youngster living smack-dab in the middle of fly-over country who was worried about impending persecution — feel powerful, like I could take on the forces arrayed against Christianity all by myself. (And yes, dear reader, you better believe that I felt particularly powerful and righteous while performing “Champion”-themed youth group mime routines.)
I now view that with some sadness, because I’ve seen what perceived victimhood combined with a desire for power has done to the American church. But in its best moments, Carman’s music did encourage boldness, directness, and made me consider the cosmic ramifications of what I believed — and I even had some fun doing so. It seems pretty hackneyed now, and I no longer subscribe to Carman’s eschatological framework or his politics, but I can’t deny that it’s part of who I am, that it shaped how I see the world.
As I was writing this post, I often found myself thinking “I can’t wait to publish this so I can get Carman out my head and get on with my life.” But here’s the thing: I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get him out of my head, not really. His music shaped me as a young evangelical, and it’s pointless to deny that. So I choose to call out and dismiss the bad and hold onto whatever good I find there, even if that means being able to sing along with “The Champion” or “The Destination Is There” until my dying day. And when I get to heaven and see Carman there, we’ll both perceive a lot of things with greater clarity — and I suspect we’ll have a good laugh over his “R.I.O.T.” wardrobe and dance routine, too. (Because seriously, how could you not? Bib overalls and wristbands?! Come on, man.)