We’ll get to Sister Janet, but first, a confession. When I was 16, I took it to the next level with my boyfriend: I brought him to youth group. It was a normal Sunday night for me, but under the microscope of a relationship the routine made me self-conscious – kickball, prayer, dinner, prayer, singing, prayer. The last non-prayer activity in particular had my Catholic-reared, agnostic beau squirming. Later I said to him, “I’m sorry you came on a singing night,” as if that were an exceptional circumstance, rather than the norm.
Before I’m burned at the stake for being a total loser, let me remind you of two things: one, I had a boyfriend, and two, it was a cool church; we sat on pillows instead of chairs and were told God loved everyone by big-hearted adults with strong capacities for humor. This hipness extended to the music, which mixed traditional worship with upbeat, folksy compositions, and edgier fare – not unlike the sludgy alternative rock you could find by tuning in to Q-106.3, pre the devastating Top-40 takeover.
Which is why for over 10 years of my life I thought Hoobastank’s “The Reason” was about God, or at the least, Jesus. Contextually, why wouldn’t it be – “the reason is [Y]ou”? Duh. God. I mean honestly, being about finding religion makes that song a lot less pathetic than being about a relationship.
Pro tip: If your song is generic enough to be either about God or someone you’re bonin’, you could be a genius, but most likely you’re a terrible songwriter (or worse, Father John Misty). Being bad at songwriting is not a condition unique to Hoobastank, and the same level of gracelessness afflicts mediocre songwriters on both sides of the aisle; in fact, in 2004 John Jeremiah Sullivan laid out a convincing argument in GQ that Christian rock has “excellence-proofed itself,” by “reward[ing] both obviousness and maximum palatability.”
In the same article, which you should really just read, Sullivan notes the reluctance of talented Christian-identified artists like Damien Jurado (“firstrate song[writers]”) to associate publicly with the faith lest he be linked by extension, to the genre; an updated article could as easily pivot to the bashful poetics of Sufjan Stevens, who regularly disorients his majority Pitchfork-reading (and -raising?) audience with work that reveals an intimate, if conflicted, familiarity with the Good Book.
Between obviousness and maximum palatability, Sufjan has neither; lines like “I’m drawn to the blood / the flight of a one-winged dove” deny the Christian rock camp the satisfaction of mainlining praise in favor of complexity and spacious, synth-tinged bridges.
The literal if boring evangelicals, though, and the shy and subtle poets of the faith may do well to heed the tale of Sister Janet Mead, an Australian nun who cut to the chase–and the top of the national charts—with her pop cover of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
It begins with a riptide of distortion, preparing the listener for almost anything but what’s to come: A bright, sunny rendition of Christendom’s most common text which sounds as if the Mamas and Papas had decided to tackle Jesus, all eight arms wide open.
Sister Janet’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” certified gold, is an almost unbelievably straight-up version of the church staple. No words are altered; there is no tongue-in-cheek phrasing; no asides – just “Our father, who art in Heaven…” ad finitum. There are no oblique references to ex-lovers or niche local geography; nor does the song subscribe to the overreaching sycophancy of faith-based rock bands attempting to reinforce their soul-saving swagger; just the capable soprano of Sister Janet – and, in the video, the band of the lounging parochial schoolgirls who accompany her Sister Act (it’s definitely not Britney, bitch).
Like a ’70s “Gangnam Style,” Sister Janet’s success in the American and global markets seems inexplicable and practically foreign – while both she and Psy have their charms, the confusion is less rooted in the music itself than in how something so different than its contemporaries (on the year-end Billboard 100 chart, Sister Janet was sandwiched solidly between Jim Croce and Lamont Dozier) succeeded so stratospherically while breeding no recognizable copycat hits.
Further beating the odds, Sister Janet took off while the nation’s religious faith was in freefall; the census allowed respondents to select “no religious affiliation” for the first time in 1971, registering about 7-8% of the population, a number which grew steadily in the decades to come.
Still, the people listened. Sister Janet Mead is hardly the most rockin’ Sister of all time—we’ll give that title to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, even though she wasn’t a nun, with the very metal Hildegard von Bingen as stiff competition—but Sister Janet’s indifference to her newfound success certainly stands out. She donated all proceeds from the record, claimed to despise the fame, and never had another hit (though she did quietly release another album in 1999, to little fanfare).
Do we have another Sister Janet-esque songstress to look forward to in this new millennia? The past six months have been rife with bizarro-world surprises, but by and large a Second Coming seems unlikely. That being said however, as a musical novelty and historical oddity, hallowed be her name.
Charlotte Murtishaw is an American.