It seems fitting that I needed to wait for the waters to part before I could see a gig by ApologetiX, a Christian parody rock band. On my way to Pittsfield, Mass., more than two inches of rain had fallen upon the earth through three days and nights.
“Wait here,” a cop with a bright orange smock told me just outside town. “We need to wait for the signal until it’s OK to pass.”
For what it’s worth, ApologetiX can claim the title of “premier band of the Christian Parody genre” with little or no competition. All 284 Google results for “Christian parody band” refer to the combo that has also been described as “Weird Al Yankovic meets Billy Graham,” “The Christian Weird Al,” and, on its website, “That Christian Parody Band.”
The band first crossed my radar one morning in 2005, while I read my daily check of news updates on Queen, my favorite rock band. On the same day, Queenzone.com (“News and information about Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon”) and BrianMay.com (“The Official Brian May Website,” guitarist for Queen) reported a parody of the band’s 1976 opus “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Renamed “Bethlehemian Rhapsody,” ApologetiX’s version retold the story of David and Goliath. The song opens:
Is this a real guy? Is he just fantasy?
‘Cause of his grand size, no one’s safe from fatality
Open your eyes, look up at Goliath, and see:
I’m dressed for war, boys. I need no infantry
The later, rocking movement begins “So you think you can scorn me and spit at my tribe? / So you think you’re above me just based on your size?”
I was hooked. That day I joined the ranks of the ApologetiX Fan Club, and in the years since, ApologetiX has produced more than two dozen records. Just a sampling of their 280-plus treatments to date:
- “Lazy Brain” (“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne)
- “The Devil Went Down to Jordan” (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels)
- “Welcome to the Judges” (“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses)
- “Are You Gonna Be Ike’s Girl?” (“Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” by Jet)
- “JC’s Mom” (“Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne)
ApologetiX gets its name from “apologetics” or “apologists,” a Greek legal notion of offering a defense, or apologia, that follows the prosecution, or kategoria. The term was used by early Christian apostles to defend or answer to their faith to skeptics. The ApologetiX website cites the first epistle of Peter in the New Testament (3:15):
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer [and this is where there’s a parenthetical interruption to explain “answer” can mean “defense” or “apologia”] to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
I guessed the uppercase “X” is meant to symbolize Jesus on the cross. I guessed right.
I am a former altar boy who went to 12 years of Catholic school. It would be safe these days to call me aggressively secular, even a heathen. Still, there is a childlike glee I get when I listen to ApologetiX, like I am doing something naughty. When I blast “I Love Apostle Paul,” the group’s take on Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” I feel that same transgression as when I heard Kiss’s “Plaster Caster” and found out who was doing the plastering and what was being castered, or when fake blood sprayed on my shirt at GWAR show in 1988.
So some questions lingered as I drive out to Pittsfield, to the gig at New Life Community Fellowship Church:
- Will there be any other non-believers in the crowd?
- Will anyone else laugh, or are they there to hear the gospel?
- Will I have a vision of God and repent from my sins?
- And lastly: Does a Christian parody band have cross-over potential for secular wiseasses such as myself?
New Life Community Fellowship Church is a couple miles outside of Pittsfield, in a town called Dalton. The church is located in an industrial area, and the lot is packed. The 300-plus crowd is all ages and sizes. Whole families are here, as well as groups of teenagers who test out their peer skills under close supervision. What’s confusing is that, while there are church-going types you would expect at these gigs—young men with unironic mustaches, women in prairie-style blouses, older ladies with appliqué-heavy sweaters—there are mildly fashionably people here, too. There are no anarchy shirts, sure; but there are kids with tattoos, nose rings, funny-looking T-shirts—all the outward signs of hipsterism in place.
Plunk around the band’s labyrinthine website, kept since the dawn of the internet, and you will see alerts for fans to the next gig near to fans’ homes (“Morrissville, NY: only 99 miles!”), prayerful fan testimonials, and fan photos. The FAQ page includes sections on everything from “Ministry” (“What 10 Bible verses sum up ApologetiX?”) to “Band Mysteries” (“What’s the Three Dog Night connection?”) to “Theology” (“How do you deal with atheists and agnostics?”). After playing ApologetiX to my friends and obsessing over the rehab work on the band’s new tour bus, it seemed the least I could do was see them rock out live.
To people who give a lot of thought to these things, the word “parody” presents a special set of loaded problems. Since each thing in our culture is in many ways a parody of something else, to let your mind drift that far into postmodern parody studies territory could drive one insane. It’s here where French literary theorist Gérard Genette comes to the rescue. In 1982 he proposed that we think of parody in four major categories:
- Strict parody, which changes subject without changing the style. (I would place the oeuvre of “Weird” Al Yankovic here.)
- Burlesque travesty, which takes an often a total opposite style and subject of the original, often to more prurient ends. (“Pretty Woman,” 2 Live Crew’s 1989 rap parody of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” turns the 1964 original’s ode to a pretty woman walking down the street into trio of “freaks,” among them a “big hairy woman” who looks like “Cousin It.” Not incidentally, this parody also led to the landmark 1994 Supreme Court decision that expanded definition of fair use as it relates to parodies. Orbison’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, sued 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, saying the fair use doctrine did not permit reuse of their copyrighted material for profit. In 1994, the Supreme Court decided in 2 Live Crew’s favor, reversing a previous decision, which expanded the doctrine of fair use and its protections to parodies created for profit.)
- Satiric pastiche, an imitation of a style as a vehicle for baser, more vulgar ends. (A series of limericks written about the Holocaust might be an example. Another recent example might be how an old friend of mine sang the theme of the sitcom Three’s Company in the style of Johnny Cash, for no other reason than John Ritter, the comedy’s star, and the country singer died in the same week.)
- Non-satiric pastiche, an earnest imitation of someone’s style, that is nonetheless a naïve parody. (This is my favorite, applying to 99 percent of American Idol contestants and their sympathetic re-creations, or the careers of Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears, whose works morph into camp the same time they are created. It takes the audience to complete the parodic circle.)
Not that Monsieur Genette would have expected it, but we need now to add another category: the parodeity. Coined around the turn of the century by Robert Hyde (more about him later) the word is a portmanteau of parody and deity; the writer of a parodeity is one who attaches new, Christian-themed lyrics to existing songs. Parodeitic lyrics often recount a story from the Bible, complete with chapter-and-verse citation as epigraph to the new song title, or a personal witness-bearing or cautionary tale.
Are they funny? Not necessarily. “Although parodies are usually humorous or satirical,” Hyde writes on his website, “parodeities generally are not; they are simply lyrics that tell a Bible story or some personal testimony by attaching new lyrics to an existing song.”
And even the word, at least to this writer, bears different definitions for different Christians. I’m not sure that ApologetiX writes parodeities the way they were intended.
The lights go down and dry ice smoke fills the stage. The back of the room smells like hot dogs and mustard. Three members of ApologetiX—drummer Jimmy Tanner, guitarist Bill Hubauer on lead guitar and keyboards, and bassist Keith Haynie—start playing “Play That Funny Music,” their version of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.” It’s a perfect set-opener, since its new Christianized lyrics can be read as ApologetiX’s raison d’être, its apologia, if you will:
Now once I was a kooky singer
Playin’ in a rock and roll band
I never had no problems
Singing songs that weren’t nice then
But whenever Jesus found me
God said not to sing them no more
So I decided biblically
To switch them round and check how it’d go
And they were dancin’ and diggin’ the music we was usin’
And just when it hit them the words were turned around
At 6'4" with a pillow of short yellow-blonde hair, J. Jackson, ApologetiX’s lead singer and lyrics writer, at first almost frightens his audience. As he waves his arms around and struts on the small stage, he reminds me of other too-tall frontmen I’ve seen live: Joey Ramone maybe, or Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett.
Some of the younger kids back up a bit, unsure of what to make of a band with members in their 40s, full-on lighting, and laser rigs. The older folks stay seated in the rows behind the dance pit in front, like chaperones at a junior high dance, much the same way they did through two opening bands: Dead to Rights, a four-piece that works in the Praise Band subgenre (milquetoast adult-contemporary with Biblical lyrics) and projects their lyrics with PowerPoint, and Armoury, a cringe-worthy metal combo with a lead singer that shouted as though he were in Madison Square Garden (“Praise God, you’re a wild crowd, New Life—wild”).
J. Jackson is also the band’s spokesman. Over email he tells me he was in secular cover bands for years. “I spent time as both an agnostic and an atheist (and a pretty effective hedonist as well) before becoming a born-again Christian 20 years ago. I’ve been pretty secular myself.”
Jackson wrote his first Christian parodies to help him to do two things, he says: one, to learn the Bible; and second, to learn the guitar. A perfect example of rock parody-as-study guide is “Learn Some Deuteronomy,” perhaps my favorite ApologetiX song. The tune is Def Leppard’s 1988 hit “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” said to be the greatest strip club song of all time. Here’s ApologetiX’s chorus:
Take your Bible—shake it off
Everybody—breaks the law
Learn some Deuteronomy—can you name those laws
Learn from Deuteronomy—c’mon try because
Learn your Deuteronomy—you ain’t good enough
God’s Law—is tricky to keep—born again you must be, yeah
When ApologetiX plays this live, it rocks out with its cock out. The original Mutt Lange production drips with processed guitars and drums through Leppard-y echo. The ApologetiX version swings, with a raw distorted Gibson and power-pocket drums, and J. Jackson roughs up Joe Elliott’s vocal with a Jim Morrison-Glenn Danzig baritone. Singing it live, he leads the crowd and the lasers follow his arms up to the church’s steeple.
And on top of all that, Jackson manages to rhyme “read a little more” with “Habakkuk 2:4.”
One of the first websites to feature Christianized parody lyrics called them “re-Versed lyrics.” Created by Lee and Nancy Mari in 1996, the “re-Versed Lyrics” website gained notoriety when Time magazine ran a story about it in 2001 (“Just Give Me That Biblical Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Feb. 19). On the re-Versed site, songs like the Doors’ “Light My Fire” became “Bring Your Fire”:
It feels like we are overdue
Our country’s straits are, oh, so dire!
People’s virtues are so few
So this is what our hearts desire:
Holy Spirit, bring your fire!
Holy Spirit, bring your fire!
Touch us with revival fire!
The Maris ended their run, and it’s here where we encounter Randy Hyde, who, along with ApologetiX and others, carries the torch of Christianizing lyrics. A computer science lecturer at the University of California at Riverside, Hyde’s Wikipedia entry article doesn’t mention his parodeity projects at all; rather, that he is the author The Art of Assembly Programming and Write Great Code, and that he invented something called the “Lisa assembler” in the late ’70s.
“There is no such thing as Christian Music,” Hyde states provocatively on the “Parodeities” section of his personal website, “only Christian lyrics.” Almost a half-century after the uproar caused by John Lennon’s offhand claim the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Christians have co-opted rock music for themselves, along with Christian kitsch. Chances are, those flip-flips that leave impressions of JESUS LOVES YOU on the sand are more likely to be worn by bona fide born-again Christians, as opposed to college students in “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts from Urban Outfitters. Wear a “sacred necktie” that bears images of the crucifixion or beatitudes, a Born Again Strapless Bra and a Garden of Gethsemane Garter Belt, and you are likely to be the intended audience for “Christian/Christ-follower” parodies of the Mac versus PC ads, on GodTube.com (“Broadcast Him”).
The same applies now to the Christian takeover of rock music lyrics. Here’s how Hyde’s interviewer on TheKingdomCome.com, Roderick Edwards, puts it:
Actually, there’s a group of people who don’t like to call them parodies at all. They kind of get offended when you call them parodies. They just call them “taking dominion over the secular world,” which kind of fits in the theological paradigm I’m from, which is we are conquerors in Christ. We’re more than kings and priests. We should be able to kind of own [these songs], pounding the swords into ploughshares.
Which sort of takes the joy out of heretical kitsch, if you ask me. So where’s a good Christian kitsch-seeker to go? Part of the answer might be to place yourself into the position of the believer and there is a potential for humor.
And it’s right here that seems to be the big difference among ApologetiX and other Christianized lyrics efforts: ApologetiX writes lyrics that set out to be funny. When onstage, when J. Jackson’s describing the unsaved after the rapture, he walks around onstage like a zombie. And there’s connections with the larger secular parody world: “Weird” Al Yankovic’s longtime drummer, Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, sat in on sessions for their “Biblical Graffiti” CD, lending the backbeat to such tracks as “One Way,” “Second Timothy” (Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”), “Revelation Man” (“Secret Agent Man”), “Armageddon Valley Someday” (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”), and “Enter Samson” (Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”).
Contrast that with Randy Hyde’s homemade version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Called “Follow Me,” it’s a classic example of a humorless parodeity with Christianized lyrics of a song that is already largely Christian. Or “A Burning Bush He Sees,” a treatment of the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” which sucks the zip out of the new wave classic (“He took a detour / lonely Hebrew / I’ll quote it for you, Exodus 3:2 / He stood there staring ‘cause the bush was not consumed”).
Perhaps the creepiest part of the Hyde-led parodeity project is that it proposes nothing less than replacing, forever, the original lyrics. Hyde even goes so far as saying that parodeity versions of a song like “Stairway to Heaven” will be more popular than their originals.
By mid-set, the New Life crowd was in the palm of ApologetiX’s hand. As they tore into its version of the Knack’s “My Sharona,” everyone sings along with the new chorus, “Babylonia”:
Ooh my little city was pretty tough
When it was the kingdom called Babylonia
Ooh, I made a golden god-and told the mob
Got to come and bow before my persona
Some of the older folks must have gotten a later mention of bologna as a shout-out to “Weird” Al’s classic parody “My Bologna.” Jackson takes it further. The lyric uses the Books of Daniel and Jeremiah to embody King Nebuchadnezzar, and still manages to employ such rhymes as “Rice-a-rona,” “fire’s aroma,” and “I don’t know-a.”
The instrumental jam kicks in and Jackson leaps off-stage and runs out of the auditorium. When Jackson reappears from the back, bathed in green light, he’s dressed head to toe in hip-hop gear—ski goggles, hockey jersey, Air Jordan-type sneakers, and begins “Look Yourself,” the band’s take on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” its only rap song of the night. Jackson’s flow is the standout; he raps almost without breathing. If there is in fact a spirit, Jackson has it during this song.
Look, if you have one God
And one offer of eternity
That exceeds everything you’ve ever wanted
With one opponent
Would you ask for it?
Or just let it slip?
When the song ends, there’s some banter about how the band doesn’t like to do rap songs, and that, in order to set things right with their speakers, they need to “rock out.” And that’s when perhaps the oddest song choice of the night came: “Catch That Fever,” a holy version of “Cat’s Scratch Fever,” perhaps one of the dirtiest songs about cats ever recorded.
Here’s Nugent’s last verse:
Well, I make the pussy purr with the stroke of my hand
They know they gettin’ it from me
They know just where to go when they need their lovin’ man
They know I do it for free
And here’s ApologetiX’s:
Well, the church was gettin’ kicked around in Acts chapter 4
They got together and prayed
And they asked the Lord for boldness to go preachin’
His word I think we need that today
The guitar lick is played just as nastily, just as pussy purr-strokin’, except this time it’s pussy purr-strokin’ for the Lord.
I beheld my first piece of sacrilegious kitsch in September 1988. It was the start of my junior year of college, and was moving into an off-campus apartment in Camden, NJ, with Dionne, a punk rock girl from nearby Haddonfield. Dionne’s sole contribution to our living room décor was a statue of Mother Mary she had stolen from someone’s lawn. She then covered the Blessed Virgin’s likeness in black paint and colored her eyes bright red.
Twenty years ago, I was conflicted about the tchotchke on our coffee table. At that point in my life, I hadn’t been religious for three years, but I wasn’t yet completely secular. The desecrated effigy of Mary offended everything I had been taught; that statue, most probably a violation of the no-false-idols commandment, made me feel guilty just looking at it.
“I’m not really religious,” Dionne said to me as she cheerily brought in her boxes. “I just think it looks really goth.”
On the other hand, I sort of worshipped Dionne. She was tall and beautiful and sophisticated. She played Cramps and Sisters of Mercy cassettes on her boombox and lit candles in her bedroom whenever her boyfriends came to visit. She hung fake spider webs across her dresser. Perhaps most importantly, she was the one who talked me into cutting off my hockey mullet. She took me under her wing, and it wasn’t until my mom visited and called the painted yard Mary “disgusting” that I knew Dionne was onto something. Soon, I was hooked on Christian kitsch, the liberation of the sacrilegious, the rush of crossing back and forth between sacred to the profane.
Before long, I joined the ranks of Doc Martens-wearing poseur punks. I put the Feederz’s “Jesus Entering From the Rear,” one of the most sacrilegious songs ever recorded, on every mixtape. I bought a real live Station of the Cross from a desanctified church (the one where Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem), put a joint clip up on the cross, and hung it up in my bedroom.
All this to me now seems a bit overwrought. At my computer, there’s a photo I took of one of the most bizarre merch-table souvenirs from my night with ApologetiX. It’s a button with an image of sheep singing “Baa! We’re Lambs,” the band’s parody of “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. I show it off to people who visit, and most people don’t think it’s funny. Why would a Christian parody “Barbara Ann” be worth making fun of?
It seems to me that to make fun of something, to laugh along with the joke, you have to believe in at least part of its premise. Maybe my fandom of Christian parody is part of God’s grand plan to bring me back into the fold.