“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper
Last weekend when I heard about a certain concert happening in my city that night, I sent out a tweet that has been bugging me ever since. I twote:
What bugs me most about that tweet is how much effort I spent qualifying something I genuinely wanted to do. “I may or may not…,” “Don’t Judge Me…” Insinuating that if I go, it’s for nostalgia. Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who has probably received more of my money and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the whammy bar?
For those unfamiliar with Stryper, a little history might be in order. They formed in the early 80’s, appearing on LA’s Sunset Strip music scene with other big-hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Cinderella, Poison, and Ratt. If you know these bands, you get the picture—long hair, spandex, ear rings, make-up, lots of promises to rock people—no matter where they’re from—and to rock them for seemingly unending periods of time.
Stryper, from the beginning, occupied rarified air. If you were going to make it in that industry, there had to be something about you that 1) made you stand out, and 2) made people like you. With their yellow and black attire and their commitment to singing plainly about their faith in Jesus and the free offer of the Gospel, they certainly stood out. However, I expect both of those characteristics made the “make people like you” objective a little more of a battle. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.
Thematically, the bands of that genre and era devoted 90% of their lyrical capital to weird euphemisms about women, the anticipation of drinking, and doing whatever they wanted to do, no matter what their parents thought. The remaining 10% of their lyrics went to space travel, rainbows in the dark, the travail of the early native Americans. (I’m looking at you, Europe, for two out of three here.)
Stryper never tried to philosophize about the druids or sing about fighting super-natural serial killers while in a dream state. They kept things pretty straightforward. They sang mainly for and about Jesus. But if they were going to make this their play and earn a living doing it, they needed to be a great band.
So what did Stryper do? They worked hard. They worked hard at defining a certain sound built around both vocal and instrumental harmony and precision. They worked hard to create a live show that people wanted to come see and then talked about long after. They worked hard to promote themselves—gut-wrenching work because it often carries more rejection than acceptance. And all this work paid off, establishing them as one of the most visually and musically entertaining live acts of that genre, and with some pretty magical records to build those tours around.
Then came the ’90s. I assume Stryper, like most of their peers from that era, faced a commercial decline when some kid called Slacker Angst rolled out of bed (at the crack of noon), put on his flannel shirt and handed Eddie Vedder a microphone to tell the Sunset Strip that the party was over. (Was that sentence too much? It felt good.)
When grunge took over, a lot of those 80’s metal bands just put down their B.C. Rich Warlocks and walked away. Some became tribute bands to themselves, earning their living by playing old hits. Some found gainful employment in reality TV. But several weathered the storm, kept working, and have resurfaced in recent years as a new form of “classic rock.” (Case in point: in the past year alone, Nashville has hosted concerts for Van Halen, Def Leppard, Poison, Cinderella, Lita Ford, Kiss, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest, just to name a few.)
When I went to see Stryper a week ago, here’s what I saw. I saw four guys, who have been playing music together for the better part of 30 years, put on a great show. Musically speaking, they were amazingly tight. They didn’t play a single ballad. They started loud, stayed loud, and finished loud. Each member filled their respective roles with graceful control that reminded me how rare it is to see a true band—folks who have logged countless shows honing their craft in such a way that they come across as a single, seamless unit.
They came to play. They played songs I hadn’t heard in 20 years, and they made me love them all over again. They were obviously happy to be there—without a hint of entitlement or cynicism. They were generous with the audience—including some “above the call of duty” graciousness with a guy who rushed the stage to try to sing lead on his favorite song.
And they were still as committed as ever to their singular purpose—to tell of the faith they had built their lives and careers around. This was illustrated well in what was, for me, a moment of humble poignancy.
Back in the day, Stryper was known for throwing bibles out into the audience, and I wondered if this was something they still practiced. Sure enough, near the midpoint of the show, Michael Sweet, the lead vocalist and guitarist, grabbed a stack of New Testaments from the top of his amp, and the other guys did the same. What he said as he tossed them into the crowd made me not just appreciate them as a band, but really respect them as men. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist of what he said:
“Back when we first started out on the Sunset Strip, the scene was all about sex, drugs, and partying. So many people just bought into this way of looking at life. We were asking ourselves, how can Stryper stand out and tell people that we believe there is a better way? How can we tell people that our relationship with God is broken, but that there is a way to be right with Him by believing in His Son Jesus? One idea was to actually put God’s word in their hands. So we started tossing out Bibles at our shows. Over the years we’ve kept doing it, because this is still ultimately what we care about as a band. We believe God loves you and we want you to know that. That’s what matters to us. So that’s why we throw these out.”
Sweet’s humility and candor about how they’ve come to be who they are over the years, with his unapologetic winsomeness in a culture he knows is cynical and jaded, was really refreshing. We all come from somewhere, and where we’re from never completely leaves us.
I discovered Stryper more than half my life ago. I come from a bedroom in central Indiana with dozens of Stryper posters on the walls. And I come from a boyhood where one of my biggest fears was how to live out my faith with conviction and at the risk of being made fun of. Stryper helped me find some courage there.
My story is joined, in a small but still real way, to those four guys from southern California—four guys who happen to rock. I would be lying if I told you I went to that show for purely nostalgic reasons, as my tweet suggested. I went as a fan.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).