“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper
Not long ago, when I heard about a certain concert happening here in Nashville, I sent out a tweet that bugged me almost as soon as I posted it.
“I may or may not be taking myself from 25 years ago to see Stryper at the Wildhorse Saloon tonight. #dontjudgeme #weallcomefromsomewhere
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 an act of nostalgia.
Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who probably received more of my teenage disposable income and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the Floyd Rose Floating Tremelo System?
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 bit more of a trick. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.
See, thematically, the bands of that genre and era devoted 90% of their lyrical capital to weird euphemisms about women, the anticipation of and participation in partying, 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 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, and they became a great band. They worked hard at defining a certain sound built around both vocal and instrumental harmony and precision. They created a live concert experience that people wanted to come see and then keep talking 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 the MTV era.
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.
When grunge took over, it was a “Tower of Babel” moment for the Kingdom of Big Hair Metal. A lot of those 80’s L.A. glam bands just put down their B.C. Rich Warlocks and walked away sad because Seattle had confused their language. Some became tribute bands to themselves, earning their living by playing old hits and selling t-shirts. Some found gainful employment in reality TV. Those who weathered the storm stayed in their lane and just kept working, devoted to their existing fan base. Many of these bands have resurfaced in recent years as the new generation of “classic rock.” (Case in point: in the past year, 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.)
What did I expect from this concert? What I found surprised me.
The concert started at 7:30, the doors opened at 6:00. At around 5:00, I stopped by the venue to buy my ticket. What did I see? A line. There was a line. Fans were already gathering so they could get right up to the front of the stage—fans wearing Stryper t-shirts and holding records they hoped to get autographed.
Why did this surprise me? It wasn’t that Stryper had fans. Of course they had fans— lots of them, from all around the world, and deservedly so. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how willing these fans were to so publicly identify themselves as such. But soon that question turned back on me: why had I been so unwilling do the same?
As I took my place in line, I realized I didn’t exactly know how I was supposed to feel about this concert. Was I supposed to be excited to see my one-time favorite band? Did I think the concert would be, in some way, funny? Gimmicky? Ironic? Would I maybe get nostalgic for a time long past?
And who were these people in line with me? I played it cool and kept my head down. The last thing in the world this introvert wanted was to get into some conversation with a stranger about what we hoped would make the set-list, or whether the band would be wearing yellow and black spandex, or whether vinyl was superior to digital.
Then I began to notice that the people in line were mostly my age. When they were kids, they probably covered their bedroom walls with the same posters I had, saw the same concerts, wore the same tour T-shirts, and collected the same records. Could it be that these were, in fact, my people? Could it be that though we’d all weathered the ’90s differently, we had each come to gather on this common ground—ground we all felt, at some point in our lives, was the soil from which we’d grown?
I slipped into the venue and climbed up to the balcony where I planned to observe the show from a distance. But so help me, by the middle of the second song I found myself headed for the stairs to stand among the crowd right in front of the stage. Why? Because my favorite band from high school was putting on an amazing live show, and I knew every word to every song. This was my band and these were my people.
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. And it was awesome.
Postscript: Stryper has released new music in recent years. I bought it and shared it with my teenage son. Every so often I will knock on his bedroom door and find him listening to his favorite songs on repeat.
Me in my bedroom at 15.
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).