MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: Influential Artists of All Time – Week 1: Michael W. Smith

It’s hard to think of Christian music and not think of Michael W. Smith, who, alongside Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman, have been the artists that have been around the industry the most. Now let me get a few things straight. Michael W. Smith is in no means the pioneer of Christian music. Leave that title to other artists like Larry Norman, Mylon LeFevre, Keith Green, Andrae Crouch, PETRA, 2nd Chapter of Acts, The Imperials and Gaither Vocal Band. But for me, I’ve always felt like Michael W. Smith has been the most influential for me personally, but also influential as an artist in society. Firstly because Michael, alongside Amy and Steven, is one of the only artists, who started their career in the 1980s, to be active currently. But also, I’ve felt that Michael has always had it in himself to re-invent himself if needed to reach a different culture, a different time period, and a different people group, as the years travel on. That’s not to say that any of the aforementioned artists are not musically ingenious, not at all. And I will be discussing artists like Keith Green and PETRA further along in my ‘Influential Artists of All Time’ list. But with Michael being one of the first of many artists to receive crossover success (influence in both CCM and the mainstream arena) throughout his career, his impact and reach, whether it be pop inspirational music, or as a worship artist, is nothing less than extraordinary. Michael’s devotion to creating music that not only is poignant and heartfelt, but also musically fashionable as well as interesting, is what I reckon has been a very big part of his success over the years. Dare I say, that now with Michael into his early sixties, that he could become the Christian version of either Rod Stewart or Johnny Farnham, a man well into his years delivering great hits with no intention of retiring?

Having a glance through his career, and you can see a myriad of charting hits and radio friendly songs. Even if you haven’t heard of Michael W. Smith by name, you have definitely heard of a handful of his songs, even if they have been on rotation on mainstream radio. ‘Place in this World’ charted at No. 6 on Billboard Hot 100 of 1991, while a song like ‘I Will Be Here For You’ released the following year, with Michael penning the hit with famous mainstream songwriter, Diane Warren. The song was also a mainstream crossover hit, thereby reminding listeners of that time period that recording songs that impacted both CCM and mainstream, wasn’t, and shouldn’t be, a bad thing. Along with Amy Grant, Michael revolutionised and redefined what it meant to have crossover success, but still keep values and beliefs intact in a world that is so polarising and extreme, regardless of the viewpoint. For me personally, Michael has impacted my own faith and spiritual journey over the years, with songs like ‘Cry For Love’, ‘I’ll Lead You Home’, ‘Live the Life’, ‘Give It Away’ and ‘Secret Ambition’, songs that have impressed upon myself, and reminded me that songs from the 1980s and 1990s are equally as important and emotive as songs written currently.

I guess if you want to be influential as an artist, you have to understand, that it can’t just be your radio hits that impact people- your whole discography has to have the ability and potential to challenge and influence. With Michael’s career, not only have there been his chart-topping songs that have impacted the world, but for me, it has been some of his lesser known songs that really spoke to my heart over the course of my Christian life. ‘Never Been Unloved’, a song from his 1998 Live the Life album is one such song. While I’ve listened to the album countless of times, it was only last year and this year that I really honed in on ‘Never Been Unloved’ and really listened to the lyrics.

For me, this track embodies everything that Michael believes God to be in light of what we are. It is a perfect encapsulation of what we know to be lacking within ourselves, but all the while acknowledging that we were and never will be void of the love given so freely and without condition to us, by God Himself. Clever writing, in that each verse starts off as ‘I’ve been un___’, we are reminded and convicted that though we are un___ (whatever the case, we can fill it in with what we’re feeling!), we are never unloved. And that is a promise worth celebrating. I know that most, if not all the time, CCM focuses on the lyrics of songs, but never have I realised how much lyrics play a part in encouraging my soul till I’ve heard ‘Never Been Unloved’. And sure, this song may not ever be as popular as any of his other tracks, especially well known songs like ‘Agnus Dei’ (a worship track on his mainstream album Go West Young Man) and ‘Friends’ (quite possibly the most famous song of Michael’s…ever!). But if a lesser known track like ‘Never Been Unloved’ can impact for beyond the radio waves, then it speaks to the character of Michael and his songwriting ability, and the influential nature of songs in general, for his discography. If a song like this one from Live the Life can impact, how many other songs throughout his career can impact the same, that I’ve missed?

I have been unfaithful, I have been unworthy
I have been unrighteous and I have been unmerciful
I have been unreachable, I have been unteachable
I have been unwilling and I have been undesirable
Sometimes, I have been unwise, I’ve been undone by what I’m unsure of
But because of you, and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved
I have been unbroken, I have been unmended
I have been uneasy and I’ve been unapproachable
I’ve been unemotional, I’ve been unexceptional
I’ve been undecided and I have been unqualified
Unaware, I have been unfair, I’ve been unfit for blessings from above
But even I can see the sacrifice you made for me to show that I have never been unloved

(Never Been Unloved- Lyrics)

Michael is still undertaking music now, but that didn’t mean that his whole career was solely music. He opened a teen club called Rocketown in Nashville, Tennessee in 1994 (and expanded it in 2010), which offers to the public a large dance floor, indoor skate parks and a café featuring live acoustic music; while also unveiling a new record label titled Rocketown Records, a label he will not record under for his whole career until his 2018 album A Million Lights. Michael has always been an advocate for Compassion International, as well as being an outspoken Republican and a friend of George W. Bush. But regardless of his other ventures, Michael’s music has been paramount and heartfelt, poignant and at times challenging to whomever hears it, myself included. Michael has always worn his heart on his sleeve, reminding us that it is ok to unveil to the world your thoughts and emotions, as he’s done previously in songs like ‘This is Your Time’, a reflective piece in light of the Columbine massacre of 1999, ‘All In the Serve’, the official song of ‘The Second Chance’, a movie in which Michael himself acted as the main character; ‘Healing Rain’, a quasi-worship quasi-pop song using the metaphor of physical rain as the message of spiritual rain and God’s love and impact over our lives; and ‘Missing Person’, again another song that uses a very smart metaphor, about finding a lost kid and how that is akin to regaining and recapturing your own spiritual life of years past. Michael’s music has been so prevalent and influential, that a tribute album titled Ultimate Music Makeover was recorded and released in 2005, featuring artists like Crowder (‘Secret Ambition’), Stryper (‘Friends’), Plumb (‘Pray For Me’) and Tree63 (‘Missing Person’), to name a few. Michael has also written books, one of which has been one of my favourite in terms of furthering my own Christian walk- Signs, a book he wrote in 2003, to coincide with is compilation album The Second Decade.

Of all that Michael W. Smith has undertaken in his career thus far, let me say this one thing- his influence is far greater than maybe he himself realises. With an artist to start off in the industry in the 1980s, and still be active right now, is nothing short of miraculous and awe-inspiring. Only two other CCM artists (Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant)…and maybe to some extent Carman, have undertaken such a feat. For that alone, his music should be listened to, at least once. Michael has undoubtedly worn his Christian faith on his sleeve, even though some of his music has had crossover appeal in the past. So if you want to hear a very universal and broad appeal, with songs having double or triple meanings, then Michael is probably not your guy (maybe you’re looking for an artist like Switchfoot, needtobreathe, Rachel Platten or Tori Kelly). What Michael sings about and sings for is Jesus. It is his boldness for Christ and his unashamed and unapologetic sense of declaring what he feels on certain topics, that will continue to create opportunities for influence both now and into the future. And while I still haven’t heard much of Michael’s full-length material pre-The First Decade, this undertaking of this post series has made me appreciate much of Michael’s earlier music, far more than if I hadn’t undergone such a task.

As I leave this post, I will let you readers stop and wonder, ponder and think, as well. Has Michael W. Smith and his music impacted your life as it has mine? Can someone who has been undertaking music as their career since the 1980s still bring about a relevancy compared to current pop radio artists at the moment? Should an artist constantly reinvent themselves, for fear of staying on the radar as opposed to off, or should they stand firm to their beliefs, even if it costs them their fame and glory? How has music impacted your own life, and which is the first artist/band you’d talk about if given the chance? I’ll leave an excerpt of Signs (a book of Michael’s from 2003) so we can see that Michael is not only a great singer, but he’s also a great author as well. And remember, influential is far greater than popular. Let us strive to follow influential music artists rather than just popular ones! Til next time (this time next week).

A lot of times, I think God speaks through the voices of others. I honestly believe that having people I trust and allow to offer input into my life makes all the difference…for me, the formula is easy: I surround myself with people who have a lot of wisdom, and then I make a point to listen to what they say. Who do you have in your life that challenges you and holds you accountable? It may not be a pastor or a friend who lives a few states away. Family can fill the role as well. Now, don’t roll your eyes at the though that Mom or Dad might be able to provide some insight. Even more incomprehensible, what about one of your brothers or sisters? Someone doesn’t have to be old to be wise. I know that I’m constantly learning things from my kids. It can be little things, maybe something one of them says out of the blue, and I will know it was from the Lord. It comes back to being open, to opening your eyes and looking around so you can see the signs.

Even with all that input, I still haven’t ‘arrived’. Finding out where you’re meant to be is a continual process. After more than two decades of making music and ministering to others, my biggest challenge right now is still figuring out what it is I’m really supposed to be involved in. All these years later, I’m still asking the question because I find from year to year- or even month to month or day to day- the answer changes. I need to continually check in with God to see what He wants me to be involved in today. Once I do that, though, the work is just beginning. As a result of discovering what to say yes to, there is a lot of stuff I’ve got to say no to as well. If you’re like me, that can be hard to do because I love to help out whenever I can. But I finally had to learn that emotionally and physically I just can’t do it all. When you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing well. As a result, you’re not able to excel at the stuff you’re really called to do. When that happens- everyone loses.

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