My older sister Jessie and I loved to dance in the living room to Amy Grant’s 1991 hit single “Baby, Baby.” Hopping around on the salmon-colored carpet as the hot Texas sun streamed in through the bay windows, we’d coo, “Baby, baby, I’m taken with the notion, to love you with the sweetest of devotion.” We synchronized our actions. Swinging our arms like they were cradling a baby and thumping our hands over our hearts. “Baby, baby, the stars are shining over you and just like me I’m sure that they adore you.” We spun and held our hands over our heads, wiggling our fingers, like twinkling stars in the sky.
Homeschooled and raised Evangelical, we were sequestered from the world. We had no way of knowing it, but that year, every young girl was dancing to “Baby, Baby.” The song was a hit on both Christian and pop music charts, making Grant one of the first successful crossover artists. But I didn’t listen to pop radio. My siblings and I weren’t allowed to. It wasn’t considered godly. Instead, we danced alone on salmon-colored carpet, feeling like we were the only girls in the world—just us, Amy Grant and the thumping of our hands over our hearts.
“Baby, Baby” was the first hit single from Grant’s Heart in Motion album, which was released when I was just nine years old. I idolized her, crimping my stick-straight hair every Sunday to mimic her moussed up curls. Grant rose to Christian stardom in the 1980s as a girl with a guitar from Tennessee, singing simple songs about Jesus. But by the early ‘90s, she was dressing in leopard print and singing about love, and not just the kind one had for their Lord and Savior. She was both holy and wholly her own. Grasping at success, reaching for something more than what she’d been given—Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion.
During our morning Bible reading, I sat with my siblings at the kitchen table, our seven little faces popping up over the oak surface that was crusty with the remains of breakfast. Devotionals happened right before we began our day of homeschool. There, our mom read to us from the Bible, lingering over lessons she thought we needed. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” And: “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead.” (We fought a lot.)
Another common lesson was from Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
There were many things not covered in this category of “excellent or praiseworthy”: the word “butt,” for example, or the covers of magazines that our mother flipped over in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, huffing to the shrugging teen clerk. “How can this be appropriate for children?” Before she hid them we saw patches of flesh, sultry lips, although other times there were soldiers without arms or legs. The Gulf War was happening, but we didn’t know—the news was not one of those “such things.”
It also applied to the books on ghosts and witches I frequently snuck out of the library and hid behind the potted plants. “These are not good things,” my mother said, whisking a Goosebumps book from under my pillow. “These are things that will let the devil play with your mind.”
Most importantly, this verse was applied to music. There was little music that met the Philippians standard held fast by the adults in our life—my parents, my Sunday school teachers and the parents of our friends. The music that was allowed was mostly classical, though there were also contemporary Christian artists such as Petra, Twila Paris and Michael W. Smith, and a few secular exceptions—The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Carole King and James Taylor. These were holdovers from my parent’s pre-Christian years. Little pieces that they couldn’t let go of.
“You don’t have to sing the name of Jesus to be a holy song,” my mom told us as we danced, polishing mirrors and dusting lamps, to “Little Deuce Coup” on cleaning day. “But you do have to sing about good things.”
My mom was a musician. She gave music lessons to other Evangelical kids from our church. As we sat in a circle around my mom and her guitar, we learned “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The parents of the other children must have been blissfully unaware of Woody Guthrie’s socialist agenda, but my mom knew. I know she knew. I asked her about it years later and she laughed and winked. “Socialism? It was just a song about America, just a lovely song.”
And so, even after the leopard outfits, after Grant’s divorce and her complete embrace of pop music, after she was banned from Christian book stores and all the other God-fearing homes around us, we still listened to her music. My mother knew about the controversy, but the music remained, slipping through the dissonance between the world she wanted to create and the world that was.
Six years before Heart in Motion, when she was only twenty-five, Amy Grant released Lead Me On, an aggressively mainstream album. The album was her first crossover success, due in part to the spunky rhythms and the soft pop melodies. The cover of the album shows Grant with big hair, jamming out in jeans, a modest blouse and a cougar print jacket. It’s so aggressively normal, the pictures could be photos from your ‘80s-themed nostalgia party.
It was a deviation from her earlier albums, with their quiet songs about Christ and praises to the Lord. By contrast, the lyrics in Lead Me On rarely mention the name of God. For many Evangelicals, this fact alone was akin to Peter denying the Lord all three times. Add in her sultry eyes and a shoulder peeking out from an ‘80s-styled sweatshirt, and the album caused ripples across the jean-jumper, Bible thumper crowd.
That year, in Rolling Stone, Grant recounted nude bathing on the beach and confessed that she wanted to be more than just a Christian singer. “I mean, everyone’s got something to say,” she said, “but I feel like I have something really good to say. It makes me want a lot of people to hear.” And it was this, her simple desire to be heard, that made them ultimately kick her out. “How could she be a Christian?” Adults and my older sister’s friends would say in church. And what I heard was, “You can’t be holy if you are a woman who hungers for more.”
For a pop star in the 1980s, this was all tame. Madonna was burning crosses and singing about being “like a virgin.” Pat Benatar was calling love a battlefield, and it’s safe to assume that her idea of a battle was not a fight to keep herself pure for marriage. And of course, Annie Lennox was strutting about, looking like a man (grab your pearls). For the rest of the world, Amy Grant was the patriarchy—her soft pop tunes were what other women rebelled against. But for a girl home-schooled and raised in a conservative Evangelical community, Amy Grant might as well have been Andrea Dworkin—radical, aberrant, and frustratingly idiosyncratic.
After we had polished off the post-church lunch of brisket and rolls and the kids had gone off to play kickball, while the mothers cleaned up the dishes, I often lingered to hear the fathers talk. They discussed theology, what was happening a few miles away in Waco, which Clinton was the anti-Christ and the dangers of Amy Grant.
“She’s compromised her Christian witness,” our pastor said, wiping brisket grease from his lips. “She is dressing immodestly and she is putting fame before Christ.”
I was insulted and immediately felt defensive, but I knew better than to say anything. The last time I had asked this pastor a question about the nature of God, he laughed, patted my head and said that the job of a woman was to “just believe and submit.”
I understood in that moment that by wanting to defend Grant, I had failed, but that perhaps I wanted to fail. I wanted to be good, but I also wanted to be heard. I wanted more than to just believe and submit. When you aren’t allowed to speak, you try on the words of others. For so many years, Amy Grant’s songs were my voice.
From then on, when I found myself sent to my room for mouthing off, for questioning, for reading Goosebumps, I’d shove my face in my pillow and cry, dramatically sobbing out the words to “Father’s Eyes.”
I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl.
Grant goes on to sing that despite her failings, she has the eyes of her Father, God—eyes that find the good in things, eyes that find the source of help, eyes for love, compassion. It’s a sentimental song. But that sentiment gave me the hope that perhaps I wasn’t all bad. Perhaps, I too could be redeemable.
That summer I was nine, my older sister had her friend Esther over to play. Esther’s parents were followers of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, now made famous by the Duggars. Esther always wore skirts and her hair was long. She’d once told me that my short bob was a sin. When my sister went to put on “Heart in Motion” so we could teach her our choreography, Esther left the room crying. Our mom came back with Esther and explained that her parents didn’t want her listening to Amy Grant. Amy Grant was a sinner. She was compromising herself for her ambition and she was too “worldly.”
I remember rolling my eyes at Esther and her tears. “Does everything have to say the word God to have God in it?” I said. Esther cried harder and my mom called Esther’s mom and had her picked up.
Esther’s parents and our pastor weren’t the only ones criticizing Amy Grant’s worldly appearance. In Christian circles, “worldly” is shorthand for being of the world. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to “conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Many Christians interpret this invective as a call to eschew popular culture. When Cabbage Patch dolls were popular, many of my friends weren’t allowed to have them. Same with Teddy Ruxpin and listening to New Kids on the Block. Engaging in popular culture, we were told, was like shaking hands with someone who has a cold—just by being near them, you risk exposure. And for the faithful, it’s not your immune system at risk, it’s your mortal soul.
Only I wonder, thinking of us little girls dancing between the sunbeams on the salmon-colored carpet, if our bodies aren’t more complicated than just a simple input-output system dueling between good and bad. There on the carpet I see us—our bodies both awkward and full of grace. We’d leap and then fall, little bruises we never even noticed forming and healing all on their own. Tiny little scars, rug burns and scrapes, we’d wash in the bath that night and wonder how we got them. We were always bumping into things—bruises and freckles colliding on our bodies, evidence of days lost in sunshine and forts built out of sheets. Hours spent spinning and dancing to music we barely even understood. Those seven layers of epidermis holding in the entire universe of ourselves as we danced, thumped and fell in a little room that was both our whole world and only the very beginning of it all. So how can it be that just one thing corrupts or one thing saves? Perhaps our wounds and our healing are the result of many things seen and unseen, the ordinary miracles of falling and leaping up happening without us even noticing. Music at that moment was just an accessory of our joy. We couldn’t understand the backlash.
Grant didn’t either. In an interview with People, Grant noted dismissively, “Christians can be sexy. What I’m doing is a good thing.” In response to the backlash over her flirting with a handsome man in her “Baby, Baby” video, Grant told Woman’s Day, “The whole thing just seemed very boring to me. Besides, shooting the video was a blast. It is fun to flirt if you’re a happily-married woman.”
The video is very boring. In it, Grant wears modest clothes: a pair of shorts that fall mid-thigh, a dress that looks like it was plucked from a catalog for Fundamentalist Mormons. She laughs and does the chicken dance with a man. At one point they lie on the floor and roll a ball to one another. If that is a metaphor for something awful, even now as an adult, I’m not picking up on it.
Grant’s 1998 song “What About the Love” feels like a partial response to the criticism. She sings of a meeting a preacher who tells her to deny sin, pray for forgiveness and tithe. In response, she wonders if that is the answer, “just the letter of the law?” The song is fast-paced and earnestly plaintive. “What about the love?” she asks in the chorus, a line that is repeated over and over.
That same year, in response to the uproar over Amy Grant’s worldliness, the Dove Awards—the Grammys for the born-again—redefined eligibility by defining what it meant to be Christian music. The songs had to be based on the scripture, Christian testimony, clearly influenced by a Christian world view and/or an expression of praise to God.
Amy Grant’s best songs didn’t qualify by those standards—when it comes to Christians, even songs about heterosexual and monogamous relationships aren’t holy enough. I imagine stern-looking men sitting in a room, trying to decide how many times a song has to mention Jesus before it is holy enough. Five times? Six? What if they only mention God and not Jesus? Does that mean they are not born again? Does that make them Catholics? What if they’re Unitarian? What then? They open the Bible, parsing out scripture to find the answers they hope they are hidden in there. They use the Old Testament laws of sacrament like a secret code for translating the foreign world they find themselves in.
What was behind the desire to take a girl with an unruly mop of curly hair and a jubilant enthusiasm for music and faith and make her into public enemy number one? What makes any of us into enemies? In my more petulant moments I believe only that it was because she was the bearer of a vagina and dared to be human. But in my better moments, I know that it is the grasping fear of someone holding onto the pieces of the things they understand, afraid to have to let them go and have nothing left, only that deep blackness that faith tells us to face but the laws of religion seek to control.
I know this because I too hold onto my tiny pieces of knowledge, constructing small unstable worlds until they are toppled. What fragile worlds we create that they can be destroyed by smiling girls and their curly hair. How powerful those girls must be to destroy our worlds. Both things are true. The worlds we create crack, bleed, and contradict, and in those fissures, somehow women live. But dissonance is not an easy place to live and so, in 1988, the rules were changed. Old lines reinforced. Territory marked. This is what it means to sing about God, they said, and quantified it for us all.
1998 was also the year Grant got a divorce. For many Christians that was it. In their eyes, Amy Grant was not a Christian anymore and she never could be. A girl in my youth group, whose parents let her listen to Amy Grant, told us that perhaps Grant’s husband had been abusing her. There is little evidence to support that accusation. But I understand where her parents were coming from. That was, after all, the only “good Christian” reason for divorce. Maybe they wanted to exonerate her. Maybe they wanted to protect us. But few Christians in our circle tried to defend her.
There was speculation that she had been having an affair for years with Vince Gill, the man who would become her second husband. This rumor still circulates. Often-cited evidence for this theory are the lyrics of the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant song, “Faithless Heart,” which talks about temptation and adultery. I often wonder why Michael W. Smith never faced this same scrutiny. Why is this song not evidence of an affair he had? The answer is obvious—he was a man, his job was a worship leader.
Like Grant, Smith also tried to become a crossover artist, releasing “Go West, Young Man” and working with Jim Brickman on “I Will Be Here for You.” But he wasn’t as successful. Maybe that’s it: Amy Grant was a beautiful woman, she was successful, she didn’t hide her ambition, and she didn’t apologize for making a modest dress look sexy. She did more just believe and submit.
Like Grant’s, my revolutions were as equally bland as they were radical. I went to a college that was Lutheran, not Baptist. I watched the Vagina Monologues, I skipped school to play tennis and read The Communist Manifesto. I smoked cigars when I was eighteen, I said the word “fuck” a lot. I know, I know. I kissed a boy I barely knew at a concert. But most revolutions happen in inches. They might appear small but they are no less fundamental. Amy Grant became the vehicle through which I was able to see myself as something more than the lines of orthodoxy that had been drawn around me. Grant was a woman with ambition, true, but she was also a girl who just wanted to sing about her faith and her God, and somehow wound up inside a revolution. I felt that way too. I was just a girl who wanted to read books, and somehow that forced me into a fight I hadn’t bargained for. What we both learned was that finding joy always seems to be a political act for the women pursuing it.
Today, both Grant and I have a home, we have husbands and children. It is so conventional and boring. Sometimes, as a married woman, I flirt with waiters. And yet, last year, I tried to reach out to some of my friends who were in the same homeschool group as me back in the early ‘90s. Almost all of my outreach went unanswered. Finally, a girl responded. It was Esther, the girl whose parents refused to let her listen to Amy Grant at our house.
“I’m concerned,” she wrote, “about your life and the choices you’ve made. They seem so far from God.” I didn’t really know how to respond, so I didn’t. What could she have meant? The blue streaks in my hair? The profanities I dropped on the internet? Sharing links that advocated for universal health care? Or maybe the fact that I wear skinny jeans and lipstick and drink whiskey and still say “fuck” a lot. I’m sure there is a reason. But I am also sure that, again, I’ve stumbled upon the lines of someone’s orthodoxy. The pieces of the known that they are holding onto, afraid of letting go. I know because these things are my little convictions—these profanities my dogma, my hair a tenet of my belief. And life is full of colliding creed.
I am not the first girl who has lost and then found herself in the lyrics of a song. And I won’t be the last. Everywhere, even now, little girls are dancing on living room rugs, twirling and thumping their chests to music. Who knows what those songs mean to them? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Maybe the words will help them synthesize the disparate pieces of the world that they hold in their wiggling, dancing fingers. Maybe each chest thump will kick-start a small revolution in their hearts.