Carman: A Soundtrack of My Youth

Carman Licciardello, simply known as Carman, who rose to Christian music fame in the late 80s has died unexpectedly due to complications following hiatal hernia surgery. Many have already written about his legacy and the details of his life and death. One article worth reading is this one at Christianity Today. Carman’s music and videos were part of my Christian life growing up, so my goal is to pay him a personal tribute while being honest about the shortcomings of much of what he did.

I know what some of you are thinking. “You are going to write a ‘tribute’ to Carman?” Your question resonates with me. There was quite a bit about his music and career that was hokey to say the least, just like much of 80s Christian music. But I can remember as a young boy in 1985 hearing The Champion for the first time. It was Carman’s first number one hit on the Christian charts. For those who do not know the song, it is a spoken word song about a boxing match between Jesus and Satan. I know, I felt silly just writing that sentence, but there is more depth to the song than you would think. As the song progresses, the two battle it out as Satan throws his jabs of hate, greed, and lust. In the end, Satan could not touch him until Jesus let down his hands and a final blow kills him. As all the enemies of God are rejoicing, God the Father begins to count backward. 10… 9… 8 and so forth until Jesus stands in victory.

The first time I heard that song, I was ready to jump to my feet and celebrate Christ the victor. Many other songs made me want to do the same, like Sunday’s on the Way. However, as I matured as a Christian, it did not take long to realize that some of these motifs cheapened the gravity of biblical truth behind them. Satan, Bite the Dust is one such song. Imagining a spaghetti western shootout with the devil can only communicate a spaghetti western seriousness, especially if you combine it with a theatrical music video using 90’s TV-quality special effects.  As I re-watched the video yesterday, I was reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “The medium is the message.” In Carman’s case, the medium was not so much his music as it was his ability to entertain.

All Christian musicians tend to be entertainers, but it matters where they place the emphasis. For example, Andrew Peterson, among others, are first and foremost musicians. His goal is to write quality music that endures. The fact that he is also entertaining in concert is a by-product. On the other hand, Carman seemed to see himself first and foremost as a Christian entertainer, and the music was the primary tool he used to help him accomplish that goal. His focus on entertainment negatively impacted the quality of his music, but make no bones about it, he was extremely talented as an entertainer.

I saw him in concert twice. First in 1993 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV. The second time was in 1995 at what was then called the Pond of Anaheim in California. Both arenas are enormous, and fans overflowed them. After both of those concerts, I walked away excited to continue fighting the good fight of faith. I lacked a lot of spiritual maturity at that time, but his concerts made a positive impact on me, even if I later came to see some of the flaws in his approach and theology.

Most of his albums in the 90s topped the Christian charts, and several songs hit the number one spot on Christian radio. This means the radio stations played them over and over ad nauseum. This combination of questionable quality music and endless radio play negatively impacted his career going forward. He soon became the Christian artist many people loved to hate.

In the late 90s, I began working in the Christian music industry. The now defunct company I worked for represented several Christian record labels, and every catalog we produced had a picture of Carman hidden somewhere in its pages. As soon as we had them in our hands, we would all see who could find it first. The sentiment behind it was clear. Not only was it a nod to his popularity, but it also said Carman was not to be taken seriously.

Some may call him the Nickelback of Christian music, but I think a better comparison would be the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees had been around long before the Saturday Night Fever album, but that album was a success like no other. Eventually, people grew tired of its endless radio play, and Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, began a movement to bring disco down. The Bee Gees quickly became a target of ridicule. They went from being one of the most loved groups in America to the most hated overnight. Both Carman and Bee Gees have been the punchline of many jokes. Some deserved and some not. Thankfully, that is not where their stories ended.

Like the Bee Gees, Carman launched a new tour late in his life which caused him great anxiety. He wondered if anyone would come out to see him. To his surprise, he once again filled concert venues. The connection between him and his fans was real.  I assume that they did not love him merely for his music or his ability to entertain. I believe they loved him because he had an impact on their lives.

Despite all the noise surrounding his career and ministry, I, for one, am thankful that Carman was addicted to Jesus. His music spurred me on in the faith in my formative years, even if much of it did not stand the test of time and some of it causes me to shake my head. I know there are theological issues, including his connection to TBN in the 90s, to discuss, but I believe he is now with his Savior. I am thankful that at one point, Carman committed to using his ability to entertain to serve the Lord, because deep within me, that little boy still exists. The one that Carman encouraged to jump to his feet and celebrate Christ the victor.

-D. Eaton

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