Contrary to what has previously and erroneously published on this website, there is such a thing as a single best track on Amy Grant’s 1992 album Home for Christmas. The answer is “Breath of Heaven” and anyone who even tries to bring other tracks into the discussion has never been tasked with singing “Breath of Heaven” at their church’s three-day-long Christmas production. Now, because I was a child upon its release and a mediocre singer on a good day, I never got my chance to sing that most blessed song but I was at the many, many rehearsals where one of our church soloists was working her best to nail the husky Amy Grant voice needed to successfully transmute all of the emotions contained within “Breath of Heaven” to the congregation.
Holiday music aside, Amy Grant was a looming figure in my mother’s high-tech stereo, which held a whopping three CDs at once, allowing her to rotate with ease between Amy Grant, Kirk Franklin, Jaci Velasquez, The Winans family, and any other Christian artist that had a stream of Godly bops with which to fill our home. Grant, who released her first self-titled album in 1977, was a gold mine of contemporary Christian music designed for cool Christian folk who wanted to jam in their cars to some sick guitar riffs but also praise Jesus, a stone that killed two birds.
The magic of Grant, and other white artists like her who didn’t have the vocal power needed to do straight-up gospel, is that she was able to bridge a cultural gap between highly conservative Christians who weren’t listening to Top 40 songs (because God) and what we in the Christian community used to call “sippin’ saints.” Sippin’ saints were a very specific breed of Christians, often non-denominational protestants, whose favorite bible story is the one where Jesus turns water into wine because that story allowed them to consume alcohol in moderation—hence the sippin’. Amy Grant’s upbeat Jesus tunes gave sippin’ saints something to sway back and forth to while also rescuing the ears of conservatives from the monotony of hymnals. How many times can one really rock out to choral “Amazing Grace” without needing to spice it up with an acoustic version of that song, whether from Grant herself or Chris Tomlin, if you really wanted to jam for Jesus.
But in 1991, Amy Grant took the ultimate leap of faith and released a crossover album, Heart In Motion, which contained but a single utterance of the name of Jesus. Shocking! Appalling! In a decade that was rich with genre-defining Christian music albums (Nu Nation Project, Third Day, Jars of Clay, Mountain High...Valley Low), Grant put out what would be her most popular album—and her most controversial. The New York Times wrote of Grant’s hit song “Baby, Baby” that it had inspired “charges from some Christian radio stations that Ms. Grant had gone secular.”
However, so many years later, the jury is still out on whether or not Amy Grant definitively became a secular artist with Heart in Motion, or if she is allowed to maintain the title of Christian artist despite some success in the devil’s musical realm. But in the world of Christian music at the time, the discussion was much larger than whether or not Grant could stay in Christ’s club while climbing the pop charts. The real question was whether or not contemporary Christian music was authentic Christian music at all, or just a musical half-measure that didn’t do enough to spread the good word.
Contemporary Christian music, a charts designation that largely centers white artists, finds its roots in the tradition of the Black church choirs that rose to prominence producing gospel albums. While gospel and contemporary Christian songs all contain the same message—Jesus is great, love Jesus—the delivery is what separates the two into vastly different musical categories. For a time, Grant was arguably the queen of contemporary Christian, and Heart In Motion broadened her audience because it played well on regular pop and contemporary stations, despite its banal lyrics and lack of sex appeal.
However, other Christian music powerhouses were adamant about the distinction between Grant’s work, which dipped a toe in the secular pond, and traditional gospel. A year after Heart In Motion, the enduring Shirley Cesar told the Times, “I tried contemporary gospel. But it didn’t work for me.” Cesar added just a smidge of shade to her fellow pop-inclined musicians, saying, “I’m part of the ‘be’ crowd. I’ll be here when they leave, and I’ll be here when they come back.” That’s what you call a burn from holy ghost
As far as staying power, Cesar and Grant both dropped their last albums in 2016 and are still held in high esteem in their respective genres. Grant arguably has more popularity in the secular world because of her success in the ’90s and the overall pop sense of the contemporary Christian style. Where gospel pummels listeners into tears and submission to the cross, contemporary Christian is like that guy on the street in Times Square who lures you in by asking for directions but as you’re pointing him down an avenue, he asks about your relationship with Jesus Christ.
The debate over what music gets the high honor of being called Christian music is akin to Christianity itself: asking one question begets more questions and yields absolutely no answers. Amy Grant’s career is the personification of this larger godly debate. Is Christian music defined by the content or the creator? Grant has had several secular hits and yet when she performed them in concert, according to the Times, she found ways to weave in mentions of her faith. Did instances in which Grant associated her music to her faith transform them into subtle Christian tunes? If some lyrics can be twisted far enough from their original meaning, can’t any song that isn’t overtly about fucking or the greatness of drugs be construed as a Christian song if the singer went to church at least once in their lifetime? Honestly, yeah sure, why not.
The true appeal of Amy Grant, no matter your stance on whether she betrayed her Christian roots by releasing Heart in Motion, is that she’s one of a few artists who rose to fame singing contemporary Christian music, crossed over, and then crossed right back—all while still maintaining her popularity on pop and Christian charts. Certainly, she’s no Beyoncé, but to have a career spanning decades and still be a figure of note with a voice that just won’t quit in such a fickle genre is a feat as impressive as feeding a few thousand people with some fish and a loaf of bread.