20 years ago, Switchfoot unleashed the riff that changed Christian rock

Switchfoot was always meant for more than CCM.

Switchfoot performs in Austin, Texas, in 2019. Photo by John Feinberg/Flickr/Creative Commons

(RNS) — “The only thing about Christianity I wonder is how this Christian band’s riff went so f***ing hard,” said producer Phillip Odom in a semi-viral Tiktok from earlier this year, playing the opening chords to Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live.” “It’s so sick.”

Do a little hunting on social media, and you’ll see a lot of this sentiment. That opening riff “lives rent free” in people’s heads, is “the best thing to come out of Christianity” and is “the only good thing Christianity has ever done for this world.”

“I’m not into religion,” one Twitter user said. “But I’m definitely into that one riff from that one Switchfoot song.”


If you’ve heard the song in question, from the band’s 2003 breakthrough album “The Beautiful Letdown,” you don’t need much convincing. The riff does indeed go insanely hard, and the rest of the song ain’t bad either. It’s probably their best known hit and also sort of a theme song for the band, even a mission statement.

Musically, it keeps one foot in the punky surf rock that launched the band, while tilting toward their arena aspirations that were picking up some serious steam at the time. Lyrically, it’s full of the spiritually informed, college lit-haunted existential musings that have defined Jon Foreman’s writing.

“Dreaming about providence and whether mice and men have second tries,” he sings in the echoing spaces between those riffs. “Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half-opened.”

It’s indicative of the unique energy Switchfoot brought to the Christian rock scene at the dawn of the new millennium and the unique moment it represented in American Christianity at large. Now, as the band announces “Beautiful Letdown’s” 20-year anniversary tour, that energy helps explain why “Meant to Live” remains so many people’s one good experience with Christianity.

In 1996, Foreman, his brother Tim and their buddy Chad Butler played a few gigs at the San Diego church the Foremans’ dad pastored. At the time, they called themselves Chin Up and played scrappy, spunky SoCal skate rock with lyrics inspired by C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. They caught the attention of Christian rock kingmaker Charlie Peacock, who signed them to his indie label Re:think as Switchfoot — a nod to the guys’ love of surfing.

Switchfoot released “The Legend of Chin” in 1997 and “New Way To Be Human” in 1999, neither of which made a huge splash; but listening now, it’s not hard to hear why Peacock believed in the band. While the rest of pop music was moving toward more production and slicker sounds, Switchfoot still sounded like they were playing in the garage.

Scratchy guitars add just enough bite to summery, singalong choruses on songs like “Company Car” and “New Way To Be Human,” while campfire lullabies like “Concrete Girl” and “Let That Be Enough” serve as a reminder that these are still 20-something boys with guitars. It set the stage for 2000’s “Dare You To Move,” which blended the ragtag vibe of their earlier albums with some ambitious studio tricks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Wilco’s “summerteeth.”

But Foreman’s lyrics were at least as distinctive. At the time, CCM was already turning insular, preaching to the choir about the joys of being a Jesus Freak and playing football in heaven, insisting anyone who liked Nine Inch Nails and Beck but cared about their mortal soul should swap them out for Newsboys and Third Day.

Switchfoot in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on April 3, 2008. From left to right: Jerome Fontamillas, Chad Butler, Drew Shirley, Jon Foreman and Tim Foreman. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Switchfoot in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on April 3, 2008. From left to right: Jerome Fontamillas, Chad Butler, Drew Shirley, Jon Foreman and Tim Foreman. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

But Foreman made it clear he had no interest in these audiences. He had an evangelist’s heart and explicitly angled his lyrics away from the already faithful to the not-yet-convinced-but-searching crowd. He peppered his songs with Kierkegaardian angst, appealing to wandering hearts that could not slake their own spiritual thirst. “The tension is here between who you are and you could be,” he sang on “Dare You To Move.” “Between how it is and how it should be.”

This attitude twinned neatly with the American church’s burgeoning “seeker sensitive” movement, which sought to replace the fire-and-brimstone moral crusades of the 1980s with chill, winsome vibes. Youth groups became a cultural force, attempting to lure teens to Jesus with raucous game nights and summer camps. Seeker-sensitive strategies helped build a lot of very big churches and made a lot of pastors very rich, but what works in the pulpit doesn’t always play on the radio, and Switchfoot found themselves languishing at a Christian rock party they badly wanted out of.

“Half of who we are was lost,” they’d later tell Christianity Today.

They might have stayed stuck there but for Mandy Moore.

2002 saw the release of “A Walk To Remember,” a weepy coming-of-age adaptation of a treacly Nicholas Sparks number. Moore plays good Christian girl Jamie Sullivan who fixes local bad boy Landon Carter by being pretty while singing a Disneyfied cover of Switchfoot’s “Only Hope.” The song became a hit and boosted the band’s profile. They jumped to Columbia Records and added keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas, a Filipino native whose time in the dance music scene brought more production layers and synths to the band’s lo-fi sensibilities.

That sound would serve them enormously well on their major label debut. From the very first notes — the aforementioned “Meant To Live” riff — “The Beautiful Letdown” announces itself as massive. In addition to the arena rock of “Meant To Live,” you’ve got the Parachutes-era Coldplay sparkle of “This Is Your Life” and the title track’s steady, five-and-a-half minute escalation to explosion. There’s an appealing goofiness to songs like “Gone” and “More Than Fine,” suggesting they hadn’t entirely forgotten their roots, but “On Fire” sounds like the band acknowledging that 80 million Mandy Moore fans couldn’t all be wrong.

Through it all, Foreman sounds exceedingly aware that his new platform has reach, and he plans to make the most of it. “This is your life,” he screams with harrowing earnestness. “Are you who you want to be? Is it everything you dreamed that it would be?”

If Foreman’s audience wasn’t already conscious of a gnawing sense something was missing, he would drag them to it.

“The Beautiful Letdown” went double platinum, and the band’s music started popping up on TV shows, truck commercials, Monday Night Football and ads for the Winter Olympics. It was the sort of crossover success the whole CCM industry had been dreaming of but rarely achieved.

It’s fair to say Switchfoot’s lyrics played a part in their crossover success, too. At the time, there was an idea that the right music could almost smuggle Jesus into your heart. Most Christian rock bands were burying their church background beneath lyrical puzzles that were probably about God but could be about a girl if you wanted. Switchfoot never seemed interested in those games, and the music was better for it, with the appeals to Christianity coming across as forceful instead of just forced.

Because, Switchfoot understood at least two things Christians often forget. The first is that most people can smell a church trap from a mile away and attempts to sneak a little Sunday morning into Friday nights don’t fool anyone. By wearing their faith on their sleeve, Switchfoot earned a lot of trust even from people who didn’t share their religious convictions. Honesty, it turns out, really is a good policy.

The second thing Switchfoot got is that people don’t need to be told about Jesus. In this country, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know the basics. What people aren’t necessarily convinced of is that they should care. Switchfoot’s driving ethos was, and always has been, that God matters. For them, Christianity wasn’t a simple religious identification or cultural marker but the secret to unlocking life’s full potential. Their message was that too many people are living on autopilot, but we are being invited to a higher, richer level of existence.

This has lent Switchfoot a sturdier reputation than many of their contemporaries and is probably why you don’t have to be particularly religious to air-guitar along with “Meant To Live.” It’s a lot easier to enjoy Christian rock when you don’t feel like they’re trying to pull a fast one or see you as an opponent in the culture war. And if the band happens to have monster riffs, well, that definitely doesn’t hurt, either.

(Tyler Huckabee is a writer currently living a nomad’s life with his wife and dog. You can read more of his writing at his Substack. Or for every thought that comes into his head, find him on Twitter. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Religion News Service.)

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