By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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When people hear about God at Six Flags Over Texas, it usually happens while plunging down the first hill of the Texas Titan. There's just no better place to invoke the name of Jehovah at the top of your lungs than right before absorbing 4.5 G's of sheer terror.
This weekend, however, will be a little different at the Arlington theme park. Having cornered the screaming-child market and the seventh-graders-on-summer-break crowd, the folks at Six Flags are now focused squarely on reeling in the religious. God's name will be on the lips of up to 10,000 people at a time during the One Voice concert series at the SBC Music Mill Amphitheater. Well, 9,999 people, if you subtract Steve Cook, director of marketing at Six Flags.
"It's not a Christian-oriented event," Cook says.
Come again? Headliners for the festival have included Toby Mac, formerly of DC Talk, and Michael W. Smith, both favorites with Christian music fans for more than 15 years apiece. But while almost every one of the 16 acts is decidedly Christian in tone, and the groups' CDs are advertised as gospel/Christian at stores, Six Flags vehemently denies any religious affiliation.
If anything, Cook is all too happy to paint the whole concert as a secular cash cow rather than a celebration of Jesus.
"There's a real demand for it," Cook says. "People want these acts, and we're able to meet that demand in a large venue."
He and organizers repeatedly use the word "positive" to describe the show, despite the associations with openly Christian artists. He says Six Flags just has an eye for what people will pay up to $62.63 (park admission included) to see.
"If you look back 10 years ago, we were doing a lot of country shows," Cook says. "It's a market niche. Christian music is just another genre of music like anything else."
Pollstar, the concert industry trade magazine, reports a 12 percent decline in concert attendance for 2005. Cook believes that Christian festivals are one of the few places where ticket sales have been strong, and concerts like these attract thrill-seeking fans from as far away as New Mexico.
"It's a good new product for the park," Cook says, "and people love it. It's a win-win situation."
Of course, calling a celebration of Christian values "product" might not be in line with those very values, but it's hard to blame Cook's hesitancy. In an America where posting the Ten Commandments can be illegal just by its relative location, there's no telling where the line is drawn between hosting an event and advocating its political or religious stance. Luckily for One Voice, though, nobody seems to be offended.
After all, Six Flags as a corporation has an acute eye for regional demographics. In other areas of the United States, such as the Northeast, Six Flags has sponsored Muslim events, according to the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "I can't imagine that we would have any problem with Six Flags hosting a Christian event," CAIR's Saffia Meek says.
Cook notes that the park also sponsors activities like a Texas history day and a math and physics day. KDGE radio spots calling all science geeks to the park are in short supply, however, compared with the intense amount of marketing done for One Voice, but Cook says that Six Flags has been more than happy to cater to discerning "positive" music fans, of which there appears to be no shortage. For more than 10 years, the park has held many similar concerts, from just-plain-safe bands like Hootie and the Blowfish to outright-Christian groups like Jars of Clay. This year is no different, Cook says, and many people are buying tickets for multiple nights.
"We've really incorporated all the different facets of the Christian music industry," Cook says. "It's hip-hop, it's alternative, it's adult contemporary and it's gospel."
The large scale of the concert energizes the performers, says Matt Dally, bassist for Christian punk-pop outfit Superchick, who played the third day of the festival. He says the band spends half of its touring season playing multiday events like these, most of which are held at theme parks around the country.
"Everybody's out there to get crazy and jump around," Dally says. The rides also act as a welcome distraction should attendees go into safe-music overload. "It gives kids something to do if they don't want to check out a band."
Cook points out that Six Flags is an ideal location for such a concert, since amusement parks have an innate family-friendly draw.
"We don't serve alcohol," he says. "We don't like a lot of cursing and things such as that. It's not the type of talent we want to associate with as a park."
Smaller, local all-ages venues such as The Door don't have complaints about Six Flags getting in on the positive-music craze, either. The Door owner Russell Hobbs says that any attention to Christian music benefits the whole scene.
"We don't have a problem with it," Hobbs says. "The more the audience grows with those bands, it helps everybody."
But even if Six Flags is semi-officially sponsoring the festival, the company draws a firm line against evangelizing the religion. Groups won't be allowed to solicit religious literature or wares to patrons, and organizers are confident that regular park attendees will be able to get their thrills Jesus-free.
"We wouldn't allow anyone to hand out information," Cook says. "It doesn't matter who it is. It's just not part of the event."