Growing up in an evangelical household, there were lots of things which were considered “unhealthy” to my soul – heavy metal, horror movies, Dungeons and Dragons… perhaps unsurprisingly, all things I love today. However, one magical summer at an evangelical bible camp in 2002, I got introduced to my gateway drug to all things heavy metal, P.O.D. They became my favourite band and held that honour for more than a decade. Hell, at this point I still am incredibly fond of their music even if my tastes have gotten heavier and more depressing. However, during the years when I was really into them, I couldn’t help but notice the ridiculous level of controversy that has come their way with seemingly every new album they put out. Unlike some bands, I don’t even think this is intentional on their part, because the controversies they’ve courted are largely really stupid. So, with that in mind, let’s go over some of the band’s dumbest controversies over the years.
Before we get to that though, I want to cover the one legitimate controversy they’ve had, which would be the whole Marcos controversy. Sometime in early 2003, lead guitarist Marcos Curiel was kicked out of P.O.D. and was quickly replaced with former Living Sacrifice guitarist Jason Truby. It led to a whole bunch of bad blood and he-said-she-said about what really happened. Given that Marcos was brought back into the band when their contract with Atlantic Records expired at the end of 2006, it seems pretty obvious that Atlantic management were behind the split, but no official explanation has been given by the band since (as far as I’m aware).
Also, one last thing before we begin the list proper: I’m not going to pretend that P.O.D. are perfect. They certainly have some songs which could be controversial if the band was more popular than they are now. Their very first album has a (very shitty) song called “Abortion is Murder”, although the band had disowned the song by the time they were signed to Atlantic, so make of that what you will. There’s also a B-side from Murdered Love called “Find a Way” which implies that Obama is the antichrist and another song called “West Coast Rock Steady” which makes a rather dumb, tongue-in-cheek joke that could be interpreted as homophobic. Thankfully, for a Christian band, their politics tend to be much better than you might expect – I haven’t seen any anti-vax or pro-Trump stuff out of them and they were even vocally in support of Black Lives Matter during the George Floyd protests.
Anyway, with all that out of the way, let’s get to the list…
5) Playing Ozzfest 2000 and 2002
Evangelicals are a fickle sort. On the one hand, they love the idea of evangelizing to people and are always happy to remind you that Jesus shunned the religious elite in favour of hanging out with tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans. However, actually getting an evangelical to spend time with people they consider to be “lost sinners”? Good luck, as this first controversy demonstrates. P.O.D. have gotten heat from Christians for appearing on soundtracks for Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and Little Nicky and for touring with bands like Korn and Insane Clown Posse, but the most notable convert-related controversy for the band would have to be their appearances at Ozzfest in the early 2000s. The early 2000s were a really shitty time to be an evangelical teenager. After being energized during the 80s, the 90s and 2000s left evangelicals completely impotent. They continued whining about video game violence and the depravity of rock music, but no longer were their complaints resonating in the larger culture, rather they were making evangelicals even more insular.
As a signal that the people leading the evangelical movement were a bunch of boomer fucks, evangelicals were still railing against Ozzy Osbourne in the early 2000s, despite the fact that he’s a Christian himself. To them, Ozzfest represented a symbol of everything they hated – dark music that promoted a satanic and sinful lifestyle, the perfect target for a reactionary conservative movement to organize against. Then along comes P.O.D., the biggest name in Christian music at the time, performing on the main stage alongside Ozzy, Rob Zombie and Tommy Lee (of Mötley Crüe fame). Suffice to say, the presence of a “Christian band” at these events ran entirely counter to the idea that Ozzfest was a source of all the evil in the world.
Professional dickhead James Dobson said that the band had forsaken their religious beliefs by participating in Ozzfest and there were several young evangelicals who thought that the band was selling out for fame. Looking back on the controversy years later, P.O.D. lead singer Sonny Sandoval has said that this view “didn’t make sense to us because we were called to go to the light and spread the word”. Unsurprisingly, I’m inclined to agree – the evangelical hatred of Ozzfest is more political than theological. They use it as a target, a representation of culture which is offensive to their intensely conservative values (note that James Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, which should tell you everything you need to know about what he would consider a “proper” Christian life). Having a Christian band happily playing these shows and using it as an outreach tool suggests that the culture of rock music isn’t evil, opens up the word of God to the people who may need it most and may even encourage Christian teens to take a second look at rock festivals. This is unacceptable for these conservative fundamentalists, so therefore they have to call out P.O.D. for their “transgression” against the evangelical hegemony.
4) Getting Censored Because “Youth of the Nation” Is “Too Violent”
I came across this controversy while doing research for this article and, I’ll be honest, this might be the most buck-wild of the bunch. Back in October of 2012 P.O.D. was scheduled to play Monster Jam Fest at the Majestic Ventura theater when, mere days before the show, the fairgrounds which were hosting the show emailed the promoter saying that P.O.D. weren’t allowed to play “Youth of the Nation”. The reason for this? Apparently the song was “too touchy and controversial” and “too violent” for a family event. If you’re unfamiliar, the song is about the tragic experiences of a group of teens, including a school shooting which was inspired by a real life shooting at Santana High School in 2001. Suffice to say, the song by no means glorifies violence and being against school shootings is in no way controversial, so I don’t understand what the problem is? In any case, P.O.D. agreed not to play the song, but the damage was done – several bands dropped out of the lineup, the venue had to be changed, $130,000 in tickets had to be refunded and P.O.D. themselves eventually dropped out of the show. Making things even more intense though was the fact that the fairgrounds were state property so there was some debate about whether this could be considered a First Amendment issue. Marcos Curiel certainly seemed to want to spin it that way, but ultimately the band moved on without making more of a fuss.
To make things even more wild, this was only a couple months before the Sandy Hook shooting, which should give one even more pause about this entire controversy. The US is a country where a band can be told not to play one of their biggest hits because talking about school shootings isn’t family friendly, while also conditioning their elementary school children to believe that shooting drills, bulletproof backpacks and teachers with firearms are normal, all because they consider gun control measures out of the question (despite overwhelming public support).
3) Censored and Banned Because Album Covers “Promote Paganism”
P.O.D. have had several album cover controversies over the years. While it didn’t become a full-blown controversy due to the band being too small to make a real splash, there was some complaints about the cover of their debut album, Snuff the Punk, whose original artwork featured an angel holding a gun to the devil’s head (this was subsequently changed to a far more family friendly version where the angel was just going to punch the devil mercilessly instead). Their first real album artwork controversy came with The Fundamental Elements of Southtown, which features a surreal, symbolic and mystical album cover by Jean Bastarache. I personally find it fascinating and evocative, it’s easily the best album cover in the band’s career. Naturally, because the cover required some interpretation, Christian retailers refused to stock it, claiming that it was “pagan” and objecting to the presence of a cigar. Christian stores wouldn’t even stock the album until a black box was placed over the cover, all because they couldn’t understand the symbolism.
The biggest album cover shitstorm would come with Payable on Death, which came out at the height of P.O.D.’s fame. The album cover, seen above, features a naked woman with butterfly wings with Latin script (which apparently is the word for the sung part of the preface for Mass) covering her nether regions. The cover alone caused 85% of Christian retailers to ban the album, mainly because the art depicts the woman’s public bone and some people argued that having “Sanctus” covering her genitals sexualized a holy term… because, y’know, naked women are inherently sexual according to these people. This ignores the fact that artist Daniel Martin Diaz is himself Catholic and put overt Catholic symbolism into the album cover (although that’s probably not a plus for some evangelicals, many of them believe that Catholics aren’t real Christians). That’s not even the end of the Payable on Death art controversies though. Noted crank Terry Watkins of Dial-the-Truth Ministries put out a long screed about how the art and symbols depicted in the album and its liner notes are “clearly among the most openly occult and dark I have ever seen”. Suffice to say, it’s absolute quackery and will give you a good laugh to read through. For their part, P.O.D. were now popular enough that they refused to censor their art this time around.
The real reason for this particular controversy? P.O.D. come from San Diego in poor, diverse neighbourhoods. They have roots with evangelicalism, Mexican Catholicism, Rastafarianism and various other spiritual practices which are unfamiliar to your average white evangelical. It doesn’t matter that Payable on Death‘s artwork is overtly Catholic to these people, it’s unfamiliar to their evangelical sensibilities. It doesn’t matter that P.O.D. are professed Christians, these people see a surreal cover like The Fundamental Elements of Southtown and, when they can’t see Jesus blatantly depicted, they assume that it’s because they’re trying to hide SATAN. It’s frustrating but that’s what you get when evangelicals have a cultural monopoly on the faith.
2) P.O.D. Aren’t “Real Christians”
Before I really dive into this one, let’s put this all in perspective – I’m talking about a band which is famously considered lame in the mainstream for being a nu-metal Christian act. You’d think that they’d at least get embraced by Christians for being as successful as they are, but no, as you can probably see from this list of dumb controversies, the Christian crowd are probably their biggest critics. This lack of acceptance from the most conservative parts of Christianity has dogged the band for their entire career, to the point where “not Christian enough for Christians, and too Christian for the world” has basically become their go-to descriptor. In a 2015 interview, Sonny Sandoval described one of their earliest gigs where they were asked to play at a local church, but not even a minute into their set they got shut down for their “ungodly” music. I found a depressing thread from back in 2005 on the (I shit you not) Christian Gamers Alliance forum, which covers such important and debated topics as “Is playing a warlock going to send me to hell?” and “Is Minecraft evil?”. Anyway, the thread in question was about Demon Hunter and P.O.D. and whether they could be considered Christian bands, or were “Christian” at all. In regards to P.O.D. they claim that because they don’t proclaim the name of Jesus in every song and because they don’t stand and preach during their concerts that they’ve sold out to the world. It’s not just this gaggle of weirdos that believe this either, this was a pretty common refrain amongst evangelicals at the height of P.O.D.’s popularity. I found a study by Bobbi Hooper whose thesis paper was about the attitudes of Christians towards various CCM bands and P.O.D. were often highlighted as a band which “wasn’t Christian enough” for many evangelicals because they aren’t overt in their lyrics. There’s actually an anecdote from one participant who said his friend loved P.O.D., but when he went to a concert and they didn’t proselytize to the crowd he lost respect for them.
Then there’s the cranks. Terry Watkins has a whole article about how P.O.D. aren’t real Christians because they swear, have tattoos and don’t adhere to white, evangelical Christianity. The European American Evangelistic Crusade take it a step further, saying that P.O.D. don’t believe in hell, that they believe in a perverted Rasta Jesus and various other ridiculous accusations. Then there’s convicted pedophile David J. Stewart of Jesus-is-Savior fame who more-or-less echoes what the others have said (although he REALLY wants you to know that Jesus wasn’t Rastafarian). All this evangelical gatekeeping can be dismissed outright since, nearly twenty years later, P.O.D. are still out there witnessing through their music the same as they ever were. Evangelicals have just never truly embraced P.O.D. because, in my opinion, they don’t represent the safe, white norm that they want and expect… which is perhaps why, despite all their successes, P.O.D. have never won a Dove award (which is basically the Christian equivalent of the Grammies.
1) “I Am” Swearing Controversy
“I Am” is, without a doubt, the most controversial song in P.O.D.’s career (and, again, this is from a band that has a song called “Abortion Is Murder”). What could possibly stir up such a shitstorm, you may wonder? Simple: a Christian band said “fuck”. Now, this is especially dumb for several reasons. First, the record label got cold feet and bleeped out the lyric, so no officially released version of the song even has the word in it (although there are uncensored, pre-release versions out there with the word intact). Secondly, the band had been publicly using profanity for a decade by this point and had strongly considered putting out an anti-suicide song with profanity six years earlier, so it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Third, within the context of the song it makes a lot of sense. “I Am” is an incredibly angry track told from the perspective of someone who has been hurt, rejected by society and who is questioning why they should give a shit about a God who people say loves them. There is a powerful, real sincerity when they say “Are you the one that’s come to set me free? / ‘Cause if you knew who I am, would you really want to die for me? / They say you are the cursed man, the one who hangs from this tree / I know this is the one and only son of God, so tell who the fuck is he?” It’s especially poignant because, prior to the release of this album, Sonny Sandoval had been thinking of walking away from the band. He went on a hiatus for four years, during which he started doing youth outreach where he met a lot of broken teens who clearly were the inspiration for the track.
Naturally, evangelicals took all this into consideration and threw a fit. Jesus Freak Hideout, one of the biggest Christian music review sites, notoriously halved the score of their official review of the album because they felt that the use of profanity soured the entire experience, which just made the controversy even more contentious. If people were talking about P.O.D. at this time, then they were debating whether they had crossed a line with this song (I know that my childhood youth pastor, who was a big fan of P.O.D., was disappointed by the track and wouldn’t let his kids listen to it… again, they bleeped out the goddamn swearing on this track). There were plenty of hot takes about the subject on both sides, from people saying that it’s unacceptable to sin to promote God, to others saying that the Apostle Paul swears in the Bible, the translators just don’t accurately convey this. I think my favourite take has to be from Christian blog The Two Cities, which explains why swearing is nowhere near as big a deal as evangelicals make it out to be:
“Is sin bound to phonetics or intentions? Of course, the issue is not phonetic. It would be absurd to suggest that the F Bomb is sinful because words that begin with a fricative and end with a velar are evil. Well, here’s a made-up nothing word that matches that criteria: “Vug.” Try pronouncing it. It is phonetically very similar to the well-known F Bomb, yet apparently it would not be inappropriate to say! Now, this is an admittedly absurd example, but it helps prove the point. To go further, what of the halfway swear words that have appeared? When someone types “sh*t” on facebook for instance, are they trying to keep themselves from sinning? Has the removal of the “i” rescued one from moral downfall? Or by saying “freakin” instead of the F bomb are we saying anything different? Additionally, what’s the moral weight of saying “A$$” that “butt” does not possess? It’s arbitrary. Completely. Same thing applies to poop=crap=sh*t (it’s the same referent for goodness sake). I’m reminded of something Paul may have said about the letter of the Law here…
“The truth of the matter is that swear words are cultural products that have come into existence in multiple contexts and in multiple languages. In fact, this is an evolutionary linguistic phenomenon as certain words become taboo over time (e.g. faggot). For our American readers, it is generally recognized that “crap” is a more sensitive word for refuse than “sh*t,” but in the UK many regard “crap” to be a cuss word. So words can contain cultural stigmas, but not inherent worth. The excessive use of swear words can indicate a certain heart attitude, such as a rebellious spirit, or indicate a dearth of active vocabulary. But these words per se are not sinful. Thus, there is no inherent moral value in swear words, or any other word for that matter. The Apostle Paul warns us to refrain from crude speech (Eph 4.29; 5.4; Col 3.8), which refers to being crass. Additionally the passages speak to belittling others. Berating a fellow brother — you idiot! — is far worse than saying, “I fell on my A$$.” What truly matters is the heart.”
Sandoval himself said, in regards to the controversy, “the only thing the Christian community hears is the F-word. They disregard the whole point of the song, because of the F-word. I think that’s pathetic.” Unsurprisingly, I’m inclined to agree.
When it comes down to it, most of P.O.D.’s controversies come from them not fitting into what white evangelicals expect of them. P.O.D. are more than happy to go about their business and preach God to their own people, but the people who are already saved and who don’t accept them to begin with keep finding reasons to tell them they’re not good enough for them. To show why these people need to calm the heck down, I’m going to end with a little anecdote. Back when I was in my teens, the one black family in our evangelical church had their two nieces from Jamaica come to live with them. They were at a church youth event where various Christian rock bands were being played and these two clearly weren’t interesting in what they were hearing. I then happened to put on The Fundamental Elements of Southtown and suddenly they lit up and asked me what band this was. The reggae, funk and rap that P.O.D. weave into their hard rock sound resonated with these two far more than any of the safe, white, evangelical gospel that they’d had to listen to up to that point, and that’s always stuck with me. There’s a wide world out there and, if you still have faith like I do, then we need more bands like P.O.D. to spread the good news to the people who get ignored by wider Christian culture.