The Incredible Record Breaking Popularity of Hillsong’s ‘Oceans’

My life is kind of like a rollercoaster… from one minute to the next I have no idea what I”m going to be doing. I could be at my desk reading for my PhD, I could be performing music in Malaysia, I could be sitting down listening to Indigenous elders, or I could be… answering a list of questions for the magazine Christianity Today, due by 5pm. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to give me a title, I guess Overeducated-Singer-Songwriter-Thinker fits OK.

Well, last week I received an email with some questions about Hillsong United’s song ‘Oceans’, sent by the journalist Kate Shellnutt. She was interviewing a number of people on this topic for the article here… My answers were very kindly included, but in brief, so I thought I’d put up the rest of the response. Feel free to add your comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

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The Hillsong United Band has hit unprecedented popularity on the Christian Billboard charts with ‘Oceans’

First, in case you’re confused as to what I’m talking about, this is Hillsong’s church song that was popular enough to stay on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs for 50 consecutive weeks, breaking all records:

That this song has been so incredibly popular is seen as an indication of how deeply it has moved people’s hearts and communicated sentiments of life and faith. And the question that was posed was “What is the sticking power of ‘Oceans’?” 

I later saw that this question had been raised by a group of scholars on facebook, and there was some good informed (and not so informed) discussion. Having had a long history with Hillsong, I can’t see the song with completely fresh eyes like some of the other commentators. In my view, this song is a continuation of the amazing popularity of Hillsong United, and a testimony to their hard work. But, the beauty of asking the question is that ‘Oceans’ is a song being sung globally in many different churches, and so now everyone has a different take on it. I love the unexpected answers which have ended up revealing some truths about the global church, the way congregational music travels, and how and why it is so important and so beloved by Christians. Anyways, here are my thoughts on why ‘Oceans’ is so popular, with a couple of edits.

Why do you think this song has become so popular?

Hillsong United is a very popular band. Its popularity began as the younger voice of Hillsong Church in the late 1990s, as just a local youth group band in the Hills District of Sydney. Hillsong United has produced many albums since then. Their recent releases have tended to be more for listening to than playing in church, which I think is largely because younger generations of Christians wanted music they could hand to their unsaved friends. But this song is both; it is great to listen to, and can also be played in church with a group of local musicians.

The reality is that the vast majority of Christian contemporary artists and bands have a professional, masculine sound – with some very obvious exceptions. Most of the new female artists come through the Spirit-filled churches (e.g. Bethel, Hillsong, Gateway). However, many church worship leaders around the world are women, who serve with whatever local musicians they have on their roster. Sometimes, women are deemed less marketable by Christian labels. So because of this, there is a huge demand for songs women can lead. And, a popular congregational song sung by a female is always going to stick around. So many songs disappear, but think of the longevity of Kari Jobe’s ‘Revelation Song’; Brooke Fraser’s ‘Hosanna’; Darlene Zschech’s ‘Shout to the Lord’.

Most of the previous album was the Hillsong United guys, who are all very talented. There’s no doubt that Taya manages the fine balance, as she holds her own with the boys but has also brought a distinctly feminine sound back to United. She’s a very unique talent but has a great worship pastor, Cassandra Langton, and a long heritage she’s inherited from Darlene Zschech.

What is unique about “Oceans,” musically or lyrically?
In truth, there’s very little difference between Oceans and many other songs Hillsong Music Australia puts out. It is musically accessible, and a very singable congregational song. So maybe its popularity is a mystery in that sense. Because, ‘Oceans’ is popular all over the world – it is loved in Australia but also most places overseas, and perhaps this is one of the first times that the *same* song has been popular everywhere at once. We are now seeing a global convergence of popularity.
How does this “Oceans” compare to previous listener favorites by Hillsong, or breakout hits from other Christian artists in the ’90s or early ’00s?
Hillsong songs are the songs of a local/global church, and perhaps that’s why it resonates effectively with Christians. It would be a mistake to think that Hillsong is a one-hit wonder music producer. The church’s reach and influence is growing, but it has the same heart beat it always had.
The official YouTube video for “Oceans” has over 32 million views. How has the Internet changed the way Christian music becomes popularized?
The internet has definitely changed the way music is popularized – it’s a lot more accessible, as it’s largely free.
Is there a broader lesson or trend to be gleaned from its popularity? 
While I personally associate the song with the Australian shoreline when I’m singing it, it’s likely written around the biblical passage in Matthew 14 with Peter stepping out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus. I think that’s something that all Christians can relate to, being asked by God to step out in faith.
Anything else you’ve noticed about the song?
The song for me (and title ‘Oceans’) draws upon a stereotypical Australian image of coastal life, but there is a strong metaphor is of globalization. Life ‘without borders’ is becoming our new reality, and it is incredibly risky. There are just so many reasons why someone might imagine themselves being on the brink of a new venture, as our world rapidly changes. The 2008 crash is an example of how things can go wrong. But it’s also a very exciting time. And we the church can trust God is with us, regardless of which way history goes.
The lyrics of Oceans are modern but also timeless, which fits Taya’s quirkiness completely. It could be sung in this generation, or a century ago. It echoes the fears of missionaries heading off to do work overseas. Some of the greatest songs ‘I Surrender All’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ are linked to the sea. In that sense, maybe it connects the current church to the faithfulness of those in the generations before us.

I didn’t think there was *much* different to many other Hillsong songs, although it has a poetic collision of ‘good’ lyrics with ‘good’ music and ‘good’ instrumentation/recording… But its popularity as a congregational song was surprising to me. Many recent Hillsong albums are relatively unsung in the US. But Oceans has four features I noted:

First, it is an image particularly relevant to globalization. The instability (and mobility) of our present world and time is acknowledged. “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders”, “where feet may fail”.

Second, it communicates that the Spirit is with us in our uncertainty.

Third, it connects us to the church’s conscious history. Many great hymns used imagery of boats/water, such as ‘It is Well’ and ‘Amazing grace’ (also noted above). It made sense in a maritime age. So, here, the image of Peter stepping out of the boat is fresh, but also familiar. Various church members were leaving for Hillsong’s LA church plant from Sydney (on reverse mission?). Maybe Taya’s quirky vintage vocal style, and the cinematic orchestration somebody noted above captured the sentiment perfectly – even evoking images of the stories of missionaries such as Hudson Taylor traveling to China. Perhaps that’s why it is open to so many interpretations, regarding our many crossings of borders.

But that’s just me – I’d love to hear your thoughts on why ‘Oceans’ is so popular.


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