Beyond starstruck Calvin concerts take you there

Beyond starstruck
Ingrid Michaelson played Calvin's Covenant Fine Arts Center stage on Oct. 1, 2012.

You've seen the ads from Calvin telling you to “engage pop culture.” You've seen the lists of artists that have played at Calvin in the last 20 years.

Maybe you've even gone to one of our recent concerts on a visit to campus: mewithoutYou, Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor. 

We'll admit that we like to talk about the great artists that come to campus courtesy of Calvin's Student Activities Office (SAO). But before we go on gushing about how amazing Death Cab for Cutie was last spring, or how much we love it when Derek Webb of Caedmon's Call leads our chapel services, we should probably talk about why we care about pop culture so much.


Join us for a trip into a packed classroom in Calvin’s Covenant Fine Arts Center. Students fill every seat and stand against every available wall, hoping to talk to indie pop sensation Ingrid Michaelson. They chatter about the sold-out show that night and how early they’ll have to arrive at the concert venue to get a good seat.  

Finally, a young-looking woman enters the classroom and sits on a stool at the front, wrapping her thick cardigan more tightly around her small frame and staring through her “nerd” glasses at her boots. This is Ingrid Michaelson, the award-winning singer-songwriter whose songs are regularly featured on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill and commercials for Google Chrome, Old Navy and Target.   

The students are a bit in awe of the artist sitting in front of them. Ingrid is visibly nervous, perhaps wondering what she got herself into when she signed up to play at a Christian college like Calvin.  

It takes some introductions and conversation pointers from student activities director Ken Heffner to break the ice. The main pointer: 

“What we want to avoid in this conversation is obsessing about people, not because they’re good artists, but because they’re famous. So if you ask any of those kinds of questions, I’ll veto them,” he says.  

That seems to do the trick; questions start flowing. Nobody asks Ingrid about her favorite color or who she’s dating. What they do ask her: What are you reading right now? (Book #2 in The Hunger Games) Do you give up something when you work with a producer versus recording albums independently? How do you stay so grounded? Is your music primarily targeted at females? (Read the answers to these and more questions here.) 

By the time Ingrid has to leave for her sound check, everyone—including the artist—is even more excited about the concert that evening. Clearly, a new mutual appreciation has developed—one that ultimately makes the concert even more enjoyable. 


Nearly every artist that plays Calvin’s stage takes advantage of the invitation to speak directly with students. Each conversation is different, but most touch on faith and the place of art in society—students and artists ponder together how music can transform culture in positive ways. Often the students and artists disagree about matters of faith, politics and lifestyle choices. Almost always, the artists are challenged by the depth of the questions Calvin students ask them.

From (nearly) day one as a Calvin student, you will learn to approach everything in the world, including popular culture, as subject matter for thoughtful Christian engagement. 

“There’s kind of a teachable moment here,” Ken says. “Because [college students]...tend to be disproportionately interested in popular culture, you have a touch point there.” Paying attention to pop culture, he says, helps bring Calvin’s faith-soaked curriculum to life. Students learn to take the theological ideas and Christian thinking they’re learning in the classroom and see how they play out in something they care deeply about. “The ideas kind of die on the vine if they don’t get practiced,” said Ken.  

So when you leave this place, you’ll not only be able to get a job with the skills you build in class, you’ll be able to have deep, intelligent conversations about the culture you live in. And beyond the deep conversations, you’ll have all the tools you need to actually transform—and make—culture. 

“If you really want to change culture, you have to make more,” said Heffner, paraphrasing from Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. “So you can’t just critique it, you have to dream up new ways of doing things.” 


By Will Montei

I wasn’t very familiar with Ingrid Michaelson previous to her concert at Calvin. That’s not the case anymore. Now, I might consider myself something of an Ingrid aficionado. Between her hilarious, rambling banter and beautifully stripped down set, anyone at the show, really, should know her quite well by now.

Ingrid put on an amazing show — one of the best I’ve seen. Not owning a single one of her albums, I had no expectations before the show. Perhaps that makes me the best person to be reviewing it, because I wasn’t biased in any direction beforehand.

So, even though the opening notes of each song didn’t set my heart aglow with recognition (like they probably did for most of the audience), I was still able to enjoy every single song as if I’d been a fan all my life thanks to the solid performances from each band member.




India Arie • Anathallo • Anberlin • Andrew Bird • The Blind Boys of Alabama • Blitzen Trapper • Broken Social Scene • Caedmon’s Call • The Civil Wars • Cut Copy • Dave Matthews Band • Death Cab for Cutie • The Decemberists • Eisley •  Explosions in the Sky • Lupe Fiasco • Five Iron Frenzy • Jon Foreman • Fleet Foxes • Gavin DeGraw • Patty Griffin • Gungor • Guster • The Head and the Heart •  Ben Harper • The Hold Steady • Iron and Wine • Jars of Clay • Jack Johnson • Jimmy Eat World • K’Naan • La Dispute • Lifehouse • Los Lobos • Lovedrug • Matisyahu • John Mayer • Sandra McCracken • Ingrid Michaelson • The Mountain Goats • Jason Mraz • My Brightest Diamond • Noah and the Whale • Nickel Creek • OK Go • Over the Rhine • Liz Phair • Ratatat • Sixpence None the Richer • Shaun Groves • Sigur Ros • Sleeping at Last • Sufjan Stevens • Switchfoot • Third Day • Gillian Welch • Wilco



For 20 years, Calvin College has brought great musical acts to campus, from Dave Matthews Band to Lupe Fiasco and Regina Spektor. In its 20th year, the Student Activities Office is celebrating with an amazing concert lineup, its biennial Festival of Faith and Music and an awesome “Engaging the Culture” t-shirt.

Here’s how you can get in on the celebration. Email us at to claim any of these giveaways:

 • Tickets to any of Calvin’s 2012-13 concerts in conjunction with a campus visit

 • One of three passes for the April 2013 Festival of Faith and Music (multiple concert tickets included). Learn more here.

 • An “Engage Pop Culture” T-shirt (available to the first 20)


Going to pop music concerts and engaging the artists is part of Calvin’s approach to just about everything: dig in and look at it from every angle. Invite the Holy Spirit into the conversation and see what He reveals.  

Sometimes what He reveals is the beauty that comes from good music. Sometimes it’s truth that pierces the heart when music and lyrics line up to say something important. And sometimes it’s the sense of community that emerges from a shared experience of listening (and occasionally dancing to) great music. 

For Ingrid Michaelson, it’s the last type of revelation that marks the difference between a good show and a great one: 

“I can go up there and sing perfectly. But just performing well isn’t enough for me to enjoy it. The reason why I do this is because of the idea that [thousands] of people are all having this experience together. There’s something magical...about everybody losing themselves in this moment.”  

And at Ingrid’s show, that’s exactly what happened. Yes, she played her piano well. Yes, she sang extremely well. 

She even delivered on some enthralling vocal and instrumental tricks. But the kernel of the show—what made it truly good—was how the audience and artist interacted through music, conversation and applause. 

Cut Copy plays at Calvin in Oct. 2011.
Cut Copy plays at Calvin in Oct. 2011.


In the end, you can see a good show at Calvin and think nothing more of it. You can listen, clap, dance, be entertained and even blown away by the artist’s talent.  Many people would call this a successful concert-going experience.  

But to Ken Heffner, this would not be enough.  

“We have to have eyes that see where redemption is showing up in all kinds of places, some of which are Christian, some of which are not,” he said.  

And so in the end, Calvin students don’t need to be starstruck when they sit across the room from a chart-topping musician like Ingrid Michaelson. Why? Because the process of cultural engagement (having “eyes that see”), led by the Holy Spirit, reveals the true star of the show.  

Go to enough concerts at Calvin, and you may catch a glimpse of it: It’s the God-inspired hope that emerges when we realize that through the conversations and the music, through us, he is making all things new. 

VERGE: winter 2012

First-Year Experience