Jesus Christ, Rock Star 

A musical history of J-Hova, starring Kanye West and Morrissey.

It is with great pleasure that we announce Kanye West as the official winner of the 2004 Ol' Dirty Bastard Memorial So-Ridiculous-It's-Awesome Hip-Hop Line of the Year. Sing along, kids:

The way Kathy Lee needed Regis/That's the way I need Jesus.

This easily trumps the once-invincible 2003 victor, 50 Cent (I love you like the fat kid loves cake). How poignant that spiritual fervor is now equated with morning-show-host chemistry.

Tossed-off religious references and paeans are of course wildly prevalent in hip-hop, but most rub elbows uncomfortably with the pimp-and-ho chicanery surrounding them, and in any event occur too frequently to carry any real weight. (A phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by the classic Onion headline "God Finally Gives Shout-Out Back to All His Niggaz.") But Kanye's plea is drawn-out, eloquent, and quite possibly even heartfelt, and he has thus been roundly praised for having the passion and fortitude to declare his love for and devotion to Jesus in such a public forum. But in this steely Passion of the Christ era, he can almost be accused of bandwagoneering.

Indeed, mere days before His glorious birth scores you a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, take a second to consider the copious musical nods made to Dr. J (aka J-Hova) in the allegedly secular pop music sphere. Kanye rightfully leads that pack now, and we salute him (though we admit to rooting for a ten-nomination Grammy shutout, just to watch Mr. West stage an epic public meltdown and attempt to beat Gretchen Wilson to death with her own shoes.) But this year also saw the resurgence of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," recast as yet another droning, pancake-handededly dull '80s new wave Marilyn Manson cover. Johnny Cash beat you to this one by a coupla years, dude.

Jesus in fact enjoyed constant exposure in the alt-rockin' '90s, from Soundgarden's "Jesus Christ Pose" (which reads in retrospect like a harangue against that dude from Creed) to Pearl Jam's "Tremor Christ" to the Temple of the Dog (featuring members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) ditty "Wooden Jesus." Alice in Chains, meanwhile, had "Man in the Box," with its finger-snapping chorus JeeeeeeEeeeeEeeeeEeeesus Chrriiiist! Deny your maker! "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" was the worst tune on Nirvana's Unplugged in New York, which of course still makes it pretty good.

Furthermore, there's the Jesus-doing-weird-things subgenre, spearheaded by Ministry ("Jesus Built My Hotrod") and Cake ("Jesus Wrote a Blank Check"). We'll go ahead and throw Tom Waits' "Chocolate Jesus" in this scrum as well: When the weather gets rough and it's whiskey in the shade/It's best to wrap your savior up in cellophane/He flows like the big muddy, but that's okay/Pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait.

Elsewhere, there's the Jesus-as-symbol-of-emotional-repression vitriol of Sugar's "JC Auto" (which is fantastic), or the Jesus-as-symbol-of-arrogant-American-imperialism screed of Bad Religion's "American Jesus" (which is awfully prescient, considering it was first released in 1993).

In these and most other tunes of the Clinton era, Jesus is evoked pejoratively: shorthand for an overbearing, grandstanding, self-important, egomaniacal, ethically vacuous martyr figure. (Hell, maybe it's code for "Bill Clinton.") Your churchgoing mother clucks her tongue in disapproval. But a few roses burst from this cynical concrete: Consider John Davis, frontman for the venerable power-pop act Superdrag, primarily known for the '96 hit "Sucked Out," as in Who sucked out the feeeeelin?! Though once as bitter a bastard as any of 'em, John has since found God and taken to writing gospel-pop tunes like "Jesus Gonna Build Me Home," which is not at all ironic and barely even metaphorical.

One way, or another, he's gonna find you, he's gonna gityagityagityagitya.

But most often, tossing the word "Jesus" in your album title -- Tripping Daisy's Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb, Urge Overkill's Jesus Urge Superstar, P.M. Dawn's Jesus Wept, Must's Androgynous Jesus, Christian Death's Sex, Drugs and Jesus Christ (not to mention Jesus Points the Bone at You), My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult's Kooler Than Jesus -- or band name -- the Jesus and Mary Chain, Jesus Jones, Jesus Lizard, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, short-lived ODB alias Big Baby Jesus, MC 900 Foot Jesus -- is just a cheap, meaningless plea for attention, intrigue, and danger. All just lame attempts to hitch the ol' wagon to the Lennon "Bigger than Jesus" bus.

No: To really throw the Jesus card effectively, you need to be an absolute master of cheap, meaningless pleas for attention, intrigue, and danger -- namely, you need to be Morrissey. Thanks to his comeback bid You Are the Quarry, blistered blue staters, despondent "Dimebag" Darrell fans, and holiday grumpuses of all stripes have an official anthem for 2004: "I Have Forgiven Jesus."

But Jesus hurt me
When he deserted me
But I have forgiven you, Jesus
For all of the love
You placed in me
When there's no one I can turn to
With this love

Break it down!

Monday -- humiliation
Tuesday -- suffocation
Wednesday -- condescension
Thursday -- is pathetic
By Friday life has killed me
By Friday life has killed me
Oh pretty one
Oh pretty one

Very subtle. Perhaps Jesus is the one figure/image/metaphor too heavy for even our greatest songwriters to lift without sounding pretentious and soporific. Kanye's Regis plea aside, maybe Mr. H. Christ is best employed as meaningless what-the-hell surrealism. I once attended a rural Ohio open mic night dominated by a three-piece quirk-rock band, and when I happened to peek at a setlist afterward, I realized I'd just heard perhaps the most baffling tribute ever written to the Man Upstairs' only begotten son: "3 x Jesus = 3Jesus."

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