The ideal Easter playlist: The story behind ‘Jesus’ songs

The ideal Easter playlist: The story behind ‘Jesus’ songs

This may be a far-fetched endeavour, but these songs would make for ideal listening on this holiest of holidays.

To be clear, this isn’t an exercise in belittling people’s belief systems; merely a dive into five songs which aren’t quite what they initially appear to be. And before anyone gets upset, let’s not forget that the fact that we humans have a sense of humour should indicate that God and Jesus have one too. After all, being made in His image strongly suggests we share similar attributes...

Depeche Mode - 'Personal Jesus'

Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares

We start with an obvious one, but it remains a classic.

In 1989, Depeche Mode released this single from their then-upcoming album ‘Violator’, which went on to become a fan favourite. At the time, the band’s label Mute placed personal ads in local newspapers with the words “YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS” and a phone number. Whoever decided to call could hear the new track.

While many consider the song to be about the commercialization of religion, chief songwriter Martin Gore explained in a Spin interview in 1990 that it’s not about that at all. The lyrics were actually referencing Priscilla Presley’s autobiography, ‘Elvis And Me’.

“It's a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care," said Gore. "It's about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody's heart is like a god in some way, and that's not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”

The song frequently tops Best Depeche Mode Songs lists, and has been covered many times, including by Johnny Cash in 2022 on his album 'American IV: The Man Comes Around', and Marilyn Manson in 2004. In 2008, Hilary Duff based her song ‘Reach Out’ on ‘Personal Jesus’, changing the lyrics to “Reach out and touch me.” Cheeky scamp.

Tom Waits - 'Chocolate Jesus'

Well, I don’t go to church on Sunday
Don’t get on my knees to pray
Don’t memorize the books of the bible
I got my own special way

I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more
Fall down on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee’s candy store

A personal favourite, this one…

For the heathen amongst you, Chocolate Jesus refers to the chocolate sculptures by Richard Manderson who, in 1994, created a series of small raspberry fondant filled chocolate Jesuses that were sold to visitors of an Australian cultural centre, the Gorman House Arts Centre in Canberra. A US newspaper condemned his act of depicting Jesus on a chocolate, and in response, Manderson brilliantly decided to create an actual life-size chocolate Jesus he called "Trans-substantiation 2". The work was exhibited in public around Easter in 1994, with Manderson inviting the public to come and eat his immaculate confection.

Enter Tom Waits, who, five years later, released the song 'Chocolate Jesus' on his Grammy Award-winning album 'Mule Variations'. (If you haven't had the pleasure, drop this article right now and get thee listening.)

The lyrics describe a boy who goes to a candy store every Sunday to get his fill of Chocolate Jesuses.

Waits said he was inspired to write this song not after learning about Manderson’s work, but Testamints, a candy product with a cross imprinted on it and a Bible verse on the wrapping.

"My father-in-law was trying to get me interested in this business venture - these things called Testamints,” he said in an interview on the David Letterman Show in 1999, weaving another one of his tall tales. “They’re these little lozenges with little crosses on them. If you’re on the road, or something, and you can’t worship in the way you’re accustomed to, or it’s during the week, you can have one of these little Testamints, and it kind of gets you right in touch with your higher power.”

The song is essentially a playful jab at those who use religion merely as a feel-good mechanism, likening those who hypocritically practice Bible cherry-picking only for the superficial, conscience-clearing rush to the endorphins released in the brain when addicted kids get their sugar high. Faith then stops being about faith, and more about the evils many commit in the name of religion.

My sweet Lord…

George Michael - 'Jesus to a Child'

And what have I learned
From all this pain
I thought I'd never feel the same
About anyone
Or anything again

This one also isn’t what it seems to be.

Without a doubt one of the late artist’s most haunting and beautiful songs, ‘Jesus to a Child’ is a personal tribute which references George Michael's grief following the loss of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa.

He met Feleppa while performing in Rio de Janeiro in 1991 and later shared that “he was the first love of my entire life.”

“I was happier than I’d ever been. Fame, money, everything just paled by comparison."

Feleppa died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and given that Michael hadn’t come out as gay by the time the song was released in 1996, many interpreted the song as being an ode to faith. Oh, the irony, considering most organized religion’s despicable attitudes towards any deviation from heteronormativity.

‘Jesus to a Child’ became George’s first ever solo single to enter the UK charts at number one. Right up until his death in 2016, the artist would dedicate the song to Feleppa when he performed it live. After his death, the founder of the UK charity Childline, Dame Esther Rantzen, revealed that all the royalties from ‘Jesus to a Child’ were secretly donated to the charity, which provides a counselling service for children and teenagers going through difficult times.

Now try listening to that song and not shedding a tear.

Nirvana - 'Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam'

Jesus, don't want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are never made like me
Don't expect me to cry
For all the reasons you had to die
Don't ever ask your love of me

Originally recorded by the Scottish outfit The Vaselines, this song remains better known for the Nirvana cover, which changed the original title from ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’ to ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam’.

The Vaseline’s conceived the song as a parody of the Christian children’s hymn ‘I’ll Be a Sunbeam’ and Nirvana’s version seems to take that baton and run further with it, considering Kurt Cobain and the band were outspoken on homophobia and sexism. Cobain even said he wished he’d been gay just to piss off homophobes, and often wore dresses to protest against sexism.

"Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want," he told the LA Times, in a jab at the macho undercurrents he loathed in the rock scene. "I'm a heterosexual... big deal. But if I was a homosexual, it wouldn't matter either."

He also admitted to spray-painting care with “God is gay” in his hometown of Aberdeen, and repeatedly stated that he had no time for any form of apathetic behaviour.

“I'm disgusted at what we allow to go on, by how spineless, lethargic and guilty we are of not standing up against racism, sexism and all those other 'isms' that the counterculture has been whining about for years while they sit and enforce those same attitudes every night on their televisions and in the magazines."

For Nirvana, ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam’ was a song about rejecting a hypocritical belief system that doesn’t celebrate the tolerance it preaches. Because sunbeams "are never made like me."

The Flaming Lips - 'Jesus Shootin’ Heroin'

Before you dismiss the inclusion of this song as childish provocation, stop to consider the stories behind the previous songs and open your mind (and ears) to this one.

Let’s start with the lyrics:

Well, I never really understood religions
Except it seems a good reason to kill
Everybody's got their own conceptions
And you know, they always will
These days are needles under my skin
Jesus shootin' heroin

If there are priests at your party
And you're playing cards that are numbered
And you got no reason to think it
Until your chances are uncovered
Tell me that I got to believe in
Jesus shootin' heroin

The police in New York city
Chased a boy, right through the park
In a case of mistaken identities
They put a bullet through his heart

I met Mary, on the corner with the streetlights
She asked me if I'd come up to her room
I told her that I didn't have no money
She said she had to leave pretty soon
I decided that I would go in
Jesus shootin' heroin

Taken from The Flaming Lips’ debut 1986 album ‘Hear It Is’, the song is less about likening religion to a drug, and more a commentary on the corruption of religion and how frustration prevails when society remains complacent in the face of suffering. That or it could be read as a pessimistic ditty that states that even Jesus would be shooting up considering the current state of the world. Your call.

However you choose to interpret it, frontman Wayne Coyne maintained a healthy sense of humour and distance vis-à-vis ‘Jesus Shootin’ Heroin’, telling Red Bull Music Academy in 2017: "I think we wanted to appear to be menacing and deep and represent some dark, unspeakable version of life in the Bible Belt or something like that. (…) It's just such a strange, strange song and I could understand why people would think that something is going wrong and we're weird and we're pretentious all at the same time."

Whether pretentious or weird, it’s an underappreciated song that deserves – like the previous ones – an inclusion in your Easter playlist.