10 Rock ‘n’ Roll Messiahs

Kenneth Partridge

By Kenneth Partridge

on 04.17.14 in Lists

It’s a shame Jesus wasn’t born 2,000 years later. Whether he was the Son of God or simply an itinerant preacher with a knack for starting trouble, Jesus of Nazareth had definite rocker tendencies. Jesus was, after all, a longhaired, charismatic street poet with a controversial message and distinct ways of talking and dressing. He inspired utter devotion, and artists from Kurt Cobain to Beyonce have embodied different aspects of his mythical persona.

And why not? Rock ‘n’ roll is about passion and pain, selflessness and ego, with artists dying every night on stage. It’s a secular religion, and no matter which Jesus you believe in — and there are plenty to choose from — there’s a musical equivalent. In honor of Easter, we’re praising those musicians who represent 10 of the most common Jesus archetypes. Eat of their flesh. Drink of their blood. Blast the hell out of their records.

The Light of the World: Beyonce

At its core, the Jesus story is about hope and wonder and basking in the warm light of a benevolent deity who wants only to make the world a better place. That’s Bey to a T, and any time the gorgeous and talented R&B superstar takes the stage, thousands of people of all different races, ages and sexual orientations bow before their queen. Beyonce capped performances of her Mrs. Carter Show world tour by soaring over fans’ heads — ostensibly with a harness, but hey, maybe not.

Representative lyric: “Super Power”
“The laws of the world tell us what goes sky/ and what falls/ It’s a super power/ Super power/ The laws of the world never stopped us once/ ‘Cause together we got plenty super power”

Supporting Bible verse: John 8:12
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The Unrepentant Badass: M.I.A.

One man’s messiah is another’s terrorist, and it was charges of “subverting” the Roman nation and refusing to pay taxes that ultimately led to Jesus’s execution. To the cops, he was an insurrectionist, a threat to the state. M.I.A. has been called similar things, both because of her family background — her father was a Tamil Tiger freedom fighter in his native Sri Lanka — and her antiauthoritarian lyrics. M.I.A. raps about bulldozing borders and overthrowing the powers that be, and if you put her in front of a global TV audience, she’s liable to throw up a middle finger. She’s a proud citizen of the “World Town,” a hyper-loud, neon-colored global community where cheapo ringtones are sweet, sweet music and the dispossessed refuse to take crap from anybody.

Relevant lyric: “Born Free”
“But I’m eager/ And car doesn’t work so I’m stuck here/ I don’t wanna live for tomara/ I’ll push my luck today/ I’ll throw this in ya face when I see ya/ I got somethin’ to say/ I’ll throw this shit in ya face when I see ya/ Cause I got somin’ to say”

Supporting Bible verse: Luke 23:2-3
And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.”

The Zionist Revolutionary: Bob Marley

In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, scholar Reza Aslan paints J.C. as a staunch Jewish nationalist, an anti-Roman crusader whose calls to “love thy neighbor” only applied to his own people. Whether or not that’s true, J.C.’s Jamaican equivalent, Bob Marley, preached a decidedly inclusive form of Zionism, drawing on up-with-the-people Old Testament rhetoric adopted by the Rastafarians. The reggae godhead sang of toppling Babylon and chasing the “crazy baldheads” — i.e. the non-dreadlocked heathens — out of town, but he also wrote tunes like “One Love” and “War,” universal declarations of human rights.

Representative lyrics: “Zion Train”
“Zion train is coming our way/ The Zion train is coming our way/ Oh, people, get on board! (You better get on board!)/ Thank the Lord (Praise Fari)/ I gotta catch a train, ’cause there is no other station/ Then you going in the same direction”

Supporting Bible verse: Matthew 10:34
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

The 99 Percenter: Woody Guthrie

Jesus was the original “Occupier,” a poor carpenter whose most notorious act of rebellion, “The Cleansing of the Temple,” involved flipping the tables of the greedy moneychangers he felt had sullied sacred ground. It’s a narrative that resonated with socialist balladeer and folk icon Woody Guthrie, who once wrote a song called “Christ for President.” And then there’s Woody’s most famous tune, “This Land Is Your Land,” a woefully misunderstood children’s sing-along that questions the American Dream and denounces the idea of private property.

Representative lyric: “Heaven”
“The last labor battles are ended, they’re shown on the screen and the page/ The workhand is happy at building his world like the play on his stage/ Profiteers are gone and forgotten, except in my history and book/ My friends all have jobs here in heaven and sing as I stand here and look”

Supporting Bible verse: Matthew 19:21
“If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The Savior and Miracle Worker: David Bowie

In first-century Palestine, the world was filled with self-professed magicians and exorcists, “men of deeds,” as Reza Aslan describes them. Jesus was different. He healed lepers and turned water to wine, and as a grand finale, he rose from the dead and promised salvation to his followers. Same with David Bowie, particularly in the early ’70s, when he adopted the persona of Ziggy Stardust, an alien messiah sent to earth to save true-believing boys and girls with glammy rock ‘n’ roll. Or something like that.

Representative lyric: “Starman”
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky/ He’d like to come and meet us/ But he thinks he’d blow our minds/ There’s a starman waiting in the sky/ He’s told us not to blow it /’Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”

Supporting Bible verses: John 11:25–26
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

The Martyr: Kurt Cobain

The Romans weren’t big on prisoners’ rights, and before he was even nailed to the cross, Jesus was forced to carry it through the streets, all while being flogged by his captors. He “suffered for our sins,” as Luke tells us, and it’s that image — Christ the martyr — that folks ranging from renaissance painters to Mel Gibson have chosen to dwell on. Kurt Cobain was spared the literal lash, but he faced intense industry pressures and the expectations of a generation searching for a spokesman. On stage and in photos, he often wore the downcast look of a guy bearing a heavy burden, and in the end, his greatest tormentor proved to be himself.

Representative lyric: “All Apologies”
“I wish I was like you/ Easily amused/ Find my nest of salt/ Everything is my fault/ I’ll take all the blame/ Aqua sea foam shame/ Sunburn with freezer burn/ Choking on the ashes of her enemy”

Supporting Bible verses: Mark 15:22–27
They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place. They tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it. They crucified him. They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what. It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.” They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.

The Egotist: Kanye West

Even if he performed the ultimate act of selflessness — dying for the sins of man — Jesus had a thing for talking himself up. That’s how it’s always been with great leaders. No matter how pure your intentions, it takes a healthy ego to stand before a crowd and dare to point the way forward. Pop music, like politics, tends to attract people with messianic complexes, and in a field littered with wannabe Christs, there’s no one more self-aggrandizing than Yeezus. His “presence is a present,” and while no one man should have his level of power, he seems fairly comfy in his throne.

Representative lyric: “The One”
“I’m the one, baby/ Yeah, I’m the one, baby/ Since God gave his only begotten son, baby/ It’s hard preachin’ the gospel to the slums lately/ So I had to put the church on the drums, baby”

Supporting Bible verse: Matthew 10:37–38
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”

The Hippie: John Lennon

Whereas some see Jesus as a Zionist crusader — a zealot not averse to using force as a means to an end — others view him as the original flower child. He did wear sandals and long hair and use the word “love” a lot, and in that sense, he had a little bit in common with John Lennon. As a Beatle, Lennon wrote “All You Need Is Love,” and during the ’70s he and wife Yoko emerged as figureheads of the antiwar movement. They were devoted to peace, and they weren’t afraid of weirding people out to make a point. Both Lennon and Jesus had complex relationships with the women in their lives — particularly their mothers. Lennon felt abandoned by his, since she passed him off to his aunt and uncle. Jesus, meanwhile, sass-mouthed his mother, Mary, in the famous water-to-wine passage in the gospel of John, and his relationship with Mary Magdalene remains a source of debate. For two men with utopian visions, they didn’t always know peace in their lifetimes.

Representative lyric: “Give Peace a Chance”
“Everybody’s talking about/ Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism/ This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m/ All we are saying is give peace a chance/ All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Supporting Bible verse: John 14:27
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The Leader of Misfits: Lady Gaga

Beyonce has “the Hive,” an army of fans notable for its inclusivity. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, presides over the “Little Monsters,” a freakier assemblage of pop fans, sure, but also dweebs, drama kids, drag queens, LGBT-ers and proud outcasts of all shapes and sizes. Their theme song: “Born This Way,” Madonna’s “Express Yourself” recast as self-acceptance anthem. In the same way Gaga digs the misfits, Jesus famously broke bread with whores, thieves and murderers — those who needed salvation most.

Representative lyric: “Bad Kids”
“We don’t care what people say/ We know the truth/ Enough is enough with this horse shit/ I am not a freak/ I was born with my freedom/ Don’t tell me I’m less than my freedom.”

Supporting Bible verse: Luke 6:22
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject you because you follow the Son of Man.

The Unknowable: Morrissey

For all the books that have been written about Jesus, the fact remains that he lived two millennia ago, during a time of shoddy record keeping. The four New Testament gospels were written decades after his death, and given that they were composed by his followers, they’re unreliable historical documents. To some extent, Jesus is unknowable. He is what the faithful make of him — a projection, just like Stephen Patrick Morrissey. On Smiths tracks and solo songs alike, Moz professes to reveal himself, but after 30 years fans still know precious little about what actually goes on under his pompadour. And since Morrissey encompasses so many Jesus types — he’s an egotistical martyr who disavows war, chides the greedy, fights savagely for what he believes and offers salvation for his thousands of well-coiffed weirdo devotees — he may be the truest rock ‘n’ roll Jesus of all. Lord, help us.

Representative lyric: “How Can Anyone Possibly Know How I Feel?”
“They said they respect me/ Which means their judgment is crazy/ I’ve had my face dragged/ In 15 miles of shit/ And I do not/ And I do not/ And I do not like it/ So how can anybody say/ They know how I feel/ When they are they/ And only I am I”

Supporting Bible verse: Matthew 13:11
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.”