Track of the Day: 'Jesus Christ'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Working from Sophie’s great idea, we’ve been working through a sort of double-canon of Christmas music the last couple weeks—songs both secular and holy. But where there’s a canon, there must also be an anti-canon. And for me, the greatest song in the Christmas anti-canon will always be Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.”

“Jesus Christ” comes comes from the great, underappreciated power-pop group’s shambling, incoherent, brilliant third record, (creatively titled) Third. It’s hard to say that anything really belongs on the album, but “Jesus Christ” sticks out in particular:

Why is there a Christmas song in the middle of a non-Christmas album? What does it mean? The track begins, for no clear, reason with the goofy tune “Mañana,” then grinds to a halt and pivots into the main song, announced by a jangly guitar riff and Jody Stephens’ thunderous drums. The lyrics are a strange mash-up of hymns (“Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David's city/Was bathed in the light of love”) with a straightforward chorus: “Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born.”

Was singer and songwriter Alex Chilton serious? Unlike his erstwhile bandmate Chris Bell, Chilton doesn’t seem to have been particularly religious. The rest of the record is full of other oddities: the tear-jerkingly earnest “Blue Moon”; “Thank You Friends,” almost Dylanesque in its spite; and misleading covers of “Nature Boy” and “Whole Lotta Shaking.” Chilton does a wry parody of a bandleader introducing the sax solo—“Now we’re gonna get born”—a suggestion of a sneer. But there’s so much sarcasm and so much aching sincerity across Big Star’s catalog that you have no idea whether to take a line like “And the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail” as mockery of Christian piety or a tribute to genuine faith.

I think that ambiguity makes the song—which, as Stewart Mason notes, has become a college-rock December staple. As both a wiseass and a believer, I like to listen to it all year, but it takes on particular meaning around Christmas.