Listen to this track by synth-pop movers and dark-dance auteurs Depeche Mode. It’s “Personal Jesus”, their return to the top 40 US charting single as taken from 1989’s Violator.
It would be a song that would secure their continued success in North America, and establish them as a key alternative dance pop act that had evolved from their original incarnation of fresh-faced Kraftwerkian synthesists, under the creative guidance of co-founder and original member Vince Clarke. By the end of the 1980s, head writer Martin Gore had successfully steered the band’s material into the darker corners of human experience. This song would be one of the best examples of the establishment of their work as having much darker, psychologically complex themes compared to when they first started out.
For instance, there is a distinct human dynamic outlined in this song that most bands were not exploring in the mainstream; the willingness to be subsumed by another. But, is this just about sexual roleplay tied up in religious imagery as it is often assumed? Or, are there implications that go beyond that?
Even if Depeche Mode was known as a band who’d embraced technology in the early part of the decade, by the end of it, they’d shown an equal propensity to exploring primal themes in their songs that made the technology used to deliver them to be a secondary consideration. With this song, the music falls in line with that more primal approach, with a bluesy, repetitive riff that diverges from what anyone would consider to be straight-forward synth-pop. It could be, and has been, played in a variety of stylistic settings, with cover versions from Marilyn Manson, to Tori Amos, to Johnny Cash, all of whom explored religious content and imagery in their own work due to their own religious upbringing.
To that point, this song hooks into the American psyche in particular via images of Christianity, which may explain its impact on American charts. This is something Depeche Mode been working on since 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours”. This song continues in this vein, with the naming of Jesus as a cultural nerve that made many prick up their ears. But, this song really isn’t about faith or religion in the way that their earlier hit had been. This is about those things that religion and faith promise to deliver; security, and unconditional acceptance, even if very often it is the dynamics of control which are the more common results.
This is what makes this song thematically appealing. The hoped-for promise and the underlying threat of giving over one’s will to the will of someone else live in the same space. It contains political, even Orwellian overtones that go beyond an S&M scenario with which this song is often associated. Because the promise of safety, security, and belonging is a common tactic among political movements who benefit from a submissive population willing to cling to that sense of safety, security, and belonging at the cost of all else.
Depeche Mode would follow this thematic line in their follow-up record knowingly titled Songs Of Faith And Devotion in 1993. Beyond that, “Personal Jesus” would be covered and re-mixed many times, still resonating for listeners in the dark corners of the mind.
Depeche Mode are an active band today that you can catch up with at Depechemode.com.