“Of footprints left behind Him, in the earthly path He trod,
And how the lowest may find Him, who straitly walk with God,”
From “The Object of a Life” by G. J. Whyte Melville
In The 1975’s Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, lead vocalist, Matty Healy, and guest artist, Phoebe Bridgers, take on the personas of people who are concealing their same-sex attraction because it conflicts with their Christian beliefs.
The theme is set out in the opening two verses, where Matty’s character says ‘I’m in love’ twice because he is in love with both Jesus Christ and a boy he knows. In trying to reconcile these supposedly incompatible feelings, he concludes in the opening line of the chorus that ‘fortunately, [he] believes’.
This establishes the idea that he is ‘lucky’ to believe in God. Finding it fortunate to believe in God when it creates a guilt about his same-sex attraction suggests that other people are unlucky and unfortunate not to believe, because they will not have the guidance of God to cope with their feelings.
The line, ‘Searching for planes in the sea’, is likely a reference to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing and was never found, even after a thorough search of the oceans it was most likely to be in. The reference means he is searching for something elusive and almost impossible to find, a solution to his dilemma, an answer from God. The quest is ‘ironic’ because planes do not belong in the sea, but also because the searching itself may be for something that is not there to find.
In the third line of the chorus, the characters sing that ‘soil just needs water and a seed to be’, or to exist as a living thing, which in this context also represents the water of life, the Holy Spirit that is needed to nourish the seed of a soul. But, the characters ask, if they turn into a tree, can they be the leaves? What they want to know is whether they can change, whether this part of them they feel but do not want to admit to the outside world, will pass like the leaves that fall away. If they receive the holy spirit, will they be able to alter who they inherently are, what they want to become?
The line in the second verse, ‘for I am just a footprint in the snow’ is a reference to a poem of disputed authorship called ‘Footprints in the Sand’. In the poem, a believer looks back on his life, represented by the titular footprints, in the company of God. For most of his life he sees two sets of footprints in the sand because God walked beside him. When he was at his most desperate and in need of help, however, he sees only one set of footprints. He questions whether at these times God had abandoned him, but God replies that ‘it was then that I carried you’.
In the song, the lyric follows the line ‘I’m in love but I’m feeling low’. The narrator is also at his most desperate and in need of help, but he is only one footprint. There is a greater ambiguity here, for the song exists in a world where God does not explain himself: The single footprint could be because God has abandoned him, or because God carried him, or because there is no God. The fleeting nature of life is further emphasised by the sands of time being replaced by the more ephemeral snow.
Another deviation from the poem’s analogy is that in the song the footprint does not belong to him but IS him. In the poem, the footprints represent the stages of the believer’s life. In the song, Matty’s character is saying is that he is just a stage in his life that will pass; not at a stage, A stage.
An ancient Greek philosopher called Heraclitus is famous for saying that you can never step in the same river twice. This is true because the water you are stepping into is constantly changing. It follows that people, composed of the same star-stuff as everything else, are also constantly changing. Matty’s character realises this, and although there is hope in the possibility of change, he also realises the insignificance of his being, which results in him feeling low about his love.
Phoebe Bridgers’ verse is also about sublimating her same-sex desire. She is ‘nice’ when her beloved, Claire, ‘comes round to call’ but will ‘masturbate the second she’s not there’, which adds a second so-called sin. The word ‘nice’ was also used in the first verse, where Matty sang that Jesus is ‘so nice’. The repetition suggests that when Claire comes around, the Phoebe Bridgers character is acting in a godly way, which she immediately stops doing when Claire leaves.
Although it is not mentioned in the lyrics, the year 2005 is part of the title because it was a pivotal year for gay rights. In the UK, the home of The 1975, it was the year that civil partnerships between same-sex couples were introduced, while California, the birthplace of Phoebe Bridgers, became the first US state to legalise gay marriage. It was therefore not just a confusing time for the characters in the song, but also for the statute books. In the UK, partnerships between same-sex couples were legally recognised, but marriages, the domain of the church, were not. Part of the US had accepted gay marriage, but other parts still held out. It also might explain the second part of the title, “God Bless America”, because a part of America had accepted gay marriage while the UK still had yet to do so.
The sound of the instruments being set up at the start of the song create the illusion of immediacy, as if the characters are desperate to articulate their current dilemma. The acoustic guitar also lends the tune a confessional tone. There are muted trumpets in the background, partly representing the trumpets of God and the angels, but because they are muted, also capturing the inability of the two characters to fully express their feelings.
When you think of a duet, especially by singers of opposing genders, you tend to think of love songs: Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”, Dolly Parton and the late Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream” and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, the latter of which features one of the most famous gay musicians in history, but is still about a heterosexual relationship. In this instance, there are two people of opposite genders singing about their longing for someone of the same gender, subverting the expectations of such a duet.
In short, The 1975’s “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” is a duet between people who are not lovers but share the same internal struggle, a confessional about concealing your own nature and a song of praise caveated by several reservations. It is a mess of contradictions, but by embracing these, it articulates a difficult struggle and becomes a beautiful representation of the truth.