Late last summer, when Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” was hitting the radio left, right, and center, five people sat around a table trying to figure out what this horrible piece of bleating na-na-na was doing in our lives. It was a mixed group: two women in their early twenties, one in her forties, another just fifty, and myself. “God, it’s like the phone ringing in the middle of the night. You pick it up, you hear this woman screaming, you say, ‘Uh… honey, I think it’s for you,” one person said. “It’s pop music as a disease,” said another. “You mean, like a rash?” “No, just the flu. Everybody gets it.” “The problem is,” the first person said, “she wants him back. All of this ‘It’s not fair’ and ‘I-bet-I-fuck-better-than-she-does’ is supposed to work, like that ever does. That’s why I can’t listen to it. It’s so stupid.”
The song never got any better for me, although sometimes I forced myself to listen all the way to the end. It got worse a few months later, when, with “You Oughta Know” getting even more airplay, Morissette’s chirpy look-at-me anthem “Hand in My Pocket” began running right alongside it. Hating a record can be fun, of course, but it’s no fun to feel out of touch—and so, in December, I was thrilled to find that now monstrously familiar voice singing something I actually loved, chanting, “I want you to come,” almost every time I turned on the radio. It was the most convincingly sexual statement I could remember hearing on a record. The song was fascinating, with its beat-the-censor tag line floating off the hook—“I want you to come (walk this world with me…)”—and an overproduced, boilerplate bridge taking away the impact of the five words the song was all about, only to have each next verse slowly find its way back, delivering them whole, new every time. I was so delighted to be able to join the dance, I rushed right out and bought Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill—only to find, of course, that “I Want You to Come” was by Heather Nova and called “Walk This World.” But by then I was fighting off someone more insidious than Alanis Morissette: Joan Osborne.
What makes Osborne’s “One of Us,” her omnipresent God song, far worse than anything by Morissette is that if you give it more than the second it takes to realize what it is before you turn it off, the record is absolutely seductive. Maybe it’s not only for medical reasons that Osborne lists a hypnotist on her album credits: Inside the clumsy, lumbering cadences of “One of Us” is a mesmerizing sway. It catches you up. Resistance is like running in sand. Osborne’s singing is in the same vein: cloying, simpering, preening, and utterly unwilling to quit, floating on the music like a wafer on your tongue. Refusing to swallow, letting the host dissolve of its own accord, Osborne disguises belief as doubt. The demand “If God had a face, what would it look like, and would you wanna see, if seeing meant that you would have to believe, in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints, and allllll the prophets” is as hard as anything the Christian Coalition is dishing out; Osborne’s little-girl-wondering delivery takes away the sting, which nevertheless might fester—toxin under the skin.On Osborne’s hit album, the setup of the song is startlingly effective. “One of Us” is preceded by the slightest hint of deep tradition, with hundreds of years of backwoods piety now about to claim the present: sixteen seconds of Nell Hampton’s “The Airplane Ride.” A Kentuckian like Osborne (though the latter is now a New Yorker), Hampton was recorded in the ’60s or ’70s by folklorist Alan Lomax; you can hear her complete song on the New World Records anthology The Gospel Ship. Singing in church, alone, with a shivery, scratchy voice full of happiness and no accompaniment, Hampton lines out a prophesy: “The Lord’s gonna come in His heavenly airplane.” Then immediately into “One of Us” itself: big, rolling, shiny chords from Osborne’s guitarist and writing partner, Eric Bazilian (the sole writer on “One of Us”). Eventually, the calculation in Bazilian’s opening will be all you hear, and the drama of the moment will be like a memory you can’t bring back; for now it rules the song—and the radio.
And not just the radio. What with Osborne’s new-blood star turns at the last Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, regular worship in Entertainment Weekly, and her five Grammy nominations (Morissette had six), the apotheosis is yet to come. In the meantime, the ubiquity of “One of Us,” rising out of an album that twenty years ago would have come across as a witless parody of the blues-beltin’, white soul mama cut with Deadhead whirling and hippie Jesus love, is staggering. On MTV, the tune is constant, with Osborne dreamily moving with her eyes closed, then looking you plain in the face as if to ask if you’re still holding out on her.
The song even closed a recent episode of Homicide. The crew of detectives had tracked a sniper all over Baltimore, helpless to do more than count his victims, shot down in the street at random: one, two, three, four, … nine. Finally, he’s identified, his house is surrounded, and he shoots himself. The ending leaves everyone stranded, bereft, blasted, empty. Unable to question the killer, they are faced with a crime without motive, without meaning. One by one, utterly drained of energy and emotion, they go back to their houses and apartments to brood on nihilism. As they settle into their beds, or stare into mirrors, you see a second sniper climbing a building with a rifle in his hand—while, on the sound track, Osborne asks, so innocently, as if the thought just occurred to her, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like… ” Like the man with the rifle in his hand who is playing God, raising his gun to pass judgment, as if he’d heard the song, bought it, played it over and over, and thought, ‘As well me as another, so…’
Awful, inescapable songs can bring the most awful, inescapable thoughts: mine, I mean, if not yours.
Interview, April 1996