I’d like to think that when Joan Osborne asked, “What if God was one of us?” back in 1996, the singer knew what she was doing.
Of course, she could have no way of knowing the song would become the thing that would propel her to Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum-selling success, but I like to imagine that when she sang “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/trying to make his way home,” she knew those lyrics might not go over so well with religious factions not used to having the nature of God questioned in a pop song, and went forth anyway.
This is not because I want to stick it to religion—or God, for that matter—but more that in a world populated by pop princesses dressed as schoolgirl temptresses and urging audiences to “hit me baby one more time,” Osborne’s song—and Osborne herself—was something of an anomaly.
But being anomalous is something that seems to come naturally to Osborne, which makes it all the more appropriate that the song she made famous was not only outside the norm, but also came with a fair amount of controversy courtesy (mostly) of the Catholic League, who took objection to Osborne’s characterization of God as a “slob” and accused the singer of “Catholic baiting.”
Osborne’s response was to issue a statement to the Catholic League asserting that the “church’s attitudes toward women and gays make the pope look far more ridiculous than any pop song could.”
You go, girl.
As the song was creating controversy among the Catholic League, it was also striking a chord among the millions of listeners who responded to its questions about what we would actually do if we happened to come face to face with God during our daily bus commute by making it a Top 40 hit and propelling Osborne from obscurity to fame in the blink of an eye.
And fame was an opportunity Osborne didn’t want to waste.
Along with releasing a couple of follow-up singles that didn’t achieve the same success as “One of Us,” but helped bolster sales of Osborne’s album Relish (which was also nominated for several Grammy Awards), Osborne used her career as a conduit for change and her fame as a platform to advance the causes she believed in. The liner notes for Relish contained information about such organizations as Planned Parenthood, and it wasn’t long before Osborne aligned herself in both an onstage and behind-the-scenes capacity with the Lilith Fair.
Like I said, not your average pop princess.
In fact, with her unruly cascade of curls, nose ring and ever-present Doc Martens, Osborne wasn’t a pop princess at all, evidenced by the fact that she’s been known to say that, for her, it was a relief to leave all that instant stardom behind—despite the opportunities it afforded her—in order to follow a path that has been decidedly her own. Rather than chasing another hit single, another platinum record, more Grammy nods, Osborne has channeled her creative energy—and that bluesy, soulful, instantly recognizable voice—into projects that are more reflective of her identity as both a person and an artist.
In 2002, her path put her on a collision course with Motown when she began performing with the Funk Brothers and was featured in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown singing with the legendary ensemble. That led to a touring stint with the Dixie Chicks (a band comprised of women who are also no strangers to doing—and saying—what they please).
The years between then and now have been anything but dull for the chanteuse, and she’s split her time between recording and performing original material and giving voice to songs by everyone from Spearhead to Cheap Trick to Dolly Parton.
These days, Osborne is part of Trigger Hippy, a band that also includes Steve Gorman of the Black Crowes, producer and multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough, songwriter Jackie Greene, and Nick Govrik. As well, she’s currently touring in support of her most recent album, Bring It On Home, which was released in March.
But even with all this music going on, Osborne’s activism remains close to the surface. She’s a contributor to a campaign dubbed “30 Songs/30 Days,” which was created to support and publicize issues raised by Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestseller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
When viewed through the suspect lens of hindsight, it’s easy to imagine Osborne knew exactly what she was doing all those years ago when she asked if God was one of us. And that may, in fact, be the case. Much as with God himself, it all comes down to what you choose to believe.
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