This is an essay I wrote for a live lit event. The theme was “musical guilty pleasures.”
Joan Osborne’s “Relish” (image via)
It is 1996. I am in the 5th grade, and so is my best friend Nicole. Nicole lives up the road from me and rides my school bus, and we have almost nothing in common. Even at age 11, she has much more of a rebellious streak than I do, and her mom isn’t around much. I, however, am the daughter of two librarians who always know where I am, and my idea of a rebellion at this point in life is trading a whole grain natural peanut butter and sugar-free jelly sandwich at lunch for a Little Debby Zebra Cake — if anyone would have been willing to make such a trade at my school.
It’s almost the end of the school year, and we are beyond excited. It’s been announced that there’s going to be a talent show at the elementary school’s spring fling, and we are going to perform. Neither of us can sing, but we love singing anyway, and we’re pretty sure we have just the right amount of heart to pull this thing off. We believe whole-heartedly in Disney movie endings.
Nicole and I are very different people, but we both know what we’re going to perform: We are completely enthralled and obsessed with Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” a song whose artist will later be known as a strange one-hit wonder. But we don’t know that yet. All we know now, at age 11, is that this song speaks to us, on a deeply profound and important level.
We listen to it all the time. We try to record it off the radio with a tape deck, because it’s the mid-90s and that’s how we listen to our favorite songs. Neither of our moms wants to waste money on more band’s cassette tapes we will inevitably play on loop until they want to tear their hair out. This does pose the immediate problem of having a copy of the song for us to play at the talent show. I find what I see at the time as a creative solution, after many failed attempts at taping it from the radio at the very beginning.
We live in rural, southeastern Ohio, and my family’s house is just up the hill from one of several country bars along State Route 564. Weirdly, I’m allowed to go down there by myself on Saturday mornings to play video games and buy candy bars, armed with a coin purse full of quarters. This morning, however, those quarters are otherwise spoken for. I bring down my portable cassette player and park myself in front of the bar’s juke box, which contains a copy of Joan Osborne’s 1995 album, “Relish.” I play “One of Us” on the machine and hit record. I do this at least three or four times at 10 a.m. in this empty dive, where the woman behind the bar must surely wonder what the hell I am doing. She does not ask.
Satisfied, I back walk up the hill to my house.
I listen to this song over and over and over. I can’t then put into words what draws me into it so much, but as an adult I can supply a theory: This song asks some big questions and is pretty much a highly-diluted version of Christianity. It makes God a person. I mean, what if God WAS just a stranger on the bus, you guys? Just think about that.
I live and breathe this song. I play the lyrics out in my mind like a movie, and think about deceased grandparents and wonder where they are now. I hold the tape player close to me and find myself trying to picture God’s face. I don’t know yet that my life will later be filled with lots of bigger questions and conflicting feelings about organized religion and the meaning of faith. I don’t yet know that my mom will get cancer and die and that I will be really unhappy with God over that. “Good” and “evil” are still black and white to me at age 11, and God personified is a comforting thought.
We memorize the words and get ready for the talent show. We decide Joan Osborn’s vocal range is just in line with each of ours, and we wonder why we are not famous musicians yet. We practice and practice and make up a dance to go with the song even though we both know ultimately we will never perform it in public. But we feel ready.
It’s the big night of the talent show. We see our peers perform before us and we judge them silently to distract ourselves from our nerves. A girl who is a perfectionist and source of constant irritation for me in my classes sings a beautiful rendition of Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.” I seethe at her success and also feel pangs of envy over the fact that I didn’t think of doing that song first. We watch two boys in our class cover a Green Day song and years later I will have crushes on both of them because my type of man will be partially defined by this performance.
Finally it’s our turn.
At this point I need to mention that “One of Us” is a five-minute song. Years later I will come to know that any halfway-decent karaoke stand-by should not surpass the four-minute mark, with the exception of certain 80s classics and even then, only with a very forgiving audience. But we are 11, and we are not thinking of how long those five minutes are going to feel for us or for anyone watching.
We get on stage, and stand too far away from the mics because we are terrified. The AV person hits play, and a static-y, second-hand recording of “One of Us” begins to play. It is now dawning on me that we probably should have told at least one of our parents about this talent show because someone would have likely stepped in and told us that using a recording of a recording was a bad idea. But it’s too late for that now. We both very quietly sing, “What if God was one of us…?” and look out at our peers in our half-full school cafeteria.
The song seems to go on forever but mercifully, it ends. We stand in silence as the final notes fade out, and the audience stares at us. We stare back, and then someone politely claps. The rest of the audience kicks in, and we jolt back into action and scurry off stage.
It is awful, but somehow we are running high from our achievement, or from our own daring. We hug each other and laugh backstage.
To this day I am unclear as to why none of our parents were there, or at the very least my mom, but it doesn’t matter. We got through it, and we shared our message with the world. Tonight I leave you with that same message:
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, just trying to make his way home?
Think about that.