In 1995, Joan Osbourne released the single “One of Us”—which you may know by the longer, more cumbersome name, “What if God Was One of Us”—a line that repeats in the song only three times, but seems like a million. Relish , the album the song appeared on, was nominated for a Grammy for Record of the Year.
And yet, it’s hard to remember what a grand impact this song had at the time, or how titillated we all were by Osbourne’s nose ring in the music video. In the last 20 years the only thing I’ve heard anyone say about this song is that the lyric the song is so famous for should actually be, “What if God were one of us.”
Grammatical persnicketies aside, this song has haunted me for 25 years. Not in an omnipresent godlike way. More in a I-just-saw-my-ex-in-the-grocery-store-after-months-of-not-thinking-about-them way. Which is, perhaps, the way we all come to feel about our childhood eventually. And while I’ll go out on a limb and make the controversial statement that I like the song just fine, I know the real reason I know every word is not because it was my favorite (it wasn’t), but because it was illicit.
I grew up Seventh Day Adventist. What most people know about Adventists comes from Lane’s character on the Gilmore Girls; no meat, no dancing, and the ultimate hurdle for Lane—no secular music. I don’t know (yet) if Lane ever confronts the quandary that is Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us,” but when it came out, I remember thinking, Wow, a song that mentions God that I don’t hate, and assuming it would get a free pass in the Adventist circle. Adventists—at least the ones I knew in the 90s—had this funny way of working exceptionally hard to act like they understood the way normal people in the actual world lived. For example, by the time I was in a Seventh Day Adventist boarding high school, it was frequently noted that we were very laid back because we were allowed to have drums in church.
Drums, yes. Joan Osbourne, no.
You might be as incredulous as I was at 11—what is objectionable about a song that makes me feel shitty for not believing in God? But what I realize now is that despite all its God references, I didn’t hate it for the same reason it was singled out as especially unacceptable. It acknowledged doubt. Since exiting the Adventist world, the single most prevalent feature of my experience has been doubt. Doubt about the big stuff—like God—and the small stuff—like the location of my keys—and all the stuff in between, like relationships and jobs and the purpose of my existence.
When I was laid off in March of this year I decided, like many people, to learn guitar. It was a time of much doubt and I was looking for something like control. I was looking for easy, familiar songs. Things that I’d be able to feel my way through and memorize without trying. For me that means ’90s songs. And when you search for ’90s songs for beginners on UltimateGuitar.com, you get Joan Osbourne.
I have gone through my drunk phase, my sex-is-just-physical phase, my relentless cursing phase, my dyed hair phase, and a few decades of a casual self-loathing. I have cycled through the traditional rebellions. But playing a pop song that stillmakes me feel uncomfortable because it uses the word “God” in a not-entirely-irreverent way was uncharted territory. Still, if I picked up guitar to try to turn the hell realm of 2020 into something positive—to learn something new—it would be cowardly not to commit to the experiment. Even if the thing I learned was not a new chord but something about myself.
And I definitely didn’t learn a new chord. The song is easy to play. It’s easy to sing along to. It’s not fast or complex or, probably, even that interesting to most people. But singing the words, “If God had a face / what would it look like / and would you want to see / if seeing meant that you would have to believe?” does a tap-dance across my guilt and shame and fear of rejection. And just like drinking too much or sleeping with people who didn’t care about me, I suspect that’s why I’ll have to do it over and over and over again to get past it.