Why Joan Osborne’s “(What if God Was) One of Us” is a Stupid Song

Fourteen years later, I get around to taking Joan Osborne to task about her crappy hit single, “One of Us.”

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Lookah mah jowls!

Joan Osborne is a moron, as is evidenced by her song, “One of Us,” or, as you may call it “What if God Was One of Us.” Now, this song came out in 1995 and was written by Eric Bazilian a band member of “The Hooters” who, obviously, is from the country Bazil, and, in actuality, attended the same high school as my brother and my senior-year girlfriend, not that anybody cares. This is as much a critique on his lyrics as Joan Osborne’s decision to do the song in the first place. But, because she had final creative control, I am going to direct all comments at her, with, perhaps, a couple asides to Eric. Finally, although I am a militant atheist, I am going to put the whole “God doesn’t exist” argument aside just to show that I’m being impartial. And yes, I realize that I am about fourteen years late on this one. So, let’s do some new asshole tearing, shall we? We’ll go lyric by lyric.

The Verses

If God had a name what would it be?

Now, I’m no bible expert, but God does have a name. In Judaism, “he” goes by Yahweh, which is based on the tetragrammaton, YHWH. In Christianity, it’s He, The Lord, God, Jehovah, The Light, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Lord of the Hosts, Ancient of Days, Father, El-Shaddai, etc. And, of course in Islam, it’s everyone’s favorite name—Allah. Even though people (except for Muslims) don’t say this shit out loud most of the time, it’s still there. Do your research, Osborne. Oh, and if God didn’t have a name and he were to be assigned one, I think everyone can agree that it would be “Larry.”

And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him
In all his glory

Now, this lyric is contrary to much of the rest of the song. If god “was” one of us, there wouldn’t be much glory associated with him, now would there be? Along this same line of thinking, you would call him by his name to his face, because that’s the polite thing to do, unless you want to call him Sir, or Sergeant, or Your Excellency, or The Artist Formerly Known as Yahweh. Otherwise, you would just call him Larry. For instance, the following vignette:

Larry: Hey, Evan. I’m an immortal being with absolute control over the universe and everything beyond.

Evan: That’s great, Larry. Do you have any gum?

What would you ask if you had just one question?

I believe I just answered this one. “Do you have any gum?” would be the answer to that question. Of course, this lyric isn’t without its own difficulties. The main critique is as follows: Joan (and Eric), you were talking about God having a name and whether or not you would use it. What does that have to do with what question you would ask him besides something like “How do you spell your name?” or “What kind of stupid name is Larry?” Otherwise, any other non-name-related questions you may ask are beyond the scope of these lyrics. Get with the program, Joan (Eric).

*And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

These lyrics are fine and I don’t have any real issue with them, except that they are meaningless. Are they saying “Yeah, God is great, but…”? Or, are they saying, “Yeah, God is great”? It’s hard to do sarcasm in a song. Or in a blog post. Watch.

It’s so easy to be sarcastic in a blog.

See how sarcastic I just was?

For now, I am going to skip the chorus in lieu of the second verse, because the chorus is what I take the most issue with.

If God had a face what would it look like?

Clearly Joan (or Eric) are not aware of the old-man-white-beard model of God. To answer the question, most likely it would look like Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White. See below.

I'm Gandalf. Who the fuck are you?

And would you want to see
If seeing meant that
you would have to believe
in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints
and all the prophets (*)

Here, I’m not sure what Joan is positing. Does believing in “things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints” mean that one is a Catholic? Is she asking that would you want to see God’s face if you had to be Catholic? This is a fairly intolerant view of religion and Christianity. Most likely, she means that you would have to believe in God himself. And therefore, it is a flawed question. For, if you can see his face, he therefore exists, and thus do “things like heaven and Jesus… and the saints,” at least whatever their equivalents are in whichever religion would be the correct one in this scenario. So, not only would seeing his face require you to believe in these things, the act of seeing would make you believe in these things. It’s not really a trade off. I say, if you show me God, I’ll believe in him, but not until you show me. Don’t try to get me to sign up for Catholicism first, because I know that trick. That’s how I became a Scientologist. And I’m already a Jew!

The Chorus!

What if God was one of us?

Two problems with this sentence. First of all, if God “was” one of us, then he wouldn’t be God. You see, the definition of God, or a god, is a supreme being, a creator of the universe and humanity, a lord of all that exists, existed, or will exist, or something to that effect. Even Jesus, the fictional human who came closest in Christianity to being God besides God himself, certainly wasn’t “one of us.” In fact, it was precisely for that reason, that he so wasn’t “one of us,” that we crucified his ass. This is a fundamental problem with this song. You could do the same thing with replacing the nouns and seeing the problem with the “What if ___ ‘was’ ___” construct. For instance, if I replace “God” with “sugar” and “one of us” with “Splenda,” you would get “What if sugar was Splenda?” The problem is obvious. If sugar is Splenda, then it’s Splenda, and there’s no more to say about it. You can’t even refer to the sugar as sugar anymore, because sugar is, by definition, Splenda.  But, of course, sugar is not Splenda. Splenda is much sweeter and has fewer calories. This problem undoes the entire song, it’s so resoundingly obvious. The question “What if God was one of us” just doesn’t make any sense to even ask. It’s just stupid.

The second problem with this sentence is the big, glaring, “was.” This sentence is in the subjunctive mood, and therefore, a “were” will follow the “if.” “What if God were one of us?” Now, I’m not saying that everyone’s grammar should be perfect, and slang is common in songwriting, but this is just an ignorant error that has been perpetuated endlessly. Joan should re-record the song, and then, of course, destroy the re-recording and kill herself.

Just a slob like one of us

You are assuming that I am a slob. For me, this assumption is correct; I am a slob, and I only shower because society demands it. But not all the people who listen to this song are slobs. I’m sure that many very neat, very organized people have listened to this song, and would be offended that you are lumping all humans together as slobs. Very sloppy, Joan. Very sloppy indeed.

Just a stranger on a bus
Trying to make his way home
Trying to make his way home

First of all, if most people in this country have cars, and so God would probably be driving in his ’92 Honda Civic or something. Second of all, this just begs the question. If this guy were God and a human, he could just teleport, right?

Back up to heaven all alone

Okay, if God was one of us, why is he going to heaven? I take “one of us” to mean living people who reside in things like houses, not in concepts like Heaven. So if God was one of us, he’d probably have a house, don’t you think?

Nobody calling on the phone

So this presumes that not only is God one of us, but he is a total loser. Not that my phone is ringing off the hook, but most people have other people who call them.

‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

There is a huge error in this sentence. First of all, I say again, if God were “one of us,” he probably wouldn’t be getting the Pope booty-calls. You know why? Because the Pope doesn’t fucking call slobs. Second of all, you, Joan (and Eric) have misplaced the “maybe.” She probably meant “‘cept for the Pope, maybe, in Rome,” but that still leaves a slightly ambiguous sentence and besides, she definitely doesn’t sing the commas. The way it reads now is that the Pope will definitely call, and he may or may not be in Rome. You meant to say “’cept maybe for the Pope in Rome.” Because that means nobody’s calling, except, perhaps, for the Pope, who may or may not be calling. And, in this less nonsensical way, why do we need the “in Rome” part? It doesn’t fucking matter where the Pope is as long as he’s calling!

What up, G? It's me, the P.

Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

The part I haven’t addressed about this song is that it pretty much sucks, even without the incredibly stupid and faux-profound lyrics. The notes just sound bad. So does Osborne’s voice. This song needs to be wiped from the memory of humanity to make way for newer, stupider songs, like “Empire State of Mind.”

I rest my case.

26 thoughts on “Why Joan Osborne’s “(What if God Was) One of Us” is a Stupid Song

  1. I disagree with 80% of your assessment but found it less preachy than funny. Now I know that my reply is 10 months late, but your review of “One of Us” is 15, so…

    First of all, let me preface my rebuttal with a statement of the fact that I, too, am an atheist. I don’t know if I’d say “militant,” but I’m pretty outspoken about it.

    The Name–In many cultures, “God” is considered unnameable. In fact, it was when religions formed to name gods that the meaningful aspects of spirituality were perverted.

    “Yeah, Yeah”–Totally agree. Ambiguous tone.

    The Face–LOL

    If Seeing Meant Believing–Okay I can’t tell if you’re omitting some logic for entertainment value or if you actually don’t get the gist of the song. “What if God was one of us?” is just a way of saying “that which you conceive of as God is not in the sky, you idiots, but inside everyone, so quit treating each other like shit” without being offensive or too abstract. Therefore, I interpret these lines to mean that if you saw a glimpse of God in someone, would you acknowledge it? Or would you be skeptical because of what religion has done to commercialize, in a sense, spiritual tendencies?

    The Chorus!: I’m tired of making an argument. As an English teacher, I appreciate your attention to grammatical structure. I was especially glad you called out the “maybe” vs. “may be” confusion. I get that it sounded more melodic, but that’s like writing a poem about dogs, frogs, and logs just because they rhyme.

    Anyway, hope you come back from sabbatical.

  2. Oh man. Is there anything better than an intelligent atheist with a sense of humour? Not to mention the fact that I’ve always hated that song and also pondered about 70% of the logical flaws in this song myself back in the day… LOL.

  3. Wow! Guess what! When you interpret some songs literally they don’t make any sense!

    And besides, everyone knows the most important thing about music is clear sentence structure and, as a previous commenter point out, “logical flaws”.

  4. KT

    Ok, so I’m wondering if there is any athiest on earth who can express himself without swear words. Now understand that I am NOT an athiest. I do believe in the God of the Bible, but have a difficult time with not swearing, at least in my head. So it isn’t that that I am “offended” or that I think myself better than you, its just that it makes you seem so unintelligent. I do not swear when I am trying to make a point.

    I also think you have used humor to avoid thinking. It is my understanding that you athiests are the thinkers of our time.

    It is us Christians that are accussed of being closed minded but do you really believe that there is only one “god” or concept of who god is? This song seems to me to come from the Bible view of God but to exclaim there is only one option is so… Christian. Or is He the only One you have come to hate? Oh, wait how can you hate that in which you don’t believe?

    Now, you have a compleatly flawed understanding of Christ. I know you don’t believe in Him. I am not an athiest and yet have a knowledge and respect for the viewpoint. Jesus was called, according to the Bible, the Son of God, but He was also called The Son of Man.

    It’s the Son of Man thing you seem to struggle with. You seem to think that because God is God, he cannot “lower” Himself the the level of a man. In reality it is because He is God that He had to become a man, otherwise He would not have been Love itself, which is how He describes Himself. That would have made Him a liar, which would have prevented me from believing in Him.

    Please understand that Jesus was a Man, He had pain, happiness, suffered loss, had good friends, and those who didn’t like Him much. There were certainly those who hated him. Above all else He paid taxes and died, see “Meet Joe Black”. The hardest thing about living is death, He did not go around it, He suffered throught it. While He lived in that body, He wasn’t teleporting anywhere. He would have had to take a bus. As it was, He did travel a lot, mostly by foot. Had there been buses I am certain He would have taken them. See my reference to pain.

    Catholics do not have the corner on Heaven, Jesus and the Saints. There are those of us who seek to know God through the Bible alone, for very logical reasons you might not understand. Yes, the Bible says you need to go to church, to learn from each other.

    I don’t think you have a clue what God looks like, why would a true athiest have any opinion at all about what God might look like. I love the charactor Gandolf and I get that that is the way most people “see” him. The God of the Bible is Spirit. So you would have to attempt to see what is in him, rather that the color and length of His hair etc.

    I like the music in this song, perhaps it is because it reflects the humility of the lyrics. This song does not say, “The God of the Bible is God whether you like it or not”. It simply asks a question. I’m not sure you are and athiest. I have met true athiests and call some of them friends. They are not afraid of questions.

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  6. Haha! I had not thought about this song for years but, somehow, managed to find the line “cept for the pope maybe in rome” in my head today. I am someone who gets frustrated with lyrics that only make sense when sung. There are so many lyricists out there in bands (Coheed & Cambria / The Mars Volta) who I’d love to sit down and ask them to read me their lyrics, hoping, cynically, that they’d see that they’ve gotten away with murder in regards to lyrical construction and the success they’ve obtained thereof (not that I’m perfect! That was a run-on sentence!). Many times the lyrics don’t make sense and, worse, are not grammatically correct. Some people (including the artists themselves) support this laziness by writing it off (no pun intended) as visceral, open-to-interpretation, spacey, abstract lyrics. I am willing to entertain to the notion that, in fact, the lyricist used rhyming or phonetic convenience as a short-cut to bypass the inescapably difficult task of constructing SOLID, meaningful, and grammatically correct lyrics that fit the music like a glove. Many genres have had master lyricists. Off the top of my mind right now, Joni Mitchell and Maynard James Keenan are two people I consider to be lyrical masters. Anyways…entertaining read! Whoever wrote the lyrics is naive as to the nature of the Catholic Church. GOD is the LAST person the Pope would be calling on the phone, even if he was maybe in Rome.

  7. Let me ask you a question- have you really opened the Bible, meditate and do you really understand the words you read? I’ll say You Don’t. If you do, the lyrics would have a different meaning to you in your heart. Since you’re an atheist, the that’s just how you will understand the lyrics.

  8. maybe you people should avtually sit down and read the bible and actually find out. after all the founder of harvard university in USA was atheist god forgive and bless you

  9. you people should actually consider reading the bible and then come back here and tell us if you still dont believe in God, after all the founder of harvard university in the USA was atheist, until he read the bible and got an understanding. God bless and forgive you

  10. I love the song. You really need to take a pill and devote your militant attitude toward something maybe more important then a song. Many songs have no real meaning except to Rhyme and sound good.

    I usually find atheist more intelligent, but guess we all have those in the group we avoid who embarrass us. Your likely one of those atheist that freaks out when someone puts up a Xmas tree at the airport. I hate people who can’t experience Xmas for traditions sake. I celebrate Halloween too, but don’t believe in monsters or witches.

    An irrational atheist should be a contradiction my friend.

    1. I have heard thee also this day….”I usually find atheist more intelligent” For it is written that the ways of God shall confound the ways of the wise.

  11. Enjoyed the whole blog. When I first heard this song, the whole thing about, “if you had just one question,” prompted me to think about what I would actually ask IF I were ever to have the opportunity. I came up with my question about five minutes before I realized that I already knew the answer that I would get:

    Me: “God, why?”

    God: “Because.”

  12. Phew! My bf just made me listen to this song and it really irritated me. I had somehow managed to get through life without ever having heard it. I feel better just reading a few paragraphs of this blog post. Thank you!! Maybe now I can get this inane and catchy tune out of my head.

    These are just awful lyrics even if you like the content (which I don’t).

    If god were some schlub, He wouldn’t be god. I thought the whole point of God was Awesomeness. So many people have died and suffered in the name of god, seems like at least the idea of Him deserves some respect.

    Bf wouldn’t stop singing it but finally went home. I bet he’s singing it in the car.

  13. The great thing about song lyrics is that they are open to more than one interpretation. Good song lyrics make you think as well as feel but not everybody thinks the same way. In a sense the value of a song is in the extent and richness of the thoughts and viewpoints it prompts in the listener.

    WhidbeyboyJohn also gets it just about right when he says ‘ Many songs have no real meaning except to Rhyme and sound good.’ If a song achieves that I think it is a good song but songs can achieve much more. If part of the value of a song is to make you think then Evan jacobs has confirmed that this is a good song simply by spending so much time thinking about it even tho he says it is rubbish.

    I like the song a lot and I admit the uplifting chorus is what pleases me most. But I think there was more thought put into the lyrics than Evan thinks.

    The question about naming god could be seen as referring to world religions. If you were confronted with god would you call him Yahwey or Elohim or Allah or something else? What if you called him Yahweh and he was really Allah? In certain parts of the modern world getting that answer wrong could get you killed. It’s not a trivial question. Believers might say that there is one God and the different names are equivalent. I am not against that idea but it certainly was not true historically maybe it is true in parts today.

    The just one question idea is also good. If god is omniscient and omnipotent then he is responsible for EVERYTHING. Everything thing that has happened anywhere at any time in history was done only with his acquiescence. So every question it is possible to ask will come back to him. How can you choose? What would be the point of the question? I suppose ‘How come you made such a mess?’ might be one.

    But for me the really good bit in this song is the question of humanity and divinity which repeats in each chorus. Obviously this is Jesus again. He was a being who was both wholly human and wholly god at the same time. A logical contradiction because man is flawed and god is perfect. (Also not trivial – confusing homoousios and homoiousios would have got you burnt in the middle ages.)

    The tone of the song is elegiac the singer paints God as a lonely guy going home alone on the train. She invites sympathy for him. Sympathy is caring for another person. It is a form of love. To a Christian all love flows from God. You must first love god before you can love yourself or your fellow man. So the question posed here is ‘Do you feel sympathy with the man or with the god?’ I love this. We have an image here not of man as a reflection of god but god as a man. I think it is the human qualities we see in him which we respond to not his godhead. For me then this is an atheist hymn and a good one.

  14. Your the fool…who hath said in his heart there is no God. For even this day hath the words of Joan Osborne come true to life. “For I am here” saith the Lord. “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.”

  15. “For the Lord’s gonna come in his heavenly airplane”. What would God be doing in an airplane ? Utter idiocy !

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