Song lyrics have a new subject: God

January 11, 1996|By Thor Christensen | Thor Christensen,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

If God listens to the radio, he's hearing his name a lot these days.

"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?" sings Joan Osborne in "One of Us," a Grammy-nominated song from her album, "Relish," that has soared to No. 12.

Like God, "One of Us" is omnipresent: It's played incessantly on pop, adult-contemporary and even alternative-rock stations. The video -- which shows passers-by on the street pretending to be angels -- is all over MTV and VH1.

But Ms. Osborne isn't the only rocker talking about the Supreme Being in earthly language. "Hey God, tell me what the hell is going on/These days you're even harder to believe," bellows Jon Bon Jovi on "Hey God," a song about the crumbling state of society from his band's latest album, "These Days."

Randy Newman sings about the Creator with tongue firmly planted in cheek on his latest album, "Faust": In Mr. Newman's version of the age-old Faust tale, God (played by James Taylor) and Satan wager over the fate of a grunge-rock fan who attends the University of Notre Dame.

This isn't the first time the Big Guy's heard his name being bandied about in a less-than-reverent manner.

In "God Shuffled His Feet," from the Crash Test Dummies'

1993 album of the same name, God descends to Earth to spend some quality time with His people, only to be deluged with stupid questions like, "Do you have to eat or get your hair cut in heaven/And if your eye got poked off in this life, would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?"

And in Tori Amos' 1994 look at God, He just can't seem to get his court in order: "God, sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?" she sings.

The message behind these missives to heaven are as varied as the artists who sing them: They can be whimsical, satirical, angry or -- in the case of "One of Us" -- merely quizzical.

Yet, until recently, popular music rarely dared to ask questions of providence. Before the '60s, songs about God that made the hit parade were usually adapted from traditional gospel music -- tunes such as Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" or Elvis Presley's "I Believe in the Man in the Sky."

But Bob Dylan fired the first shot in the early '60s, denouncing a slew of God's followers as hypocrites in "With God on Our Side."

And, in his post-Beatles song "God," John Lennon proclaimed, "I don't believe in Jesus . . . I just believe in me." And when he sang the agnostic catch phrase "Imagine there's no heaven" in "Imagine," millions sang along with him: The song went all the way to No. 3 on the pop charts.

"Imagine" opened the floodgates for songs that pulled God and Jesus down to earth. Jimmy Buffett sang "My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don't Love Jesus." Joni Mitchell declared "God Must Be a Boogie Man" at the height of disco fever. And as he sang about an ex-lover in "God Will," Lyle Lovett thumbed his nose at the Lord's tenet about forgiving: "God will, but I won't/God does, but I don't," he sang, "and that's the difference between God and me."

Other artists preach a more caustic message.

But few letters to Jehovah have been quite as venomous as "Dear God," a 1986 tune by the British trio XTC (Sarah McLachlan covered it last year). After surveying the world's holy wars and dismissing the Bible as a pack of lies, the song concludes, "I don't believe in heaven or hell/No pearly gates, no thorny crown/You're always letting us humans down/If there's one thing I don't believe in, it's you."

It created a stir at college radio and on MTV, but failed to crack the pop charts. Yet "One of Us" has become gospel on pop radio stations and has earned Ms. Osborne five Grammy nominations.

In the end, the message -- not the messenger's vocal delivery -- is why "Dear God" was only a cult hit while "One of Us" and "Imagine" are played everywhere: Musing about God being "a slob like one of us" or imagining "there's no heaven" is one thing. But saying he simply doesn't exist is never going to win a religious following among radio programmers or listeners.

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