I still remember the first time I heard “One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I think it was fall, 1971, and I was doing some 6th grade homework on a Sunday night. I caught myself singing along with Donny, “Oh, I don’t care what they say, I don’t care what you heard.” Someone at church had mentioned them to me, calling them the Mormon Jackson Five. But when my non-member friend Bill Scarbrough, and my most influential music critic, refused to listen to their songs on the radio, I was swayed by his opinion.
Bill’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine was shared between us the way other kids shared comic books. We were avid students of Rock -n- Roll, watching Saturday late night shows like the King Biscuit Flour Hour and the Midnight Special as if we were arts critics for the New York Times. We coveted records borrowed from older siblings and their friends who were in college and prided ourselves on finding obscure progressive rock treasures untainted by Billboard pop charts. But then the Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” came out in 1972, an uncharacteristically hard rockin’ tune and album for these LDS brothers, a sound that even Bill could not dislike. And, since Bill gave this album his stamp of approval, so did I. When it was announced that the Osmonds would be coming to Knoxville for a special stake fireside, I thought what better way to introduce friends, especially the Scarbroughs, to Mormonism than through the entire Osmond family?
That night, the Knoxville Stake Center was packed. Our two families arrived early, taking an entire pew. The chapel hummed with electric anticipation, like a large Fender blues master tube amplifier. Famous people, Mormons even, were in our midst, rock stars who lived in the world but not of the world. If anyone could convert the Scarbroughs, it was the Osmonds. When the entire family strode into the building the first thing Bill and I noticed was Marie. If any of the speakers got boring–which they did–she was always available to our dreamy eyes. I don’t recall much else. Surely they sang a number, no doubt a hymn in an Andy Williams barbershop quartet style. One speaker, though, Sister Olive Osmond, I remember in particular. She took off on a tear about how Columbus was inspired to discover America, but, and I’m not really able to reconstruct this coherently, he would have discovered it sooner (!) had he known about the Book of Abraham (?), since it teaches that the earth … is round, knowledge that was lost to the world due to apostasy!?! The Scarbroughs pleasantly declined to take the missionary discussions afterwards.
In spite of the packed house, I was surprised to later learn that a few Mormon families were not so enthusiastic about the Osmonds as missionaries, thinking their hairstyles, dance moves and music too worldly. I’ve recently found two letters to The New Era circa 1972 responding to an earlier Osmond Family interview that reflects those contemporary opposing views:
“I think the Osmond family interview in the February issue was fabulous, and so did my nonmember friend who reads my New Era monthly.”
“Are they really any different from the other rock groups? Do their songs and music uplift and edify our Father in heaven? Do their appearance and gyrations typify Mormon youth?”
Well, by 1978, right before entering my freshman year at BYU, the Osmonds did typify Mormon youth. My high school senior year hair style and dance moves were just as good-naturedly goofy as Donny’s, if not more so. But by 1981, any lingering sympathy I had for the Osmonds disappeared after I became an English major with literary pretensions and stumbled upon Wayne Booth’s Letters to Smoother as a BYU sophomore. In remarks by Booth in the published proceedings of this BYU sponsored humanities symposium, I learned that I should no longer respect the artistic endeavors of the Osmonds. Said Booth through his Screwtape-like character, The Chief:
“Wherever you find people singing together for pleasure, not profit, playing music together, telling stories to each other, writing quietly in a study, praying with genuine feeling of gratitude for the beauties of this world, put on an Osmond record.” [p. 16]
Booth, and others in round table discussions, dismissed the Osmonds as promoters of the “Comfortable Arts.” Their efforts would “Homogenize, tranquilize, desensitize!” Hugh Nibley added his derision:
“Take the splendor of the rock concert; no matter what they are, they all glitter–plenty of glitter and the hard beat. It’s this beat, this relentless, hard beat and the glitter which lead ultimately to the extinction of the soul. No content is allowed; you can’t think or anything else, the noise just knocks you out. And money is the name of the game again. The Rolling Stones have imitators close to home, and I think Brother Booth was justified in mentioning them.” [p. 103] [emphasis added]
It was then that I decided I should enjoy classical music, whether I liked it or not, so I kick-started my classical album collection by joining the Musical Heritage Society. How could I claim to be a cultured person without being conversant with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart? During the 1980s and 1990s I collected and listened to over 100 classical music CDs. And even though I discovered a lot of magnificent works of art through this musical journey, I found Mark Twain’s observation about Wagner to apply to much of classical music: it’s a lot better than it sounds.
In the 1990s and 2000s I rediscovered the music of my youth that was now deemed “Classic Rock” by music critics and rejoiced to learn that time had bestowed on this genre a sophistication and sheen unnoticed by the critics of prior years, a golden age quality that is only discoverable by comparison to the auto-tuned and synthesized music and rap of today. Even the pop of my youth is now considered a “Classic Pop” that I can enjoy without critical guilt. For Christmas I may even ask for an Osmonds greatest hits CD, or, better yet, their quasi-progressive rock concept album, The Plan, and then enjoy playing it for my kids and saying “they don’t make music like this anymore, they don’t have bands that can actually sing and play instruments anymore and they don’t have lyrics [cough] that make you think anymore.”