How I Succumbed to Critical Pressure and Recanted Osmondmania

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.”

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9 Responses to How I Succumbed to Critical Pressure and Recanted Osmondmania

  1. Ah! The perspective of age–ain’t it grand? So liberating!

  2. Ed Snow says:

    It has its benefits.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Somebody just sent me this link to a live performance of Crazy Horses:

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Loved the link. But then, I’m of this era. Justin Beiber got nothing on these boys. Just goes to show that elitism is nothing new, nor is it limited to the literary. The Osmonds have always been a fun group who put themselves out there, open themselves up for all kinds of criticism about religion as well–and they got it from inside and out. I am one of those former young people, however, who first became aware that the Mormon church existed because of their willingness to do stand up and take the heat. My parents have always considered me an Osmond convert even if the Holy Ghost would take issue. (Truly, I was looking for the "true church" while those boys were still singing at the state fair.) So grumble all you want about their artistic merit, or whether they sold out their talent, or if their marketing of the faith was on or off mark. I’ll always be a fan and am grateful for what they did when they did it. And no, I never wore purple socks or paid for a single teen magazine, never had a poster either. Really.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Not "their willingness to do stand up" but their willingess to stand up. NOT a Freudian slip, but proofing error. :)

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Lisa, may I quote you? I suspect that there may be as many science fiction readers "who first became aware that the Mormon church existed because of [Orson Scott Card's] willingness to stand up and take the heat" as there were Osmond fans. Or so I’ve been told by people who were involved with science fiction at the time and saw it happen.

  7. Scott Parkin says:

    A close friend of mine makes no bones about the fact that his first introduction to some of the core doctrinal concepts of Mormonism came through the original Battlestar Galactica.

    Some years later after he’d had a chance to think and ponder on the ideas, they made perfect sense when missionaries came by and explained their context in a larger story.

    I think people get hung up too much on making sure every experience with LDS doctrine, thought, or culture is of a specific sort, and I think that’s a mistake. Put your thoughts, ideas, and stories out there and let the spirit work on each person according to their own contexts or in their own art. If it’s trivial, then no harm is done. But even the trivial can become powerful when the spirit bears witness.

    Why would I limit the number of chances the spirit has to do so? Or so it seems to me.

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Smart, Scott. And I’d add that literature like Lund’s [i]Work and the Glory [/i]will intrigue one non-LDS person enough to initiate investigation, but [i]Battlestar Gallactica[/i], or [i]Crazy Horses[/i], or [i]Big Love [/i]for that matter, will intrigue another kind of non-LDS person in the same way. I’m not suggesting we should view art as a conversion tool, per se, but it certainly ends up being that in some cases. We just can’t know. I knew a teemager who’d converted, left the church, and then come back in because he saw [i]The Godmakers[/i] in film form at his local evangelical church. The spirit moves who it moves and uses some rather surprising mediums. The bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost is always separate from the art and commanded by God, not man, even if the artist sets out to write faith-promoting art. I think Heavenly Father uses everyone who is willing to stand up.

  9. Brett C says:

    This falls in line with the topic I’m always talking to my wife about, namely separating Culture from Doctrine. For example, awhile ago a young man in my ward quit coming to church because everyone kept giving him a hard time about his long hair. Now long hair is more common and less persecuted, but there were some who would have you believe that you were violating the commandments if you had long hair. Gladys Knight recently performed at one of our stake houses and it was really great to experience an electric guitar, drums, etc. in our own chapel! Sister Knight said, "[the Mormons] need us as much as we need them." Speaking of the lack of diversity in our church and the "chocolate flavor" her culture could provide to our vanilla ice cream. And as a Mormon she has certainly not yet adapted our long… thoughtful… pontificate… and slow… manner of speach or monotone presentations. Like the Osmonds, she could be thought of as irreverent. I think that many would readily assume that music or mannerisms that make them uncomfortable must be sinful. And yet, I believe that the discomfort I felt during the Saints United Voices choir’s Music of Praise was not an indication of sin but rather the necessary discomfort faced when challenging cultural ideals otherwise treated with the reverence of church doctrine.

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