Joan Osborne’s new music video could well be the first in MTV history to feature a Hindu god — blue skin and all — as a guest star.
It remains to be seen whether all the knickknacks of Eastern religious iconography dominating the set design will appear in the final edit. But no one would miss the extended cameo by the blue dude currently waiting out in the reception area of this Manhattan studio, sitting bolt straight so his body paint doesn’t leave an azure smear on every mortal thing in sight.
Osborne, meanwhile, is red-hot. She’s 100 feet away under the sweltering lights, lip-synching the equally sweltering lyrics to ”Right Hand Man,” a driving rocker that vividly describes the sensation of being weak in the knees…and not from prayer. ”Let me use your toothbrush/Have you got a clean shirt,” go the soon-to-be-classic opening lines, ”My panties in a wad/At the bottom of my purse.” Gulp. Rocking her golden curls back and forth, she fixes the camera with a sly, demanding look that is not so much come-hither as come-hither-or-I’ll-kill-you. Her hips are speaking much the same language: Compliance will be compulsory.
So, is this a scene out of Little Buddha or She’s Gotta Have It? Between the mystic trappings and Osborne’s playful, if not downright horny, tune, the message isn’t easy to figure. Maybe it’s as simple as What if Krishna was one of us? Just a hard-rockin’, sex-crazed slob like one of us?
Saint Joan, we hardly knew ye.
But don’t cancel the canonization just yet. Clearly, there’s much more to Osborne than ”One of Us,” the ingeniously wry hit that’s filled a God-size hole in the top 10 and blessed her with five Grammy nominations, including nods for Record of the Year (”One of Us”), Album of the Year (for Relish, her major-label debut), and Best New Artist. The 33-year-old is on the cusp of becoming a household name, primarily based on this still-rising single that has her coolly calling on an agnosticized America to reconsider the implications of a divine incarnation.
Power ballads, consecrated or otherwise, are not her first love, however. That would be the blues — crafty variations of which make up the better part of Relish. The raunchier, raspier ”Right Hand Man” better represents Osborne’s general gutsiness, and the video could position her as the thinking man’s Tina or Janis — coming off a novelty smash that momentarily has her, improbably, as the glib man’s Amy Grant.
Melissa Etheridge remembers the moment Osborne wafted through her radio early last year. ”I heard [the album’s first single] ‘St. Teresa’ and I knew. It was one of those whoa moments. I called my management and said, ‘You have to get this woman to open for me,’ and they said, ‘Who?”’ The dichotomy delighting Etheridge is how ”Joan’s got her base in R&B — she can wail like Bessie and Odetta — but she’s got the songwriting flair of a very ’90s woman.”
As a very ’70s girl growing up in a lapsed-Catholic family near Louisville, Ky., Osborne harbored no musical aspirations. The R&B singers she came to love via her favorite soul station, WLOU, were role models, first, for their attitudes. ”These black divas had a real sexiness and playfulness about them, which seemed to me almost like this feminist ideal,” Osborne says. ”You could be sexual and strong and funny, but you didn’t have to look airbrushed. It seemed a more accurate reflection of the way I feel about sexuality than anything I generally see in the media — or rock culture, where, till recently, you either had to desex yourself or play it up until there was nothing else.”