What brings out passion in an artist better than their faith (or lack thereof)? The following one-hit wonders tackle the topics of religion, God, and the afterlife with gusto, taking the nation by storm. There are plenty of other gorgeous religious one-hit wonders (and I highly recommend you check out the Singing Nun’s “Dominique”), but these ones struck my fancy most because of their distinctive perspectives and idiosyncratic histories.
Tip: Click on the song titles to listen to these one-hit wonders in all their glory!
- “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (1970, Billboard #3): It is equally impressive and hilarious that one of the greatest gospel hits of all time is by a Jewish man with much more reverence for gospel music than Jesus himself. When questions about his Jewish identity and the song’s Christian lyrics, Greenbaum compared himself to the legendary Irving Berlin who wrote the classic “White Christmas,” arguing that one’s faith shouldn’t limit their artistic opportunity. Greenbaum’s decision to make the lyrics explicitly Christian was strategic, opening his audience up and (effectively) increasing the song’s chances for success. The song details the narrator’s friendship with Jesus and his confidence that after death, Jesus will guide him to “the place that’s the best.” Regardless of its religious lyrics, this song features a winning fuzzy guitar riff, an infectious melody, and adorable upbeat backup vocals that all lend themselves beautifully to the background of a whopping 32 movies. Hit films like Apollo 13, Ocean’s 11, and Guardians of the Galaxy have all featured this timeless tune in their soundtracks. Greenbaum has a flawed perception of Christian values, claiming he’s “never sinned,” but that does little to detract from the song’s universally-loved fusion of gospel and rock music. The misguided lyrics could result from Greenbaum’s intention to combine Christian and Hopi Native American beliefs about the afterlife. The Native American influence on the song has definitely been overshadowed by its overt Christian content, but people of all faiths have unified in their love of “Spirit in the Sky.” The song has even garnered popularity at funerals as a more optimistic alternative to the traditional tearjerker “Danny Boy.”
- “Dear God” by XTC (1987, Billboard #37): Let me preface this section by saying I have no intention of undermining anyone’s relationship with God. But this song deeply resonated with me as a child entering adolescence and grappling with my religion. I was raised Jewish, attending synagogue and Hebrew school every Wednesday and Sunday until the age of 12. One year before I was supposed to have my bat mitzvah, after years of ambivalence and imitation of faith, my parents let me drop out. Unlike the narrator, I don’t mean to blame all of the suffering in this world on God. But, as the introductory child singer confesses, it’s sometimes hard to make sense of God’s inability or refusal to intervene. Furthermore, interreligious conflict has plagued humanity and contributed to war and genocide for centuries if not millennia. There’s a lot of anger coming through in this song, but its more anger toward what humans have made of religion than toward God himself. After all, you can’t be angry toward someone you don’t believe in. XTC’s guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter Andy Partridge is not shy in his mocking and disrespect toward religion. He even asked an interviewer if God was “made of styrofoam” like communion wafers. He’s inspired hatred from American audiences and even the song’s producer, glam rock legend Todd Rundgren, who Partridge called “bitchy” for shying away from the blasphemous “Dear God” and initially refusing to put it on XTC’s album Skylarking. While even Partridge admits that religion cannot be effectively discussed in a punchy 3-and-a-half-minute song, “Dear God” definitely made its mark. Radio stations across the US received complaints from listeners for playing the song. One station in Florida even received a bomb threat. But for people like me, “Dear God” proved that we aren’t alone in feeling doubt and heartache toward religion and its consequences.
- “One of Us” by Joan Osborne (1996, Billboard #4): I initially came across this song in a little indie comedy I saw as a kid, but this context might not have given me the best understanding of what “One of Us” means. Osborne is suggesting that humans are misguided in their glorification of God, who is prone to flaw and loneliness like any other being. Furthermore, this song encourages us to confront our often selfish and one-sided relationship with God, instead considering his struggles and what he needs from us. Songwriter Eric Bazilian actually wrote the song to impress his future wife and the mother of his children. This could actually be seen as a reasonable response to the frustration expressed in “Dear God.” Maybe God isn’t fixing all of these global issues because he isn’t more certain of their solutions than we are. It’s a sadly under-explored outlook on religion that considers the solitary and empty nature of being The Omnipotent One. When we’re so wrapped up in our own problems, we fail to consider who we are praying to. This song not only expands our understanding of the human relationship with God, but it can also extend into our attitudes toward popular figures who are often dehumanized because of their celebrity and accomplishments. Tragedies like the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chadwick Boseman make us realize that no one is immune to sickness and suffering. Even our superheroes and political champions are mortal. These people aren’t beyond public criticism, but make sure that this criticism does not come at the cost of empathy.
I know that religion can sometimes be divisive, but please know that I would love to hear about your own relationship with these topics, especially if you have any favorite religious tunes. This blog is a safe space to share your perspective and passions without fear of judgment!