“I could record a Prince song, people wouldn’t probably misconstrue what I’m saying as something dirty because it’s Donny Osmond, right? But if Prince recorded it, then it’s dirty. That’s not fair.” — from Barry Scott’s book We Had Joy, We Had Fun: The Lost Recording Artists of the 70s.
As an adult, Donny Osmond clearly regretted his having been used as a squeaky-clean weapon in the war MGM boss and one-time California gubernatorial hopeful Mike Curb waged on popular culture in the early 1970’s. Curb, even in his twenties a conservative right-wing ideologue, despised the hedonistic individualism that crossed into the mainstream from the ’60s counter-culture thanks in part to the pop music that celebrated and advertised such a lifestyle. The Osmonds (who were discovered at Disneyland and honed their chops on the Andy Williams show), perhaps MGM’s most successful act during Curb’s tenure there, represented his ideal cultural product: a vaguely religious, ultra-white group of boys who were malleable enough to be used to co-opt any other vital form of pop music and neutralize it, draining it of any of the progressive possibilities implicit in its popularity. Thus, when the Jackson 5 suggested America could accept a black family into its pantheon of stars, Curb was ready with the Osmonds, and their Jackson 5 rip-off hits “One Bad Apple” and “Yo-Yo,” to offer Americans an opportunity to keep their radios white. When hard rock began to become a way for teenagers to express rebellion, the Osmonds were there with their guitar-heavy albums Crazy Horses and The Plan, to remind kids that the establishment was one step ahead of them. Whenever a teen idol threatened to inject some sexuality into the lives of young fans, Donny Osmond’s hits were there to make the whole notion of love and sex being connected seem ludicrous: A pre-pubescent boy with the voice of teenaged girl singing wistful, self-sacrificing love songs addressed to other teenaged girls effectively drains all carnality out of the situation.
For Donny to claim that there was something subversive in their 70’s hits seems rather far-fetched at first, particularly when the liner notes to their recent hits collection Osmondmania! is at great pains to reassure us of how concerned they were with protecting the delicate minds of America’s children, explaining how they edited suggestive lyrics out of their 1974 hit “Love Me For a Reason,” and reminding us that depite being banned in parts of Africa, the Osmonds’ heavy-metal anthem “Crazy Horses” is not really about the alluring power of heroin, but rather the air pollution emitted by California power plants. That anyone could have thought the Osmonds were cooking up drug hymns suggests that perhaps Donny is wrong, and that in fact, their aggressive wholesomeness almost demands that we start looking for double entendres in the Osmond ouevre. It’s not hard to discover a plethora of salacious possibilities: what exactly do they mean when they claim that they’re going to give a woman “double lovin’,” claiming that she’ll “get a double pleasure every time”? What exactly is it that “they” call “puppy love”? And in the song “Sweet and Innocent,” who in the world could be too young for the 12-year-old Donny, who nevertheless has “a little wiggle in her walk” that he “loves”? Because the Osmonds took their role as family entertainers so seriously, because they seem so utterly trapped in a Reader’s Digest version of the American heartland so extravagantly out of touch with both the world in which it was made and the world in which we now hear it, because they are entirely without pretensions of their own, they are perfectly suited for us to enjoy them as camp. The packaging is designed with this in mind, emphasizing their ridiculous uniforms and their congenial lack of self-awareness, with photos of them performing karate kicks and wearing mock Native American costumes. The relentless schmaltziness of their sound (what another reviewer has called their “variety show arrangements”) manages to be wonderfully silly without ever seeming like the band’s fault. Their obvious desperation to please is guileless, completely unsophisticated, hewing to some aesthetic bottom line that rejects all subtlety, complexity and mystery. Musical lobotomies like “Down by the Lazy River” are irresistibly infectious, still resonating with the same shallow feel-good vibe that originally made them hits. Overall, we can enjoy the absurd, surreal fantasy of a world where all youth is remade in the image of the Osmonds without ever fearing it could come to pass.
Counter-cultural groups at the time, however, must not have felt the luxury of such detachment; judging by the irrational ferocity of their responses to the Osmonds, they must have felt very threatened indeed — the liner notes reveal that the SLA, the anti-capitalist radicals who abducted Patty Hearst, announced they would “annhilate” the Osmonds if they performed, and that the Hell’s Angels once invaded an Osmonds concert in Germany and threw “anything they could get their hands on” at the Osmonds on stage. (Written by Alan, the eldest Osmond brother, these liner notes are, incidentally, fascinating in their peculiar lack of perspective: in explaining how “Osmondmania” was “overwhelming” in “Malasia, Europe, the Far East and in Norwegian countries,” he depicts without regret how their limo ran over two girls and how their tour bus rolled over someone’s legs, and he cites Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as inspiration for their 1973 concept album about Mormon theology, The Plan, even though The Wall wasn’t released until 1979. Alan proudly boasts the Osmonds “were once known as one of the loudest musical acts in the business,” as though their sheer volume would prove to skeptics how with it they were.)
The Osmonds didn’t enact a new era of morally pure entertainment: the record industry universally accepts that they can maximize the profits they extort from the youth market by selling them circumscribed pseudo-rebellion and a castrated form of übersexuality both hyper-present and completely unattainable. These days we are in no danger of having our culture sanitized by the like of the Osmonds. If anything, the Osmonds, with their florescent smiles, their robotic identicalness, and their complete surrendering of any will to individual expression, come across like proselytizing members of some creepy cult. Their cheerful cooperation with whatever exploitative measure was commercially necessary, be it performing many of their shows on ice skates, singing incestuous romantic duets with a sibling, or wearing outrageous jumpsuits that reportedly made Elvis jealous, makes them seem even more innocent and harmless now. The marketing maneuvers that shaped them are so transparent to us that they seem laughable rather than repugnant and reprehensible, as they must have seemed to observers at the time when such tactics earned the Osmonds mainstream acceptance. Outdated hype sometimes seems like failed hype, which tempts us to appreciate the Osmonds, whose marketing strategies now seem so misguided, as a demonstration of how silly and stupid hype really is. But because audiences embraced the Osmonds despite their being overtly synthetic, their success helped usher in an era of popular entertainment where more and more variables are controlled from the top. Audiences made it plain that they didn’t care how much pressure was put on a band to conform. If the record industry was afraid that developments in the late ’60s made the quirks and idiosyncratic concerns of individual artists important to audiences, the success of the Osmonds laid such fears to rest.