As a music reviewer I’ve been to loads of gigs that I did not enjoy, some by artists I (usually) love, many by artists I could never get on board with – but the first time I knew I was in the wrong place straight away was when I went to see Donny Osmond. It was 2006. It was the end of July, a Monday night. It was as if I had arrived at the largest book-club meeting in town and had forgotten my copy of whatever was the latest Marian Keyes story of the time. I could have done with the bottle of wine that usually clinks along to a book-club too.
I’ve never been a Donny Osmond fan. Why would I? I’m a fan of music.
But the job required me to go along and say what I thought of a Donny Osmond show in 2006. And so I did. Boy did I hear about it. A couple of weeks after the show – and after my review had stirred up the fans – I received a letter from the Dominion Post’s Editor. He had included with his dispatch copies of several letters from fans; he told me that it was the biggest outpouring of rage the paper had seen with regard to a single concert review. The letters were continuing to pour in almost a month after the show.
One letter told me that I was wrong and that Donny had been amazing. To back this up the fan had pointed out that she had flown from Christchurch to see Donny sing in both Wellington and Auckland. This – apparently – was the proof that he had been amazing. He was worth two shows to this fan. And therefore he must have been (so) good.
But Donny was not good.
So, was I too harsh? Well, I can’t answer that – I’m not a fan. But I’ll bet I’ve been to more shows than that Donny fan, or any Donny fan – unless we’re only counting Donny Osmond concerts. And if we are then I’ve certainly been to more than enough Donny Osmond shows.
It’s amazing to think that former teen-idol, Donny Osmond, still draws a crowd. The billing of him as a child star (he was five when he debuted on The Andy Williams Show and went on to be a part of one of the most famous singing clans of the 1970s) suggests that he deserves to be treated in the same revered critical tones reserved for genuine prodigies like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
The truth – harsh, but, well, true – is that Osmond is a has-been. A washout who is reselling himself as a 48-year-old entertainer pedaling some bland new songs and breezing through the seventies hits that earned him his erstwhile reputation.
They call it puppy-love. You’re supposed to grow out of it.
But four songs in, backed by a competent but soulless collection of session hacks, Osmond had this audience exploding with applause. An almost embarrassing stampede of at least two dozen women and, erm, one guy (the cameraman recording Donny’s marionette movements for the big screen) rushed the stage apron. Donny shook hands and shrugged his shoulders, he aw-shucked his way through mock-bashful song introductions – and appeared earnest in his stage persona; trawling through his catalogue of life-experience to provide the faithful with mawkish ballads and hackneyed, cliché-ridden originals from his most recent album, What I Meant To Say.
He seemed shorter than a former teen-idol should. Then I noticed that he’d lost a couple of feet; dry-ice swirling across the stage and licking at his shins. Cameras flashed. Cellphones were held high over-head; Donny’s performance was reduced to a viewfinder glimpse and re-imagined via pixilated stills for fans clicking away, eagerly capturing new memories. That Colgate smile has grinned its way through over 40 years of show-business (give or take a decade or two of rest and artistic decline). But age is catching up with this grandfather of Broadway-influenced pop. He has a turkey neck and his voice, though pleasant and decent, does not have any huge weight behind it. I guess it never did really.
There were rock songs for people to stand and clap to; there was a run of 1970s hits (One Bad Apple, Twelfth Of Never, the inevitable Puppy Love) and one of Donny’s own personal favourites (Let Me In) was clearly the inspiration for 1980s hair-ballads by Mr Big (To Be With You) and Extreme (More Than Words). And then he moved into a sequence of covers – George Michael’s Faith, Prince’s Kiss and Stevie Wonder’s I Wish. So clearly the subtext was that Osmond did equate himself with other teen-prodigies. Hmmm. It sounded like karaoke to me, especially when he played Don’t Dream It’s Over. I had to get out of the elevator by this stage (and besides I had already dreamed it was over long ago). I’m sorry Donny. I never had your posters on my wall. But the people who did are there for you still.
I copped some major abuse for calling out his “turkey-neck” – but it was there. Ruffled up under the collar, scraped down off the chin, the result of the high eyebrows (or “Hi! Eyebrows!”) that come with so many facelifts.
It was, I think, the start of the real abuse for me as a reviewer – fans so angry that their man could be treated that way; the first real outpouring of rage on the letters page. Well, it’s the gig I remember as being the one that really wound people up. Was it the worst gig I ever attended? Perhaps not. But it was the first “why am I here?” moment I can remember having as a reviewer – not so much/not just a “they’ve got the wrong guy” scene, but certainly a case of me being the one person who hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid; the one non-believer at the Jesus Camp. That strange feeling, you look around, demented fans are screaming. I’d get to know this feeling well. I attended – survived, even – a Westlife concert, for fuck’s sake. But this was the first time I had that strange feeling where everyone – every single person – was there for the experience of their lifetime. Except for me. I was there for what? Professionalism? Sadism? Sad isms?
His voice was thin and horrible and those songs sounded stupid and dated and like nothing that really resembled a song. And the women – it was 80% women in attendance, at least – were holding up posters from their walls that they’d preserved. And what, I was supposed to feel good for them that they were having the chance to recall their teen years, to take the cork off their bunny-boiler fandom, to take the crack-pipe of mad-fan-stupidity out for another big suck? Fuck that noise. What about me? Having to sit through the worst musical experience of my lifetime – to that point – or close enough to it. I deserved a few letters offering condolences.
But there was I was having to justify my position – being threatened by the Editor of the paper who weakly suggested that he wasn’t a Donny Osmond fan by any stretch but “could see the point” that several of the fans were making. He wondered if “we” owed them all an apology.
No spine for him then eh?
It’s (always) a thankless task.
It Was The Worst started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page