It seems fitting that my first blogpost in three-and-a-half months should have a shocking confession. I’d hate to let my nonexistent readership down, so here it is:
I love country music.
Country music, as a general category, gets a bad rap from a lot of people for a lot of different reasons—too twangy, too whiny, too unsophisticated—complaints that drive die-hard country fans crazy. “What about Hank Williams?” we ask, spittle flying. “Loretta Lynn? George Jones? DOLLY PARTON?? She has her own theme park!”
But I’m not here to defend the good name of so many Grammy winners and Country Music Hall of Famers. They don’t need my help. No, I’m writing to defend the oft-maligned sub-category of current, popular country music, the stuff that’s celebrated in all its non-ironic glory every year at the CMAs, that gave birth to the Dixie Chicks and now lays claim to Taylor Swift. The genre of music where songs with titles like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” regularly top the country charts, and which many country music devotees reject outright.
Now, I’m not about to argue that country music in its current incarnation has a whole lot in common with the pedal steel-pickin’, acoustic guitar-strumming music of yore. (Although, I do believe that, despite its vast differences, it still qualifies as country music—but that’s for another blog.) Aesthetically speaking, major-label country is much more similar to its equally slick, slightly bassier brethren on the Top Forty stations—which is why I think, when assessing musical merit, it’s far more relevant to compare the two. As a genuine fan of pop of all kinds, I can’t help but notice that mainstream country music has way better songwriting than mainstream pop. Consider the lyrics to “You and Tequila,” by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg, and popularized by Kenny Chesney:
You and tequila make me crazy
Run like poison in my blood
One more night could kill me, baby
One is one too many, one more is never enough
It might be cheesy, and a tad obvious, but let me tell you—that’s a solid metaphor! Meanwhile, songs with lyrics like “Grab somebody sexy, tell ‘em, hey!” and “It feels like tonight, tonight,” are topping the pop charts.
The only current Top Forty song that explores a metaphor with anything like Carter and Berg’s commitment is “Stereo Heart,” performed by Gym Class Heroes, featuring Adam Levine. (“My heart’s a stereo/It beats for you, so listen close,” etc.) For me, “Stereo Heart” pales in comparison to “You and Tequila,” not least because it has some of the most vanilla rapping you’ve ever heard. More than that, “Stereo Heart,” with its thundering bassline and relentless good mood, lacks the soul—nay, the heart!—of Chesney’s mid-tempo lament. “You and Tequila” conveys a far more complex, and therefore troubling, idea. And we all know that, for better or for worse, sad songs are more fun to listen to than happy songs.
I think that’s all I can muster for serious country music analysis. Here are some videos for your enjoyment (The Kenny Chesney video is at once absurd and boring. But the song is pretty):