Saturday, March 19, 2005

Why Tim McGraw Is Not Going To Be Popular Outside the US, Even Off The Back Of That God-Damned Nelly Single

I've been hypnotised by this article about country music and morality, and the thesis of it is not as preposterous as it initially appears. If politics and music intertwine, and you accept that red-state in the United States is country, then I like to think of Tim McGraw as George W. Bush.

Think about it for a minute. George W Bush is, comparatively speaking, a charming man. He's straightforward - he weaves simple stories with the language of the everyman. You can disagree with the content, but the coating makes the pill go down for 50-odd million Americans, and rather than argue with the result, it would make more sense to understand the process. He's at his absolute best when he articulates (barely) the aspirations and beliefs - not just spiritual ones - of his constituents, because there's something guileless and uncoded about his method, which makes the message seem genuine. He's at his worst when he goes outside this; this can be in an attempt to step onto ground he's shaky on, or, particularly, to try to drag the resistant onto his territory.

Tim McGraw's a bit like that too. I'm thinking particularly about two of the singles from his "Live Like You Were Dying" LP. In the video for the title track, he's posed as a cowboy, except he's not wearing shoes. A romantic image, but brought into the zone of comfort - he sings to you from your television into your living room and he's going to look relaxed while he does it. He's got the home-spun wisdom down-pat, telling the story of a friend with a terminal disease who vows to live life to the fullest.

"Live Like You Were Dying" works brilliantly as a piece of pop-storytelling. It hits a particular nerve with me at the moment, having lost a family member to cancer this week, but even beyond that, there's something heartfelt and honest about it - and you can take the friend's steps - skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing - as literal or figurative and it doesn't make a difference. It's a great message, it's delivered sincerely and you can hum it while crying into your beard/beer, or whistle it while running with the wind in your hair. I've tried both, and it really works. It's in the grey middle ground between life or death - joy and sadness, whatever you want. It plays upon universal ideas about mortality, the desire for exhiliration as well as pricking a masculine-coded idea of mateship to get the grown men hugging each other and weeping on each other's shoulders in his corner as much as the sensitive gals of the red states.

"Drugs or Jesus" is a bit more problematic, and several orders of magnitude more heavy-handed. I won't deny that it's an effective whistle to the faithful, but for someone who's got an in to a series of other markets, there's trouble on the horizon.

You are either with us, or you're against us." - George W Bush.
For anyone who sticks around you're either lost or you're found - Tim McGraw.

No, this is less easy to digest. The roads lead to drugs or Jesus - presumably there's a fork in the roads somewhere for those that pick both, but this is the kind of black-and-white generalisation that rankles as much in pop discourse as it does in the political. It's exclusionary and judgmental no matter what performative spin McGraw tries to put on it, and the above quotations aren't even necessary to highlight the problems contained therein. Not that there's a spin here - the sombre, sober piano wouldn't allow it. Here, Tim McGraw has moved from what he's best at to what he, and some might say, his peers and his genre, are absolutely the worst at. A didactic on the verge of self-parody - is it sincere and true, or an excruciatingly well-aimed and well-timed jab at those things? - hard to sympathise with. The reason half the songs in any given chart at any given time are love songs of some kind is because they're the one tale that we all know - this might not outright condemn those on a different road, but it takes a muted delight in a false binary opposition.

Righteous preaching goes down a storm - or at least it must - in middle America, but it is poison overseas. Something like 80% of people in countries outside the United States disapprove of George W. Bush, yet he got a clear plurality of votes. Are citizens of the US so removed from the rest of the world that their brains are wired qualitatively differently in order that they approve of this, even if nobody else does?

I don't know. But we won't be talked down to. Uplift us with universal stories of the preciousness of life - we're up for it - but do it from our level, not a pedestal, Tim. Methinks hooking up with Nelly will be as fruitless as George Bush getting Three Doors Down to play at one of his fundraisers, at least as far as (p)reaching beyond the choir.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Jo Dee Messina - My Give A Damn Is Busted

What they won't admit, but they know it, is whenever that wit who forwards that list of high-larious REAL country music songs to your inbox for the 94th time, they're secretly wishing that they had the art of a great line as down pat as your average country song writer. Oh yes, how droll it is - laugh at the silly song titles, but deny the sublime puncta that these songs often contain and you're a moron, pure and simple.

Jo Dee knows punctum - her impish, clipped arch aside in the chorus - "Let me dig a little deeper.... no! sorry, nothing!" - is the sort of deviously tricky nagging hook that few can pull off. The second verse drops references Prozac, co-dependence and enablers over ferocious fiddles - yuppie psychological angst being mocked mercilessly over country twang - magnificent combination, that. The mocking works. The non-sequiturs work ("Go ahead and water the lawn!").

The likely-false profession of feeling nothing is given away by the mix of cold contempt and taunting that probably makes her man feel about.. ooh.. THIS tall, or at least makes him feel as if he's had his genitals removed and placed in a jar atop her mantle. She half-laughs "You've really done it this time" and few dismissals are so clipped - devastatingly perfect and perfectly devastating.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rebecca Lynn Howard - That's Why I Hate Pontiacs

In these days where pop singles are usually shopped around, recorded, leaked and occasionally, released by a variety of singers, it can be forgotten that years ago - up until perhaps the 1960s, it was common for multiple versions of songs to be released. And country certainly wasn't an exception.

What interests me in particular about this song is that despite Rebecca Lynn Howard doing a very nice job with it, I'm fascinated to hear the other version, recorded by Amanda Wilkinson apparently. (I love Amanda Wilkinson, because she somehow manages to keep a straight face in her videos while her father and brother sing back-up on lines that men really have no business singing, viz. "I Wanna Be That Girl"). Could it be better? Very possibly, but wishing it to be better seems churlish, because what we've already got is splendid.

She infuses each statement; what she hates, what she did, with just the right amount of kink and kick in her voice to convey a sense of giddy hurt. Lyrically, the senses are nicely catered for: she sings of a "blue-eyed boy with a red Trans-am", and having a "finger on the trigger". The chorus reveals the curse of the sensory activation of memory - Pontiacs, black vinyl seats, crackerjacks, crap songs on the radio - can remind us of pleasant times past, or they can make you revisit the scene and the time of your emotional wounding over and over again.

It's not overdone; someone with less skill would probably have seen a line like "And Tupelo! Oh, I hate that town!" as an excuse to over-emote, when the key is of course that Rebecca doesn't hate Tupelo, river roads, blue-eyed boys or midnight dancing (surely my new favourite euphemism for sex), she hates what they remind her of.

Musically, this is just right too - painting Rebecca's coloured lament in sepia like an old photograph with its fiddle and piano before a chorus that unleashes guitar twang and drum beats like little pains in the chest.

I don't know that that cute young Amanda Wilkinson could have pulled this off. The right version has blown up for once.

Bad real audio stream here. It occasionally sounds a bit like "Breathe" by Faith Hill, except it's not shit.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Statement of Intent

When I'm down, pop music can occasionally bring temporary euphoria. Rock (if most of it weren't so rubbish-y) can make me feel empowered, hip-hop can make me move but occasionally, that's not enough. Sometimes, it's got to be twang (vocal or guitar), gimmicks, melodrama and misery; rotgut with eyeliner.

Country music sits with you at the bar while you down crap beer and wallow in your own misery. People who say "I like everything except country" are also, conveniently, the stupidest people in the world, and this shall be a safe haven from them.

Country is as glamorous and airbrushed as any R&B starlet or dance diva, and each song covered will be examined through the prism of poptimism; let the indie kids dissect their Wilco as much as they want - we're happier with Gretchen.