Week 31: Toby Keith, American

Week 31: Toby Keith, American

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

Back when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, the local country radio station ran the least effective TV commercial I’ve ever seen. A group of dead-eyed blue-collar folks glumly looked at the camera and said things like “I like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Garth Brooks has some good songs.” But my favorite part of the commercial involved a Jean Teasdale type glaring dispassionately at the camera and announcing, with just the faintest hint of a Sling Blade drawl, “Toby Keith has a new album. It’s called How Do You Like Me Now?!” 

At no point did this woman express any affection for Keith. She wasn’t claiming that his music speaks to her on a profound emotional level. She was merely morosely conveying the information that there is a singer named Toby Keith who has a new album out, and that she knows the title. The commercial then cut to several seconds of Toby Keith looking beefy and cocky in the song’s music video.

Consequently, I couldn’t think about Keith for years without revisiting the phrase “Toby Keith has a new album. It’s called How Do You Like Me Now?!” In no small part due to that infernal commercial—a spot that scared me away from country for more than a decade—I strongly associated Keith with the pandering, slick emptiness that characterizes so much of contemporary country. 

I didn’t actually listen to How Do You Like Me Now?!’s title track until I began this project. Over a suspiciously Hootie & The Blowfish-like jangle, Keith chronicles a tale of sweet revenge involving characters who can charitably be called pop archetypes, and less charitably be called lazy clichés: the protagonist, a good ol’ boy who excelled only at mischief in high school, and the class valedictorian, a popular snob who looks down on the protagonist as the worst kind of human garbage.

In high school, the valedictorian was Queen Shit Of Fuck Mountain. The world was hers. She could have any man she wanted, and wasn’t about to waste her valuable social capital on some hillbilly who played his guitar too loud and snuck into the stadium to write her name and number on the 50-yard line along with an admonishment to call her for a good time. This oil-and-water pair’s fortunes shift radically following high school, however. The pie-eyed dreamer grows up to be, well, Toby Keith, the kind of beloved mega-star whose album titles are emotionlessly relayed in commercials for shitty radio stations in Southeast Wisconsin. And the woman’s ambition dead-ended at being a rich man’s trophy wife. 

At this point, the song takes a remarkable leap from petty to borderline sadistic, as Keith observes of the woman’s husband: 

He took your dreams and he tore them apart
He never comes home and you’re always alone
And your kids hear you crying down the hall
Alarm clock starts ringing, who could that be singing?
It’s me, baby, with your wakeup call! 

It isn’t enough that the woman who shunned him in high school is unhappy. No, Keith has to luxuriate in the mental image of a wife and mother weeping so loudly that her children can hear her and be devastated by the horror show their family life has become. One can only imagine how much unseemly glee Keith would take in the children growing up to be commitment-phobic basket cases who require around-the-clock counseling and heavy-duty antidepressants to help them deal with early formative traumas. And it all could have been avoided if their mother had only seen Keith’s boundless potential and maybe given him a handjob.

That’s some sinister shit, but Keith delivers incredibly mean-spirited sentiments with good-natured bonhomie. He’s just a lucky everyman—white trash with money, to quote one of his self-deprecating album titles—not a creep who derives glee from the misfortune of others. That’s the funny thing about Keith: even when he’s expressing ideas I find problematic at best and morally abhorrent at worst, he does so in a likeable fashion: “How Do You Like Me Now?!” is a catchy, emotionally satisfying ditty that will remain in my iPod on a permanent basis.

“How Do You Like Me Now?!” is like a country version of 2Pac’s “Picture Me Rollin’,” another song about rubbing your success in the face of everyone who ever doubted you, or rejected you in high school. Revenge is an enormously seductive concept in pop culture and in life, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Keith’s other signature song takes the concept of revenge from the interpersonal to the geopolitical.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Keith released “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” a jingoistic anthem that instantly established Keith as a major, controversial figure in our nation’s never-ending culture war. Though Keith identifies himself as a conservative Democrat, he came to personify knuckle-dragging right-wing redneck xenophobia to much of the general public. He instantly became one of the most loved and hated figures in music.

Keith’s patriotic smash offered the reassurance of simplicity and stark moral clarity at a time when the world felt scary, unknowable, and ambiguous. It was, of course, a false simplicity. Keith told a frightened populace exactly what it wanted to hear: The 9/11 attacks weren’t the result of complicated realpolitik maneuvering that dates back to the United States funding the future leaders of the Taliban in their struggle against the Soviet Union, but a mere instance of the nation that Keith loves suffering “a mighty sucker-punch” that “came flying in from somewhere in the back,” and angrily demanding a retaliatory attack. 

“Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” is pure patriotic über-kitsch that anthropomorphizes our national icons into figures of righteous fury. The aforementioned sucker punch from somewhere in the back causes “Uncle Sam” to “put [the terrorists’ names] on the top of his list” while “The Statue Of Liberty started shaking her fist!” “The eagle will fly” and there will be hell to pay when “Mother Freedom” starts “ringing her bell.” 

Keith simultaneously soothed and riled up an anxious nation by assuring us that our national might would make right. Evildoers had struck, but they were no match for the combined force of our soldier boys lighting up whoever was responsible for 9/11 “like the Fourth of July.” Everything would be just fine, on account of our nation being so awesome.

“Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” changed Keith’s life and career. An artist who’d never much bothered with politics suddenly became a red-state icon and a blue-state archvillain. Keith and the song were tarred as racist. While I’m not about to defend the song’s politics, I don’t think there’s anything particularly racist about releasing a fist-pumping redneck anthem promising to bomb our enemies into oblivion. It’s reactionary, simplistic, and over-the-top, but there’s no anti-Islamic rhetoric in Keith’s lyrics, just a frothing desire to atone for an attack the only way we know how: by killing a whole bunch of people who look and act differently from us. “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” is mindlessly imperialistic and bloodthirsty, but I don’t think it’s racist. 

Keith waded deeper into tricky political waters when he came out against the Dixie Chicks after they had the audacity to concede that there are a whole bunch of Americans—and even a handful of Texans—who were ashamed to be represented by George W. Bush. The Dixie Chicks/Keith feud soon grew to 2Pac/Biggie proportions. “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” was bad enough. Now Keith was picking a fight with a woman who’d done nothing wrong beyond speaking her mind and calling him and his chest-beating anthem ignorant, which it so totally is.

Probably no one foresaw Keith’s evolution into a shit-kicking, wildly divisive über-patriot of liberal nightmares on the basis of his terminally bland 1994 self-titled debut—the cover shows Keith rocking an immaculately feathered mullet—even though Keith’s everyman persona seems fully formed on “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” the album’s smash-hit lead-off track, and one of the most popular country songs of the decade. 

Like Garth Brooks, Keith represented an extremely ’90s conception of country superstar as everyman. Country’s icons were no longer larger-than-life figures, they were guys like the protagonist of “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” who dreams of stealing hearts and chasing bad guys as the antidote to the dreariness of contemporary life.

Keith lovingly rips off the Georgia Satellites on the rambunctious “A Little Less Talk And A Lot More Action,” and he ends the album on an intriguingly oddball note with the old-fashioned, vaguely ragtime novelty number “Close But No Guitar.” But otherwise, Toby Keith is devoted to endless meditations on love lost, each more maudlin and generic than the last. The disc’s nadir is “Valentine,” a tearjerker about a man who misses his woman every day, but damn near dies of heartbreak every February 14.

Boomtown, Keith’s follow-up, opens with “Who’s That Man,” his most haunting and powerful ballad. In it, Keith occupies the skin of a man who returns to his hometown and sees that everything is exactly as he left it—his house, his car, the tree out by the fence, his children—except that there’s now a strange man playing with his kids and sleeping with his wife. The familiarity just makes everything more agonizing. Keith brings a real sense of hurt to his words. Like the best country music, “Who’s That Man” finds the wrenching drama and heartbreak in everyday life.

If “Who’s That Man” is the apex of Keith’s serious side, “You Ain’t Much Fun” epitomizes his aw-shucks humor. It’s a bemused story-song about a man who realizes he doesn’t particularly like his wife after he sobers up and comes to terms with just how dependent he’d become on the great social lubricant. Alas, Boomtown isn’t much fun beyond “You Ain’t Much Fun.” Again, wimpy ballads like “Woman Behind The Man” and “Victoria’s Secret” prove Keith’s downfall. I had no idea he was such a goddamned pussy. Its follow-up, Blue Moon, fails for pretty much the same reason.

I don’t dislike Keith because his songs are stupid, corny, and gimmicky. I actually like that aspect of his persona. For all their troublesome connotations, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” qualify as dumb fun. I dislike most of Keith’s albums because Keith has such an unfortunate predilection for weepy songs about love. I’d much rather listen to Keith sing horrible sentiments in a sprightly fashion than hear him go on and on about a woman who broke his heart. 

So I was excited by the prospect of 2002’s Unleashed, the album that brought the world “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue.” Keith was finally going to be unleashed! We would experience the full force of his fury! It’s even got a cover with a doghouse with Keith’s name inexplicably emblazoned on it, behind a ripped-open fence. The message was clear: Keith was going rogue. It symbolized a sharp break from the genteel, aristocratic image Keith had previously projected. This explosive cover got me excited. Finally I was going to experience more of the cornball shit-kicker I guiltily enjoy some of the time. 

Sure enough, Unleashed contains two of Keith’s signature songs: the aforementioned “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” and “Beer For My Horses,” a duet with Willie Nelson that once again finds Keith espousing problematic ideas in a folksy manner both affable and infectious. 

On “Beer For My Horses,” Keith and Nelson agitate for country-fried law and order and zero tolerance for criminals. Keith has poor Willie sing: 

Take all the rope in Texas
Find a tall oak tree
Round up all of them bad boys
And hang ’em high in the street
For all the people to see

Never mind that the Red-Headed Stranger’s actual attitude toward crime is more likely to be “Free all non-violent offenders and be mellow with everyone else so as not to harsh their buzz.” As with “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue,” “Beer For My Horses” takes place in a black-and-white world where the distinctions between good and evil are crystal-clear, and evildoers must be punished. Yet in spite of—or because of—its bloodthirsty rhetoric and simplistic take on crime, it’s a hell of a catchy song, an anthem really, and Toby and Willie make for an inspired odd couple. (Besides, it’s hard to fuck up a song with a title like “Beer For My Horses.”) But up-tempo rockers like the catchy sugar-daddy lament “Who’s Your Daddy?” and the aforementioned singles are outnumbered by even more dreary ballads on Unleashed.

I had to wait until 2003’s Shock’n Y’all to get a full dose of the cheap kicks I angrily demand from Keith’s signature amalgam of dumb-ass 1980s Southern rock, glossy Nashville slickness, and good ol’ boy humor. With the exception of the flag-waving, shamelessly sentimental “American Soldier” (you can probably guess what that’s about), Keith doesn’t take himself or anything else too seriously here.

“If I Was Jesus” is the latest in a long line of songs positing the Christian Messiah as a good ol’ boy who hangs out with long-haired outcasts, livens up parties with his signature water-into-wine trick, and of course, sacrifices himself for humanity. “Whiskey Girl” and “I Love This Bar” are booze-sodden tributes to honky-tonks and the fine Americans who fill them. 

Unleashed concludes with three consecutive joke songs. “The Critic” offers a bemused, gently chiding, yet strangely affectionate character study of a small-town critic who discovers that vitriolic hateration will take him further professionally than reverence. Over a “King Of The Road”-style jazzy shuffle, Keith repeats all the standard criticism of critics—that they’re frustrated artists who vent their frustrations on those who’ve succeeded where they’ve failed, that they’re broke, drive shitty cars, have bloated egos, and zero job security—but he also acknowledges that critics tend to get into the business because they love music. The critic in question only resorts to character assassination after an indifferent public ignores glowing pieces about a pet band and a swinging bluegrass outfit.

“The Taliban Song” is simultaneously more offensive and more progressive than “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue.” Its depiction of a “Middle Eastern camel-herdin’ man” in a “two-bedroom cave” might offend more delicate sensibilities—though to be fair, no one with delicate sensibilities is likely to listen to a deep cut on a Toby Keith album called Shock’n Y’all—but the song refreshingly acknowledges that the people of Afghanistan are a heterogeneous lot, and that many didn’t like the Taliban any better than us Americans. (USA! USA!) Keith riffs on Willie Nelson’s pastime and his famously powerful marijuana on “Weed With Willie,” an appropriately silly way to end an album from a man who seems to have fully embraced cartoonish self-parody.

That gleeful self-parody courses through subsequent singles like “High Maintenance Woman,” a gloriously corny story-song about a woman who turns up her nose at the maintenance man at her apartment complex. This vexes him to no end, as he fancies himself a gent who “has all the tools” necessary to satisfy. (By “tools,” he of course means “penis.”) Keith once again depicts the cultural divide in the broadest possible terms. To him, city girls spend all their time lounging by the pool before heading downtown in a limousine, and country boys are unworldly hicks. The tortured wordplay of the title, the hillbilly attitude, the Elvis quiver: “High Maintenance Woman” reeks of giddy self-parody. 

In 2007 Keith released what is arguably—no, inarguably—the worst song ever recorded, worse even than Blessid Union Of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me For Me).” It’s called “She’s A Hottie,” and accomplishes the formidable feat of being infinitely dumber than its title would suggest. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to it yourself and recoil in horror.

“She’s A Hottie” was the sole new track on Keith’s 35 Biggest Hits. It’s unfortunate that the worst thing Keith’s ever done—worse even than killing all those hobos—is on his greatest-hits album. He’s an archetypal greatest-hits kind of guy: his albums are full of filler, but his singles often provide the guiltiest of pleasures. 

As a brie-eating, latte-sipping, NPR-listening, big-city Jewish intellectual I nurse a sneaking suspicion that I should hate Keith. But I don’t. He’s far too amiable a figure to inspire such contempt. I’ve met one of country’s preeminent villains, and to be brutally honest, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. 

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