Week Of August 27, 2011

A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the country songs chart for August 27, 2011.

Dierks Bentley, “Am I The Only One” (No. 2)

Steven: GK and I had so much fun exploring the nation’s biggest rock songs back in July that we decided to extend our journey outside the Hot 100 and investigate the country chart this month. Dierks Bentley’s “Am I The Only One” reminds me of an observation my friend Joe made once about the parallels between contemporary country and stand-up comedy. A lot of modern country hits are very premise-y, blowing up observations about relationships, pop culture, and/or social conventions into songs or “bits.” For “Am I The Only One,” the premise isn’t necessarily comedic, but it’s pretty relatable to anyone with married friends, or anyone who is the married friend. Basically, Bentley wants to go out on Friday night, but all his pals are too tied up at home to join him. It’s a drag for Bentley “to raise hell all by myself,” but things pick up considerably when “a country cutie with a rock ’n’ roll booty” enters the picture. By the end of the song, Bentley has convinced his lame friends to pick up the guitars and have a little fun tonight, and it’s damn near impossible not to follow suit.

Genevieve: Beer-drinkin’ and good-time-havin’ are themes we’re going to see a lot of on this month’s chart, but this song might be my favorite of the bunch. Not only does it have a more specific premise—wanting to go out and have a good time, but having no one to share said good times with—it has a fun, slightly rowdy energy that’s more appealing to me than the laid-back beach-party vibe that seems to permeate country radio in the summertime. Those types of songs are passive, while this one is active, stomping boots and raising hell instead of sippin’ on a beer with feet in the sand. There’s certainly room for both outlooks on country radio—this one just happens to appeal to me more. And the fact that Dierks Bentley doesn’t seem to take himself or the song too seriously makes it seem like he’s a dude I actually could “get my good time on” with.
Steven’s grade: B+ 
Genevieve’s grade: B+

Jake Owen, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” (No. 6)

Genevieve: We’ve commented many times in this column about how today’s male country singers often come across as wimpy pretty-boys compared to their more shit-kicking female counterparts. The current trend of good-time beach-party country singles exemplifies this: The Jimmy Buffett of the Nashville set, Kenny Chesney, is king of this milieu, though Zac Brown Band recently made inroads with “Knee Deep.” Jake Owen picks up that torch and runs with it on “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” and it’s pretty interchangeable with its brethren, even with that rogue steel guitar mixing things up. There’s nothing particularly interesting about professing a love of drinking beer and hanging out with pretty ladies at the lake, but “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” earns a little extra notice for its anthemic chorus. Everything surrounding it, from Owen’s predictable vocals to the even more predictable lyrics, are blandly likeable enough to tolerate between the catchy “whoa-oh-oh” sing-alongs.

Steven: Talk about a contemporary country song straight out of central casting: Jake Owen looks like Keith Urban’s younger brother, and as you’ve pointed out, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is yet another example of country radio’s intense Jimmy Buffett fixation. It also has a touch of another rogue influence on contemporary country artists—that arena-ready “whoa-oh-oh” chorus is lifted straight from side one of Def Leppard’s Hysteria. Songs like “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is the country equivalent of the club bangers currently crowding the pop charts. If you’re the sort who prefers the back of a pickup truck parked by a lake to a downtown hotspot filled with ballers and shorties, here’s another song to crank while downing some brews. 
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B-

Toby Keith, “Made In America” (No. 9)

Steven: In my former life as a small-town newspaper reporter, I reviewed not one but two Toby Keith concerts, and to my surprise, I didn’t hate them at all. In spite of his image as a big ol’ jingoistic blowhard, Keith is a surprisingly canny singer-songwriter at times. “Made In America” isn’t one of those times, I’m afraid—this is pandering hogwash of the lowest order, geared toward the resentful masses who are convinced that “some people” don’t think it’s cool for hard-workin’ folk and their kids to recite the Pledge Of Allegiance. The strangest part of “Made In America,” however, is the song’s similarity to Built To Spill’s “Else,” which I’ve written about previously. As much as I like to imagine Toby jamming some Keep It Like A Secret on his iPod, I’m guessing this is a coincidence.

Genevieve: I was sort of on this song’s side during the first verse, when I thought it was going to be all about buying American-made vehicles, which as a child of the Detroit auto industry, and a big-time domestic car booster, plays right into my personal biases. It gets a little too broadly jingoistic for my taste shortly after that, though, especially the part about being raised in a family “of King James and Uncle Sam,” but I don’t dislike this song quite as much as you, Steven. I could certainly do without the grating sense of superiority—“some folks say it isn’t cool,” whatever—but this more gentle, personal sort of patriotic pandering is much more tolerable than the aggressive “America, fuck yeah”-isms that Keith and other country singers occasionally latch onto. 
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C

Trace Adkins, “Just Fishin’” (No. 11)

Genevieve: Speaking of pandering country songs, here’s another pandering country song from Trace Adkins. Can this simpering proud papa cooing about his daughter’s kittens really be the same man who brought us “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”? Well, sure; this song is just as calculated, only this time, Adkins is targeting the “mom” demo rather than the “douchebag” one. I’m not saying Adkins, who has five daughters, lacks sincere love for his kids—or badonkadonks, for that matter—but it’s difficult to sing about that kind of thing without coming off as tacky, and this song doesn’t manage it. Maybe it’s that cheesy electric-guitar solo, maybe it’s the too-forced rhymes, maybe it’s Adkins’ aw-shucks emoting in the video, but this song just doesn’t get my ovaries humming, in spite of its best efforts.

Steven: Let me start off by agreeing with you: This song totally sucks. But it’s also sort of sweet in a way that’s totally unique to the country charts right now. It’s hard to imagine a song about a guy who loves his daughters hitting big on the modern pop or rock chart. (My favorite part of “Just Fishin’” is when Adkins mutters at the end, “This ain’t about fishin’.” You know, just in case there was confusion over the titular metaphor.) I never want to hear this song again, but I appreciate the fact that it exists, and is expressing something that thousands of stoic fellas out there feel and probably shed a tear or two over. 
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: C

George Strait, “Here For A Good Time” (No. 12)

Genevieve: With three decades of records under his belt, George Strait is the elder statesman of this month’s chart (this is his 89th single), and the straightforward, workmanlike “Here For A Good Time” bears that out. There’s nothing remotely novel about this song—in fact, it sounds pretty dated—but it’s a simple, crowd-pleasing tune, capably executed. That probably sounds like faint praise, but it isn’t: Country isn’t a genre that rewards innovation or stylistic experiments. It’s about giving people what they want, and judging by the songs on this month’s chart, right now, people want good-time hang-out songs. (Though that’s always been a favorite subject for Strait.) “Here For A Good Time” delivers just that, without any frills or clever twists: just a straightforward honky-tonk shuffle and the simple promise of a good time.

Steven: George Strait is like that restaurant in your hometown that hasn’t changed since you were kid, and nobody is ever in there, and the food is solid but never great, but it’s been that way forever, and you like it that way. Radio programmers must be playing “Here For A Good Time” out of habit, because it sounds like it was recorded in 1992 and wouldn’t be remotely commercial in 2011 if it came from somebody not named George Strait. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—in fact, I appreciate that they’re still keeping Strait around. You just have to wonder how this restaurant is still in business after all these years.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B

Scotty McCreery, “I Love You This Big” (No. 15)

Steven: I didn’t follow American Idol too closely last season—I tuned in mainly to marvel at the wonder that is Steven Tyler’s shiny, surprisingly lifelike face—but I was probably one of the only viewers north of the Mason-Dixon line who didn’t mind eventual winner Scotty McCreery. Yes, he laid on the all-American cornpone posturing super-thick, and sure, his resemblance to Howdy Doody is potentially off-putting. But the kid has a decent voice, as the mushy ballad “I Love You This Big” shows. McCreery has one of those faces that’s destined to never look older than 14, but the deep, honeyed tone of his vocals makes him a natural for songs like this. “I Love You This Big” is pretty corny, but McCreery sounds like a lil’ Randy Travis, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s singing more adult-oriented material.

Genevieve: The dissonance between McCreery’s goofy face and big, rich voice is reminiscent of another baby-faced crooner—though this song isn’t nearly as catchy. In fact, it makes me want to give McCreery a big ol’ wedgie, which I gather is a common response to him, though since I’ve never watched American Idol, this is my first time encountering this little twerp. “I love you this big”? That’s what a toddler says to his mommy, not a declaration of romantic love. This kind of neutered schmaltz is far more offensive to me than the jingoistic flag-waving of Toby Keith, in that it’s bland, non-specific, and devoid of any point of view beyond “love is nice.” While I agree that McCreery has an appealing voice, the half-assed material he’s applying it to negates that appeal. 
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: D+

Jerrod Niemann, “One More Drinkin’ Song” (No. 20)

Genevieve: “One More Drinkin’ Song” could serve as the theme song of this month’s This Was Pop list: “What’s so wrong with one more drinkin’ song?” Niemann asks. Judging by the career of Jimmy Buffett—whom Niemann is channeling here—nothing at all, though if you ask me in a week to tell the difference between Niemann’s “hey-hey-hey” sing-along and Jake Owen’s “Whoa-oh-oh” chorus, chances are good I won’t be able to. Musically, they aren’t that similar, but they share a certain flat charm that’s as inoffensive as it is forgettable. Owen is Bud Light, while Niemann is Miller Light (Strait is a can of Old Style): slightly different permutations of the same populist formula, with just enough bubbly charm to buoy the listener/drinker through three minutes of boilerplate good times.

Steven: The stiffest drink being served up in “One More Drinkin’ Song” is lukewarm milk. It’s a little too upbeat and slick to serve as an adequate soundtrack for tipping back anything stronger. The closest Niemann gets to naughtiness is nearly saying the word “laid,” but he saves himself with a last-second keyboard swoosh. That’s a little precious even for contemporary country radio, though I guess people who merely like the idea of drinking need fun-time songs, too. The rest of us just have to wait for Niemann to nod off by 9 p.m. so the real fun can begin.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C

Ronnie Dunn, “Cost Of Livin’” (No. 23)

Steven: As much as we might rant about empty, populist pandering in contemporary country music, the flipside is that country artists are the only pop stars addressing the economic realities faced by their audience on a regular basis. The simple, understated “Cost Of Livin’” is all too real for millions of Americans, with Ronnie Dunn singing in the first person from the perspective of a person looking for work, because “the wolves are at my door.” That’s a pretty chilling image, and it’s a bit of surprise coming from Dunn, who was half of the party-hearty, ass-kicking country duo Brooks & Dunn. But if you want to know why country-music fans show more loyalty to their singers than fans in any other genre, “Cost Of Livin’” is a good place to start. 

Genevieve: This song is pretty remarkable in the context of the rest of the country chart this month, not only because of its subject matter, but also because of its staunch refusal to offer any sort of catharsis or uplift. In fact, it’s almost uncomfortably sad in its desperation; I kept waiting for some injection of anger or some sort of grand statement to temper the bleakness, but it never came. That’s ballsy for a radio single, but it also makes “Cost Of Livin’”—well, not a hard listen, as both the lyrics and Dunn’s vocals are very accessible; but it’s more demanding than anything else on this chart. Modern country music is rarely this downtrodden, but Dunn’s songwriting is a healthy reminder that the genre’s storytelling roots can convey sadness just as much as they can humor, love, vengeance, and enjoyment of beer. 
Steven’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Miranda Lambert, “Baggage Claim” (No. 24)

Genevieve: I’ve made no bones about my love of Miranda Lambert in this column, so I’m thrilled to have new music from my favorite Texas shit-kicker. (This is the first single off the upcoming Four The Record.) I’m less thrilled with the song itself, which, while still far more fun than most of what’s on this list, is a little tame by Lambert’s standards. Compared to previous borderline-felonious kiss-offs like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder And Lead,” the central image of “Baggage Claim” is pretty weak sauce. Luckily, Lambert’s spunky-as-always delivery goes a long way toward redeeming the tortured metaphor; her vocals have always been brash and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but there’s an added maturity here that elevates her girlish bravado to a more womanly swagger that almost sells the emotional perils of a luggage carousel. 

Steven: In light of critics slamming Kanye West and Jay-Z for callously bragging about their personal wealth in tough economic times on Watch The Throne, I wonder if Miranda Lambert will get any flak for taking a metaphor from her jet-setting lifestyle in order to take a man with a “sensitive ego” down a peg. I’m not sure Lambert has to persist with threatening to blow dudes’ heads off, but the awkward “Baggage Claim” suggests that she might have a rocky road to maturity. Still, Lambert is such a feisty presence on the mic that she makes her peers on country radio sound sleepy by comparison.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B

Kellie Pickler, “Tough” (No. 30)

Steven: Kellie Pickler is sort of a poor woman’s version of fellow American Idol contestant Carrie Underwood. But while she isn’t as popular or talented as Underwood, Pickler is just cute and charming enough to make me like “Tough.” Calling a kewpe-pie like Pickler “tough” is like calling a fat guy Tiny, but at least she doesn’t seem to be taking this fluffy trifle any more seriously than necessary. When she sings “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with a woman that got a little backbone,” she sounds adorable, and she knows it.

Genevieve: “Tough” is pretty standard girl-power song fodder—with a few genre tweaks and a change of accent, this song could have a life on the Hot 100 as sung by someone like Beyoncé… or, perhaps more accurately, Jordin Sparks. It’s the kind of song that many women—myself included—love to sing after a few drinks at karaoke, but as most of those renditions prove, it takes more than lyrics and a microphone to sell a girl-power anthem. Pickler makes the right choice, opting for spunk over aggression in her delivery—and once she gets to the “You wanted a pretty little thing” breakdown, she really lets loose. It isn’t the most engaging performance, but it’s fun and believable enough, befitting both the song and the singer.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B


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