Monday, June 4, 2012

Country Music Round-Up: Obscenity Finds a Way

If wholesomeness had a smell, I'm sure it would be delightful, and I'm equally sure the fragrance would emanate from every square inch of the contemporary pop-country genre. Wholesomeness (or if you prefer, prudishness) is its defining quality. But I'd argue a not-too-distant second is its reliance on clever, but accessible, songwriting. Those two elements, separately and in concert,[1] go a long way toward explaining why country music appeals not only to the Real Americans™ [2] who inhabit the small towns and rural fields and muddy creeks of the flyover states, but also to countless city folks, foreigners, smart-ass bloggers, and other not-as-real Americans.

But there's also a fundamental, unresolvable conflict between them. Songwriting is a realm of limitless possibilities. "Wholesome" is a polite way to describe a realm where possibilities are limited to pre-approved social norms. And artistic expression being what it is, those limits are relentlessly challenged—at times because they hinder the artist's ability to make a more important statement, and at times simply because they exist. Because sometimes that is the more important statement—that the cost of drawing a line is that it gives people something to congregate around, to push and pull and chip away at, to perhaps even move a little when no one else is looking.

But this is getting way too analytical and pretentious for an article about obscenity, so fuck it, here are some lyrics:

Blake Shelton, "Some Beach" (2004)
Driving down the interstate
Running thirty minutes late
Singing "Margaritaville" and minding my own
Some foreign car driving dude with the road rage attitude
Pulled up beside me talking on his cell phone
He started yelling at me like I did something wrong
He flipped me the bird and then he was gone…

Some beach…somewhere
There's a big umbrella casting shade over an empty chair
Palm trees are growing and a warm breeze is blowing
I picture myself right there
On some beach, somewhere

Kenny Chesney, "Shiftwork" (2007)
Shift work, tough work for the busy convenience store clerk
Two feet that hurt, going insane
She's mad at some lad
Drove off and didn't pay for his gas
And he won't be the last 'round the clock pain
Working seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

I'm talking about a bunch of shiiii…ft work
A big ol' pile of shiiii…ft work

Sugarland, "It Happens" (2008)
Ain't no rhyme or reason
No complicated meaning
Ain't no need to over think it
Let go laughing
Life don't go, quite like you plan it
We try so, hard to understand it
The irrefutable, indisputable, fact is
It happens
Not an inappropriate word to be found, right? Just three perfectly innocent songs about, respectively, coping with the everyday stress of the modern world, coping with the everyday stress of the modern world, and coping with the everyday stress of the modern world. If Blake Shelton's abrupt and unexpected change in both latitude and attitude,[3] or Kenny Chesney's elongation of the vowel sound in "shift", or Sugarland's rather awkward insertion of sort of a shushing sound (or maybe it's more of a dismissive "pshh"?) into their chorus brought to mind any words you'd never expect to hear in a mainstream country song, then so be it.

I'll concede that these songs are all a little cheesy—this is country music,[4] after all—but there is a definite art to being obscene without actually being obscene. Causing the listener to hear something that isn't there—something that isn't allowed to be there.[5] It's easy to think of the wholesome/prudish culture surrounding country music as a force that stifles creativity, but in many ways it does just the opposite. Obscenity finds a way.[6]

Anyway, I saved the best for last:

Craig Campbell, "Fish" (2011)
The first time we did it I was scared to death
She snuck out in that cotton dress
Jumped on in and we drove to the lake
Put her hand on my knee and said I can’t wait
I had everything we needed in the bed of my truck
Turns out my baby loves to…
[wait for it]
Fish…she wants to do it all the time
Early in the morning, in the middle of the night
She’s hooked and now she can’t get enough
Man, that girl sure loves to fish
In terms of "saying" something that, if actually said, would be thoroughly unwelcome in the pop-country world, I'm pretty sure this is the leader in the clubhouse.[7]

So, what's next? "Fish", which peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, won't be easy to top, but I have no doubt it can be done.

CONFIDENTIAL TO NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS: I'm sure you're aware that country audiences are used to, and tend to enjoy, songs about country music itself. And you've probably also noticed that one of the most offensive terms in the English language is right there. I'm not saying it would be easy, but if this can make it past the FCC…

1. Is that a pun? If so, pun intended. If not, please disregard this footnote.
2. Your check is in the mail, Sean Hannity.
3. I'm not a fan of Blake Shelton. This has nothing to do with his music, which is enjoyable enough, and everything to do with the fact that he's married to Miranda Lambert, and I'm jealous. It's not rational, but it is what it is.
4. "This Is Country Music", of course, is also the title of a Brad Paisley song, which is, naturally, one of the cheesiest country songs of the last decade:
You're not supposed to say the word "cancer" in a song
And tellin' folks Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong
It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, and little towns, and Mama
Yeah, that might be true
But this is country music, and we do
5. If it doesn't go without saying, this isn't a new concept, nor is it unique to country. Who knows when it was first executed, but "Shaving Cream", written by Benny Bell in 1946, is a solid candidate:
I have a sad story to tell you
It may hurt your feelings a bit
Last night when I walked into my bathroom
I stepped in a big pile of shhhh…aving cream
6. While we're on the subject of obscenity in mainstream country, Toby Keith's "American Ride" contains the line, "If the shoe don't fit, the fit's gonna hit the shan", which I guess is a form of disguised profanity, but mostly it's just baffling. (I could write a series of articles about "American Ride", there's so much going on. I love this line from the chorus: "Both ends of the ozone burning / Funny how the world keeps turning." Yes, funny indeed. It's as if the ozone layer has nothing at all to do with conservation of angular momentum or the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the Sun.)
    And then there's Keith's "Red Solo Cup", the greatest country song since "Rock Flag and Eagle", and also the only country song I know of (note: I'm not an expert—I assume there have been others) that had to be edited for the radio. In the original, it's a pair of testicles that you surely lack if you prefer drinking from glass; on the radio, it's a pair of vegetables, which is both terrible and hilarious, and is thus precisely the radio edit the song demands. Also, the listener is forced to make an educated guess as to what, exactly, Freddie Mac can kiss. (SPOILER: It's Toby Keith's ass.)
    Finally, I've brought this up before, but I remain convinced that "Little White Church", by Little Big Town, is about cunnilingus. "No more calling me baby / No more loving like crazy / Till you take me down" … "Charming devil, silver tongue / Had your fun, now you're done." Right? *nudge nudge* Right?
    Ok, maybe I'm reaching. My interpretation relies on the little white church being a metaphor for the singer's clitoris (or orgasms or whatever), which in turn relies on the time-honored principle that pretty much anything can be a metaphor for genitals (or orgasms or whatever) if you want it to be. But I'm just saying, if I set out to write a country song from the perspective of a girl who's upset about her boyfriend's failure to reciprocate in bed, and for creative and/or commercial reasons I wanted to conceal the sexual themes behind a radio-friendly layer of wholesomeness, and I was substantially better at songwriting than I am, this would be that song.
7. "Fish" ends with Campbell whispering, "psst, you awake? Let’s fish", because subtlety. Meanwhile, Trace Adkins' "Just Fishin'"—which is also not about fishing, but in the most different way possible—ends with Adkins saying, "this ain't about fishing." If it helps going forward, I'm willing to stipulate right here and now that no country song is ever actually about fishing.
    (That said, what if "Fish" really is about fishing? As in, the narrator found a girl who shares his passion for fishing, which is nice, but sooner or later he's going to have to confront the reality that she may have a serious problem. She wants to fish "all the time", she "can't get enough", she "don't give up" even if she isn't getting any bites. These are all symptoms of a crippling disorder. And nevermind sleep and exercise and personal hygiene—does she even stop fishing long enough to fuck?)


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