Country music, and part of the reason why we love it, is that it’s riddled with cliche’s. Cliches are comfortable truths about ourselves we don’t particularly mind sharing. In country music there’s a self awareness to all those old cliches. Roy Clark knew all those old Hee Haw jokes were complete stinkers and so did we. That’s half the reason why they worked. Two new songs working in the tradition are currently out right now. Both are by established country singers and both are great examples of country music song craft, the good and the bad. Here we’ll take a look at Tim McGraw’s “It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You”, and in the next blog we’ll look at Lyle Lovett’s “Keep It In Your Pantry”.
Nashville songwriters are well rumored for keeping banker hours and work on their craft much like an accountant crunches numbers. Now, whether or not this is completely the truth matters little in the same way that cliches point toward general truths rather than singling out specific ones. Truths like for every cocktail napkin or coffee stained envelope song there’s been 100 others double spaced and spell checked. This is a job. I imagine that around 3pm on a Thursday afternoon with two more hours staring down until the clock can be punched and the last suckle of the Caramel Frappuccino has been suckled things get a little sloppy. This is when songs like “The Weather Is Here, I Wish You Were Beautiful”, or “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?” happen. Country music has a long standing tradition of word play (read into that what you will). It’s easy really. Take a time honored cliche and flip the words around and voila, hilarity ensues. Some jokes are always funny no matter how many times they are told. Some are kind of funny the first time you hear them and then less funny every time after that until the reason they were originally funny has become completely lost. The ol’ cliche switcheroo is a par exemple.
It’s a well known fact that puns are the lowest form of humor. Samuel Johnson said this and while I would defer to the man in most matters of the written word, here I’ll respectfully disagree and counter with the ol’ cliche switcheroo. They sit just below the knock knock joke, which sit just below any finger pulling variation out there. Roger Ebert has said that it’s not what something is about, rather how it’s about that makes something good or bad. With that in mind let’s take Tim McGraw’s “It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You” off of his latest release Southern Voice. It’s such a stock and trade country song I almost feel like beating on it is akin to kicking a stray mutt. But, if someone has to be the bad guy in this story, it might as well be me. The song kicks off with the standard chopping block rhythm of the modern day country music anthem. It’s like a march gone bad at this point, suitable only for overbite shimmies and dirt road high school parties. When I look at lyrics without musical notation I’m sure I shouldn’t be able to sing the melody when I’ve never heard the song. You can on this one. Just talk it through.
I spent fif-teen hundred dollars on your damn- dog’s -collar
Put new spinners on your escalade
Got it? Good. Now, just who is this song written for. Clearly it is reminiscent of songs like Alan Jackson and Randy Travis’s “A Better Class of Losers”. In that song Travis sings about his disdain for his current life of parties and social mobility while fondly remembering his loser friends. It comes off as authentic and Travis’s character, who has had enough, comes across as someone who knows what he wants and leaves. There’s disdain in his voice for previous choices, but not resentment. Why should there be, no one is forcing something on him he can’t walk away from. McGraw’s character plays up the resentment side of things. Country man has girlfriend with expensive taste. He’s not outwardly happy about it, but continues to cater to her, because, well he claims because of her world class lovin, but there’s a bit of the cuckold talking here to0. There’s a certain pleasure to be had in playing the martyr, but I don’t think he is one and we too often make martyrdom synonymous with wanting to be stoned rather than not stopping it. This is a song about a conflicted man. The conflict though isn’t that he doesn’t want to be the man he is, or even about needing more money to keep living as high on the hog, but that he knows how it looks to others. Isn’t this why we swagger? So, again, who is this song written for? Economic recession or not there still seems to be a lot of Escalades out there and over priced dog collars. The cul-de-saccers, fantasy footballers, soccer mommers. Who else can relate? Tim McGraw and Faith Hill can. So, perhaps, this is in fact an authentic reflection of themselves or the shadows of themselves had they not become superstars. Why sing about a bucket when it doesn’t have a hole?
Songwriters interest me, who they are, what else they have written. “It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You” was written by Chad Kroeger. If you’re reading (and enjoying) this blog you may be forgiven for not knowing who that is, though I’m sure you know his band, Nickelback. At first it struck me as strange that the Canadian rocker was writing country hits for Tim McGraw. It’s a bit of a mean song and that McGraw would sing it was also surprising, but all these worlds are blurred, and that’s when I realized it’s more about that broken bucket than we acknowledge. Kroeger and McGraw have a lot more in common with each other than I do with either of them. One wrote it, the other believed it.
Now a quick digression to underline the point of blurry genres. Uber producer Mutt Lange produced Nickelback’s latest album. Lange is a genre buster with few peers and it’s worth remembering some of his achievements, if only for cocktail conversations. For starter’s he’s married to Robert Palmer. No wait, Robert Palmer died, may he rest in peace. Lange is married to Shania Twain, who sounds like Robert Palmer. Shania, with Mutt’s help, kicked the shit out of country music conventions and I’ll not say it’s bad. Lange also has produced the following in laundry list format (please keep in mind this list is but highlights, and not intended to be exhaustive. Were it exhaustive it would become clear that no one else, save Rick Rubin and Jack Frost, has produced a single song in the last 30 years):
AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and “Back In Black”, Bryan Adams “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman”, The Cars “Heartbeat City”, The Corrs “In Blue” as well as a ton of stuff from Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys, Billy Ocean, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, XTC, The Boomtown Rats (who deserve a blog of their own), and Michael Bolton. Do I even need to mention Def Leppard?
There’s a rift in the country music world between the people who like modern CMT country music and those that prefer the more traditional and what some would claim a more authentic version. To be fair I’m not always sure that the listeners of the latest country hit know that there’s a rift or would care if they did and good for them, why should they? What I think is at the root of all this isn’t really about the sound, but about quality. Country music is big business and getting it right now takes place in board rooms with people pouring over loads of listenership data. What frustrates me most is that feeling of manipulation. Gone is the emotional reaction to a song. In it’s place a discussion of target audience and potential sales. It has a devastating trickle effect though. When formula becomes more important than creativity or at best an equal component the hand of the writer begins to be seen in the lyrics. Questions arise, was this a honest song or a designed song. Once that cynical view is in there it becomes increasingly hard to block it out. I’m sure a great many modern country songs have suffered due to the cynics assumption. With that in mind read this next line from the song:
You got more purses than Versace
Got more rings than Liberace
Songwriting: How To Stoop to the Lowest Common Denominator. This is clunky stupid shit. This is the music equivilent of casting Gilbert Godfrey as an annoying guy, both are lazy and irrelevant outside of a ever shrinking circle of nostalgia. Liberace is worse though as he has even stopped being a person and has simply become a description. The song continues like a hammer banging on things Tim McGraw fans don’t like: Gucci and sushi (don’t miss the rhymes, like “on” and “Vuitton”, classic or how about “tank” and “bank”), and “walkin’ past his fellas, holdin’ drinks with pink umbrellas”. Hey, Tim, if your buddies are also on that unspellable island my guess is they’re not in too much position to make fun of you.
Now, let me be fair. This isn’t the first badly written country song. It’s simply the latest one I’ve listened to. There’s a tradition here about as long as cheatin’ songs. Maybe I’m irritated because it’s a throw away that was easy to write and will make a lot of bucks for our boys. No, I don’t really care about that, it really is about all those kids drinking beer on backroads doing an overbite shimmy to it and singing along all anthem style and calling it good. If you want a good beer drinking, dirt road standing, sing-a-long stick to “Friends In Low Places”. If you want a funny, well written song listen to Lyle Lovett’s non competing single “Keep It In The Pantry”, which will be discussed in Kountry Kliches, Part Deux. If you want this one though it won’t be all your buddies who think it’s funny that you’re spending all your money, it’ll be Tim and Chad. But, hey, maybe they are your buddies, just remember that this song is the pink umbrella in your iPod.
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” —Groucho Marx