Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Strum and Twang: Facing the Hootie Ennui with new singles by Chesney, Swift

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2009 at 1:16 PM

When it came to me that I should write about the country top 10, I figured two things, both of them wrong. First, I assumed I'd be writing a lot, but come to find out change comes slowly to country radio, which means even after a week off there's only two hits I haven't gotten to, yet. They're below.

click to enlarge cheesestuffed.jpg

Second, I thought that contemplating all this gung-ho, uplifting, too-slick, cheese-stuffed, real 'Merican Nashpop might lead me to some insight about this country's cultural divide - like, maybe the popularity of Montgomery Gentry might help me comprehend the popularity of Sarah Palin. Instead, I just get tangled up trying to make sense of the sun-polished rock sound of today's country.

This week's songs reveal little about the culture, but they do support a theory I advanced last time: that one formula for a Nashville hit is to take the easy, rootsy '90s alt-rock of Hootie or the Gin Blossoms and subtract what little nuance or ennui was there in the first place.

Kenny Chesney, "Out Last Night" (#2)

Verdict: Godfawful

Saying Nashville apes Hootie might be a little much, since (a) the real deal himself is on Music Row, and (b) Kenny Chesney here aims lower than Blowfish, catfish, or all those copies of Cracked Rear View stacked on the floor of most used CD shops. Instead, Chesney's latest targets the Barenaked Ladies. Whether that's an improvement over his stabs at Jimmy Buffet, I'll leave to you.

Barenaked Ladies:

Over a melancholy lilt that at first echoes George Strait, Chesney sings ruefully about a night on the town, piling on unconvincing details and swelling to a bittersweet chorus -- a pillowy, Chesney choir moaning, We went out last night. That's not bad, but it's immediately followed by a lone Chesney clowning in double-time with, One-thing-started-leading-to-another, which sounds like that Barenaked guy giggling the line, Haven't you always wanted a monkey? This kills the song dead and then eats its eyes out for good measure. The Chesney choir sings the chorus again, and then the lone nut Chesney is back with, Hittin'-on-everybody-and-their-mother, and it's like he's raised the song from the dead only to kill it again.

Taylor Swift, "You Belong With Me" (#9)

Verdict: A keeper

There's a banjo in here somewhere, but this is country like Avril Lavigne is punk rock. Of a piece with "Skater Boy," "Complicated," and the late singles Lavigne producers the Matrix co-wrote for Liz Phair, this bouncey, new-wave trifle boasts a chorus so full of sugar and fire that hearing it is like taking a blast in the earhole from a hot-candy cannon.

The lyric's pop, too, concerning a crush that, in a break from current chart protocol, somehow has not resulted in a lifetime of bliss and child-rearing by the last verse.

But it is country in this sense: This story of being in love with someone unavailable is specific and relatable in a way that today's pop songs aren't. She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts/She's cheer captain/And I'm on the bleachers, Swift complains, in her thin but well-sharpened voice, singing to some high school jock who hasn't yet noticed our beautiful-on-the-inside protagonist -- guaranteeing that this will sell a kajillion downloads to kids who can commiserate. It's worth celebrating, every once in a while, when someone markets a non-sucky product to that demographic.

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