Rap and rock are about rappers and rockers, about virtuosity or bad-assedness or some other salable trait specific to an individual performer. Country hates all that. Instead, it takes as its subject its own listeners. The only boasting you'll hear from the hatted pros concerns their audience: that they're decent, humble, and everything that's right with America. It's no coincidence that the audience in turn reflects these salable traits back on the flatterers. Whether it's talk radio or CMT, the surest route to greatness is to reassure the audience that they're already great. As for virtuosity, oversinging afflicts country, but the closest Nashville radio comes to instrumental showboating is some session player's polite little lick just before the verse starts.
This week's top five is led by two godawful flatterers, one jingoistic and one exploiting region and class. There's also a pair of weepy show tunes and, bless me, "It Happens," a New Wave number worth any rock fan's download.
5. Sugarland, "It Happens"
Verdict: A keeper
I am incapable of playing this just once. All riff and bounce, with a wake-up couplet out of 9 to 5 and a clap-along final chorus out of Cheap Trick At Budokan, this throw-away pleasure takes on weight from its very offhandedness. That's a rock-and-roll trick, and this is a rock-and-roll song, one classified as country only because of Jennifer Nettles' twang, some cloying regular folks signifiers ("goin' down to Wally World") and the fact that rock radio rocks but never, ever rolls. The chorus goes, Ain't no rhyme or reason/no complicated meaning, which is both an expression of and a kick against relativism. Choice Detail Guaranteed to Connect to Listener's Lives In A Way Rock and Pop Don't: the narrator drags into work an hour late, "a walk of shame with two different shoes on."
4. Rascall Flatts, "Here Comes Goodbye"
The metallic glimmer of Gary LeVox's AutoTuned vocals lend this bathetic dud an interest lacking in similar ballads - they sound exactly like that unhelpful paper clip from Microsoft Word would if it cut a record on Music Row. Pristine and swelling, ornamented with piano tinkles meant to evoke Bruce Hornsby and a shrieky bridge meant to evoke Steve Perry, the production hurts plenty. The song all this gloss is wasted on hails from that nasty shadow world between bad country and bad R&B. Strip out the steel guitar and the line about the pick-up, and this could become a crossover hit anywhere that music sucks.
Another swelling, pristine ballad, but this one fingers specific pain instead of shiny vagueness. The pairing of uppity kid (as marketing has it) with accepted legend (as marketing has it) accomplishes something for everyone, in this case even the audience. Travis (who wrote it) hit with this goofy, long-winded but gently affecting soliloquy from one lover to another in 1988, and Underwood hollered through it in 2007. The duet track was cooked up for an American Idol appearance, which is itself revelatory: Country fans care about the sausage, not how it's made. Underwood sounds better than she does on her solo stab at it, but she also sounds housebroken.
2. Jason Aldean, "She's Country"
Verdict: Acceptable, but cynically conceived
Hard rock audience flattery that aims for AC/DC, would settle for Kid Rock, but falls somewhere just north Dan Akroyd's "City of Crime" from the Dragnet soundtrack. It still kicks the living shit out of Big & Rich. Spinning this after anything off Back in Black should illustrate what is usually the difference between the rock Nashville nicks and the rock Nashville crafts: one expressed something vital, even if that thing was just boners, while the other is happy just expressing the very idea of rock. This suggests ass-kicking while pointing out that its wild girl still prays a lot. Unforgivable lyric: She's a party-all-nighter from South Carolina/A bad mamma-jamma from down in Alabama.
1. Rodney Atkins, "It's America"
Verdict: Godawful, but interesting
They so over-mic his every croak and gulp that the first line sounds like he's swallowing you. The rest of it I can't swallow. Truck commercial rock that mentions Springsteen by name but shies from everything that makes him interesting, "It's America" insists that kids selling lemonade is somehow America. Other things that are America: cities and farms, a high school prom, fire flies in June, a man on the moon. (No spoon?) Also, the flag over a "fallen hero's" grave. Is asking why that hero had to die America? Or pointing out that the only national achievement cited here - that moon-landing, probably the last American triumph that most of us agree on - took place forty years back? In the bridge, Atkins' writers dare ambivalence. "Now we don't always get it right." As I wondered what that it might possibly refer to, the chorus kicked back in, with a sunny key-change: "It's America!"