Friday, July 19, 2013

Blake Shelton—Country Assassin

Blake Shelton with his wife, Miranda Lambert
Nothing gets a bigger guaranteed reaction from the twenty-somethings working graveyards at the factory than when Blake Shelton’s bombastic “Boys ’Round Here” comes on the radio. Its muscular, bluesy guitar lick and slightly syncopated percussion make for an appealing intro that, while secure in its country roots, has unmistakable crossover appeal. Some workers cheer this track on radio like it’s a live show.

Until Shelton’s voice kicks in with its hip-hop chip-chop studio trickery on “red-red-red-redneck.” This accurately predicts everything that will come after, particularly Shelton’s strange half-spoken country rap that, despite his drawling baritone, resembles nothing so much as Third Eye Blind circa 1997. Perhaps, considering hip-hop’s two decade supremacy in a dwindling music market, Shelton and his creative crew thought twanging up a rap would buy him some cultural relevancy.

Instead, Shelton makes himself—and all radio-friendly country music with him—look desperate. Even before Shelton starts in on his braggadocio-laced lyrics, he’s already proclaimed creative bankruptcy, taking all his cues from modern urban music while proclaiming how he’s “keeping it country.” He wants it both ways: he wants attention from mass audiences, particularly young listeners with disposable income, but he wants to identify with the country niche.

These lyrics celebrate an entirely external view of “country.” He name-checks honky-tonkin’, working the land, country girls, and prayer. Country boys also reject city emblems, like listening to the Beatles and doing the Dougie. But it’s impossible to miss the highlighted, and disgusting, country hallmark: “chew tobacco chew tobacco chew tobacco spit.” Shelton, an avowed non-smoker, has repeatedly used tobacco as a symbol of rural authenticity in his songs.

To hell with taste and character; we spent our money on red Solo cups
The video tragicomically highlights Shelton’s lack of country cred. In simultaneously embracing and rejecting everything urban, we get a jacked truck with bouncy shocks; a barn dance with a DJ spinning twin vinyl; and a squadron of honkies who, apparently, do do the Dougie. But the apotheosis is the farmhouse party with the cow and pig off the porch for girls to pet. Anyone who’s lived near livestock knows you don’t want that smell at a party.

Importantly, Shelton recorded this song after recording the title track for the 2011 Footloose remake, a recording virtually indistinguishable from Kenny Loggins’ original. This track made an explicit confession that country music had become broadly indistinguishable from other pop forms. Only afterward did he feel any need to double down on his perceived country authenticity. Perhaps Shelton realized he’d alienated longstanding country fans like me.

Shelton’s early tracks, like “Some Beach” and “Ol’ Red,” were unmistakably country. I didn’t care for them, but nobody died and made me tastemaker. His masculine but weary growl recalled classic voices like Merle Haggard, and he stuck to common themes of blue-collar life and shared experience that have long motivated country heavyweights. In those terms, his early runaway success makes perfect sense.

But since he’s breathed the rare air of crossover superstardom once reserved for luminaries like Garth Brooks and Hank Junior, Shelton finds himself in an impossible position. He has to maintain his market share—which, as Brooks discovered twenty years ago, means diluting his sound for a broad audience. But he has also gotten increasingly defensive of his country credentials, which he asserts by escalating his weenie-swinging backwoods legitimacy.

Besides “Boys ’Round Here,” Shelton has cut tracks like “Kiss My Country Ass,” which invites anyone who doesn’t share his taste to, well, pucker up. Both songs name-drop Hank Junior’s “Country Boy Can Survive,” though Shelton gives no sign he could skin a buck or run a trotline. He claims, in “KMCA,” that “there's a whole lotta high-class people out there that's lookin' down on me,” so he responds by looking down right back.

Nothing says "Country" like standing barefoot in the river in a $1500 designer dress
It’s hard to determine how much of this chest-thumping bravado belongs to Shelton himself, since he doesn’t write his own songs. But his recent corpus is characterized by counter-elitism, bullying, and swagger. Hank Williams never needed to ballyhoo his country authenticity; neither did Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline. They made music they loved, and anyone who didn’t share that love, was free to leave quietly.

“Boys ’Round Here” isn’t a song. It’s a frontal assault on the idea that different people have different tastes. As music, it’s execrable, pandering to crossover audiences like a drunken Tenderloin panhandler. As a social statement, it contradicts itself, boasting of its country cred while straining to sound as Top-40 as possible. When the novelty wears off, hopefully it will return to the dark hole it came from.

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