“I’m not the devil / just a dude” – Toby Keith, “You Already Love Me”
Toby Keith may be the singer most often used by music critics as a stand-in for everything they don’t like about mainstream country music. He gets equated in quick dismissals to a chest-beating, love-it-or-leave-it blowhard who writes mediocre songs. To give an example from our own pages, PopMatters’ Cody Miller, in a 22 September 2009 review of Now That’s What I Call Country, Volume 2, writes about first Trace Adkins and then Montgomery Gentry using Toby Keith as a negative comparison, saying that Keith’s “stock and trade” are “jingoism, chauvinism and banal lyrics.”
Contrast that take on Keith’s music with his status as one of country music’s biggest stars. He was the second most-played radio artist of the ‘00s, of any genre, according to Nielsen BDS. Twenty-two of his singles have hit #1 on Billboard’s country singles charts. The first single off his first album, 1993’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”, was not only a #1 hit, but the most-played song on country radio in the ‘90s (according to Lauren Streib’s 3 June 2009 Forbes magazine article, “Toby Keith: Loud, Brash – and Rich”).
My own experience tells me it’s hard to listen to any country radio station for an hour without hearing a Toby Keith song. He’s an icon; he’s everywhere. His influence on modern-day country music is massive. Most, possibly all, of the song themes and styles currently in use by male country-radio singers have been done by Keith at some point in the past: truck-as-sex metaphor (“Big Ol’ Truck”), the life-goes-by-too-quickly ballad (“My List”), songs that take pop-culture catchphrases and base songs around them (“It’s All Good”, “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya”), and many varieties of the woman-done-me-wrong heartbreak song. To deal with contemporary country music is to deal with Toby Keith.
There’s a disconnect between the image of Keith as only appealing to macho, flag-waving lunkheads and the reality of him as one of music’s mega-stars. There’s a disconnect too between this image of the blustery Keith and his current country hit, “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song)”, where a grief-stricken Keith sings of his sadness upon hearing that his friend, NBA player/jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale, passed away due to cancer. Featuring ample smooth-jazz playing from Tisdale’s fellow musicians (Dave Koz, Marcus Miller, Arthur Thompson), the song opens with Tisdale’s answering-machine message and uses it as a catalyst for grief. It’s a sensitive rendering of friendship, if a musically sappy one.
Consider that song one of Keith’s most overtly autobiographical songs, rivaled perhaps only by the 9/11 gut reaction “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)”, the 2002 song that first tagged Keith with words like “jingoistic”. (In fact, Wikipedia’s entry on jingoism lists Toby Keith as a “see also” topic.) Yes, the song is a flag-wrapped revenge fantasy, with the memorable, many would say disgusting lyric “we’ll put a boot in your ass / it’s the American way” (perhaps a true statement about the US, though Keith no doubt considers this to be a good thing).
The song’s context is also memorial for the dead: his father, a war veteran, who passed away earlier in 2001. The second verse begins, “My daddy served in the army / where he lost his right eye / but he flew a flag out in our yard / until the day that he died.” The anger in the song is also an emulation of what his father’s response to the events of September 11 would have been. Keith told Rolling Stone’s Mark Binelli in a 2004 interview that he thought about how angry his dad would have been when writing the song (“Country Grammar: The battle hymn of Toby Keith” 6 January). The song is an attempt to be ‘true’ to his father’s memory in much the same way as his current radio hit tries to be true to his friendship with Wayman Tisdale.
Put those two songs together, and the extremes they represent give way to a more accurate representation of Keith’s body of work somewhere in the middle. The ballad’s soft-jazz mood evokes the way Keith has gone from traditional country roots to walk jazz-blues terrain. The flag-waving anthem is an extreme version of the arrogance that is central to Keith’s music.
As much as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is not the prototypical, end-all be-all, Toby Keith song, it does contain the confidence and swagger that lie at the heart of his music. “How Do You Like Me Now?” (2000), Keith’s biggest hit at the time, took that swagger to great heights. The song pushed his career to the next level, five albums in, while giving country-radio an anthem to play again and again for years to come. It’s also in that grand category of radio songs about hearing your song on the radio.
The arrogance of the song is a common one, a rock ‘n’ roll or Hollywood one, even, that says, ‘look at me now, I’m on top of the world’. Of course it’s not just about his own success, but his fantasy that the woman who wouldn’t date him in high school has failed in her own life, and has to see his success in relation to her own lack thereof. In Keith’s world there’s always someone getting their comeuppance, someone who has to be brought down to size.
Keith’s discography is filled with songs where he tackles the familiar country subject matter of heartbreak from the perspective of someone confident that he knows what’s best for everyone. There are songs where he brushes off heartbreak as beneath him and songs where heartbreak is something that happens to other people. He’s the man who claims he can comfort or even save the women whose hearts have been broken by other, weaker men (“He Ain’t Worth Missing”, “Who’s Your Daddy”).
There’s a sense of humor to all of this arrogance and superiority, which is another way that the stern “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, like the handful of other patriotic songs he recorded in the wake of its success, is atypical within his overall body of work. Keith’s take on affairs of the heart is a male, heterosexual stand-up comic’s take: incessantly focused on gender difference, on looks (women can be so ugly they can’t even be drunk pretty, we learn in “Nights I Can’t Remember” and “Runnin’ Block”), on laughing about the ways men and women misunderstand each other. It’s a world where men are all about doing versus thinking and feeling.
He says “I love you” through actions instead of words because men find it difficult to speak (“Me Too”). He needs “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. “In the time that it would take me to explain the way I am / honey I could be well on my way to being your new man,” he declares as a pick-up line (“Time That it Would Take”). When he does talk, he wants to talk about manly subjects, not womanly ones, as on “I Wanna Talk About Me”, an ugly song crying out for a “Roxanne’s Revenge”-style response song from a woman’s perspective.
For all the chauvinism in Keith’s songs, at the end of the day the joke is often on him, and by extension on men. In “You Already Love Me”, it’s the man who’s always doing everything wrong, who knows his wife could do better than him. In “Hell No”, a man is deluded enough to think his every action will sweep a woman off her feet, and gets rebuffed. Sometimes his equal-opportunity antagonism is a way of having it both ways, getting to tell the sexist joke but then turning the joke on himself, but it’s also a leveling. That’s visually exemplified by the video for “A Little Too Late”, where he relishes in building a brick wall around his bound-and-gagged significant other, until the end when he realizes he’s boxed himself in, not her. He’s shown himself to be the fool, yet again.
That suggestion that everyone’s a fool accompanies a certain cynical nonchalance about the world, a sentiment of ‘ain’t life funny’ paired with an ‘everyone’s crazy’. Or as he put it in “How Do You Like Me Now”, “ain’t it a cruel and funny world?” “American Ride”, the title track of his 2009 album, takes that same attitude towards American politics. It takes a convoluted series of not-always logical examples of hypocrisy and craziness, and then concludes it’s all just part of the fun. There’s an inevitability in that approach to the country’s affairs that’s similar to the one in his approach to love. In his songs, it seems like men and women are fated to have troubles, it’s inevitable for relationships to fail.
One of his most interesting ballads is “Lost You Anyway”, a 2009 hit single off his 2008 album That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy. At first the song seems to be a sensitive ballad of regret, the singer confessing his fault in the failure of their relationship. As it proceeds, though, it’s clear he doesn’t think he had the power to change anything. “I could have… let the world revolved around you / and given you the stars above / loved you just enough to make you stay / and I’d have lost you anyway”. It’s Keith’s own distinct angle on singing about relationships: the sensitive-but-arrogant love song.
American Ride has two songs I’d put in the same category, songs where he plays the sensitive part while still being kind of a jerk. In “Are You Feelin’ Me”, he doesn’t just hope his ex-lover still misses him, he thinks of her in bed with someone else, “feeling him” with every touch from the other man. What’s obvious to us, though he isn’t admitting it, is that he’s speaking from experience. The woman physically in his bed at this moment is already “almost a memory”, but his ex is still there. Try as he might, he can’t get rid of her.
A shining example of ballad-singing, from a vocal-performance perspective, “Tender as I Wanna Be” is the macho man’s admission that it’s hard for him to show love, except physically. He’s ready to open his heart to her, at least while their lovemaking lasts. After that, who knows. “Girl I want to stay with you right here with you / for a little while”, he sings. These songs play it both ways like his joke songs do. Even when people are being contrite, they’re being selfish at the same time.
Then occasionally there’s a song that pierces through this bubble of confidence completely, where the all the coolness catches up to our protagonist and he finds himself unexpectedly leveled by heartbreak. These songs have even more of an impact coming from someone usually so above admitting defeat. A song like “Wish I Didn’t Know Now” or “I Can’t Take You Anywhere” is all the more affecting within the catalogue of someone as cocky as he usually is.
American Ride’s “Woke Up On My Own” combines that cutting-down-to-size with his nonchalance about life. It paints life-changing moments as not having any Hollywood razzle-dazzle. Things change, you wake up, you move on with your life. She left him and he didn’t react with boldness. He didn’t lash out in return and he didn’t instantly realize that he needed to change his ways. “I didn’t come to see the light this morning baby / just kinda woke up on my own,” he sings. Even at his most broken he’s not ready to change.