[23 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Everyone has music that instantly sends them into convulsions and makes them run screaming with an “eewww” expression on their face. It feels almost instinctive when it happens, an innate reaction to something that’s just… gross.
There are many music fans out there, perhaps especially within young, hip music-obsessive circles, who feel this way about pretty much all currently popular country music – the pop-leaning, post-Shania Twain country that pulls from ‘80s pop and rock (Bryan Adams, Pat Benatar, etc.) more than it does the honkytonk sounds of earlier decades. After years of essentially feeling that way, in my 20s especially, I at some point challenged myself to really listen to it all and figure out whether the problem was with the music—or with me. Fighting through some base impulses and trying my best to understand what was really going on in songs I would want to turn my nose at proved to be rewarding. I began to like music that I thought I would hate. I especially came to enjoy some of the most pop-leaning country music, more than the most imitative “authentic” country, in part because it seemed not that foreign from other pop music I love or have loved: the early ‘80s top 40 radio stuff I liked as a kid; the ‘hair bands’ playing ‘hard rock’ that was really pop underneath, who I got into as a pre-teen; and even the cutesy, sentimental, DIY indie-pop I thrive off now.
And if course, I found interesting aspects of music that I still didn’t enjoy and still hated. Interesting, yes, but still, eewww.
Within my whole endeavor of listening seriously to the most mainstream pop-country music, there has remained one mega-selling, world-famous group that still never fails to provoke that “ewww” feeling. The first few seconds of any of their songs instantly turns me away. Why is that? I can take or even vigorously defend lots of music that would send my music-critic peers running – Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum—the list can continue for days. I can even intellectually understand the appeal of music I can’t relate to – say, Jason Aldean’s hard-rock cowboy shtick.
Yet there is this one band that drives me absolutely batty, and I want to understand why. I feel the need to confront this feeling, to dissect it, to figure out precisely why I feel like I do. I want to understand my brain and body’s visceral reaction that their music is the worst ever. It’s time to face my enemy: Rascal Flatts.
Listening to all of their music at least once through was my initial goal. I made it through six of their eight albums, plus the singles from the two that I hadn’t heard before, their 2000 debut Rascal Flatts and their 2006 fourth album Me and My Gang. I expected to be surprised; to find songs I loved despite myself, to hear their music from the angle that their fans hear them from, and to renounce my absolute hatred and settle instead for some kind of middle ground that says “I might not like this, but I understand why other people would.”
That did not happen. The best I can say is I found pieces of songs that I somewhat liked – before the singer started singing, when they momentarily sounded like they might be another band. For example, the opening notes of “Winner at a Losing Game”, from their 2007 album Still Feels Good vaguely sounds like it could be a retro-soul ballad. But then he starts singing. Elsewhere, many of their uptempo songs have a sound straight out of the singles from Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut. Then again, that’s pretty common in country music these days.
Instead of trying to feign enjoyment or force some kind of framework of intellectual justification around Rascal Flatts, the best I can do is attempt to analyze my hate. Here, as best as I can figure, are the five things I most hate about their music:
1. The Voice. Gerald Wayne Vernon Jr. is the lead singer for Rascal Flatts; we know him by his chosen name, Gary LeVox, meaning Gary the Voice. His singing has to be one of the reasons people love his music, as he tends to take on songs in the technical, acrobatic way that gets female pop singers described as divas. His singing is the main reason I can’t stand their music. His mannerisms don’t fit what I expect from country music and don’t fit what I like most in pop music. I want my pop singers to stick snugly to their melodies. I want my country singers to carry years of pain in their voices. I don’t want them to sing laps around my head, and I don’t want them to try and wow me with their singing.
It might be my own bias about male singers versus female ones, but it’s also about execution and when you do what you do. Whitney Houston could raise her voice to the rafters and send chills through me, but she also could sing straight ahead with a tune. Gary the Voice doesn’t strike me as being that great at either, but he seems to want to do the former, or at least make you think he’s capable of doing it, all the time. This makes him sound like he’s always putting on an affected voice of one kind or another, even if he isn’t. Then again, maybe I just expect my country singers to sound more macho, to not sing in as high a register as he does, which is more my fault than his.
2. Their apparent influences. Those qualities in his singing reminds me more of Contemporary Christian music or “alternative” hard-rock (think Creed), genres which have similar vocal mannerisms. When the music reminds me of the ‘80s, which is often, it’s not the bouncy, catchy dumb-fun radio classics (Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, etc), it’s the most syrupy of ballads by the likes of Peter Cetera. Rascal Flatts love ballads, enough to have a compilation titled Best of Ballads.
Perhaps they are the modern-country version of Air Supply. Yet even Air Supply had one dominant sound. With Rascal Flatts, the music often seems an afterthought, a thin prop behind the singing and the lyrics. Within their middlebrow adult-contemporary country, they also seem willing to do whatever for a second or two – to sound like R&B or country’s version of hip-hop or something closer to hard-rock – before slipping back into that same middling sea.
3. Their cheeriness. Their ballads don’t eschew heartbreak and pain altogether, but they do tend to put a cheery spin on things. If something went wrong or a song’s narrator hurt someone, it was all probably for the best. See their hit ballad, “Bless the Broken Road”, from their 2004 album Feels Like Today, where the broken hearts and wrong paths were all blessings that took him to his current love.
Their sad songs often have happy endings, but even when they don’t, the songs sound happier than I want them to. The entirety of their 2002 album Melt epitomizes that. Its lead single and opening track “These Days” sets the tone: songs that shouldn’t be happy but are. He’s heartbroken, lives a dull life, spends all of his time dreaming she would come back. He runs into her, she goes back to her live and he’s back to his dreary one. But it doesn’t sound dreary, based on the music, and the sentiment “Still sortin’ out life, but I’m doing alright” is the dominant one. Whether he believes that he’s doing alright or not, the band sure seems to.
When the band does fully commit to a sad story, like on “It’s Not Supposed to Go Like That” (which has two sad stories, really: young kids playing with guns, one gets shot, and young lovers in a car are hit by a train and die), they do it with so much bombast and bald tear-jerking maneuvers that it’s hard for me not to see it as more PR spin than a sad commentary on a sad reality. Maybe that’s the crux of this whole thing; Rascal Flatts play music for people who will accept what they hear as is, not people whose default mode is to pick everything apart.
4. The way they exemplify the “simple” worldview of country. On Melt, they have a song called “Mayberry” that drives me bonkers. It nails the phony nostalgia that drives the most reactionary strains of country music. America is going down the toilet, essentially, and why couldn’t things be like they once were. (Meaning, what? The era of Jim Crow? Let’s move on/back to even more gender inequality?) “I miss Mayberry… where everything is black and white”. The “black and white” part is a joke, a reference to TV, but it’s also the central statement, here. I wish things were as simple as I want them to be, the song declares, and though they seldom come out and say it like that, it seems like an essential message of Rascal Flatts’ music. To accept them, maybe I would need to accept that there’s only two ways to look at the world: the right way and the wrong way.
5. Goody two shoes. Rascal Flatts get high off of love and marriage (“Dry County Girl”) and sing about it incessantly. On “Why Wait” (2010, Nothing Like This), the couple in the story are trying to decide whether to wait to marry. “What do you say girl / we do something crazy?”, the man suggests. What does he want to do? Why, get married, of course! In a lot of ways, the role LeVox plays in many of their songs is that of parents’ ideal man for their daughter (the opposite of the country outlaw image), so much so that he creeps me out a bit.
In “Take Me There” (2007, Still Feels Good, where does he want her to take him? Into her heart, by telling him about her life, of course. When he says he wants to “Love You Out Loud”, get your mind out of the gutter – he just wants to stand on the roof of a building and yell out your name, nothing weird about that. Rascal Flatts do sing about sex, but even at their steamiest, the way they sing about it seems so… corny. LeVox might want to turn on the lovelight like Barry White does, but his voice and demeanor don’t sell it. Take “Melt”, which apparently had a controversial video because it sort-of almost shows naked people, plus the band leering at and massaging women. LeVox sings, “I just lie there staring / silently preparing to love on you”, which strikes me as both weird phrasing and kind of creepy.
In my listening challenge, I saved Rascal Flatts’ new album for last. It’s called Changed. Have they changed? No, except maybe to become even more themselves, to play up the parts of their music I dislike most. There’s another hot sex song (“Hot in Here”) that ends up seeming tame and dull. A hokey song about how both university students and soldiers abroad need to hear from their families back home (“A Little Home”). Another song about going back to simpler times and places, though here it’s basically some suburban couple driving out into the country so they can feel right calling themselves country folk (“Banjo”). There are some lesson songs (“Let It Hurt”, “Great Big Love”) and look-inside-and-better-yourself self-help stuff that’s super-common on country radio these days but they do more often than anyone. (“There are days when I don’t have a clue how to find me”, he sings on “Lovin’ Me”. If you can hear that and not grimace, you’re a better person than I.)
The story and message of “Changed” is similar. It’s a born-again story, which is really what’s behind most country motivational speeches these days. He sings of “backsliding” and then changing with the help of a higher power, but doesn’t even give us the satisfaction of hearing the sordid details of how he went astray. Now what kind of a country song is that?
That might be my biggest issue with Rascal Flatts: they don’t fit my expectations of a country band and they don’t fit my expectations of a pop band, yet they also don’t subvert those expectations in any interesting way. In other words, it’s all about me and what I hear versus what I want to hear. But isn’t that the whole story with music, at the end of the day? I can pretend I know how to make Rascal Flatts into a better band, but all I know is how to make them into a band that would better suit my tastes and wants.
Or maybe I don’t know that, really. Much of what I want from music is to be surprised, to not get what I want but to get something I didn’t know I wanted. Still, there are always going to be cases where you end up not with what you want, not with what you didn’t expect, but with exactly what you expected, feared and were hoping not to be true. Sometimes, maybe we live in Rascal Flatt’s black-and-white world after all.