Confronting the Enemy: Rascal Flatts

I vigorously defend lots of country music that sends others running. Yet there is one band that drives me absolutely batty. I need to confront and dissect this visceral feeling that their music is the worst, ever. It's time to face my enemy: Rascal Flatts.

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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