Friday, November 13, 2009

#46. 'His fist is big, but my gun's bigger'

Miranda Lambert "Gunpowder and Lead"

There are 4 country songs in the top 50 and they all have two things in common: they're all performed (in part) by women and they were all written by the people who performed them. I'll save my stuff about the former point for the next entry in this vein, although suffice it to say that it's not pure coincidence that there's so much estrogen-country in the top third of the list, and focus mainly on the last point. Nashville's star machine is probably he most dependent on using outside songwriters to pen surefire hits for new and old performers alike, and a lot of the time they churn out some great work, I cna't deny that. However, it's those ones that are most likely to set off my bullshit detector. If I can't believe that what's being sung is actually in some way personal to the artist singing it, that it's not anything more than a focus-grouped pre-fab anthem that just happened to fall to that particular artist, I check out early and with exceptional rancor. It's the reason I seethe at the thought of Rascal Flatts and Rodney Atkins being the biggest acts in modern country music; for all their mass appeal they only connect with their audience through pandering, and that shit does not fly with me. I know that those guys do write some of their own material, but it all comes out sounding like the same shit that Nashville's been foisting on its easily impressed fans all decade and it makes me understanding of why so many people will outright dismiss country music as a genre without a second thought. It may come from a rockist point of view, the idea that a song is only worthwhile if it's written by its performer, but the results more often than not speak for themselves.

The funny thing about Miranda Lambert being part of this grouping is that her story doesn't necessarily jibe with her being a completely self-reliant artist. Considering that she first got noticed on the inaugural season of Nashville Star, the low rent talent competition for budding country artists, you'd expect that she'd be tied up in the same sort of shit that American Idol winners go through, forced to conform to industry standards in all ways, shapes and forms and being stripped of whatever personality she had in the run up. You'd expect Carrie Underwood, basically, but that's definitely not what you got. Lambert never seemed all that concerned with falling in line or making the same moves every up and coming country gal makes in order to get the sort of audience that guarantees some level of longevity in the business, and while it hasn't paid off that handsomely on the commercial side of things it's gotten her the sort of notices from the likes of Pitchfork and Stylus (RIP) that you'd never expect a dye-in-the-wool country singer to receive. She may not have gotten the audience that she deserves, but the respect she's getting from all corners of the media is a success in its own right.

I don't think that would have happened without "Gunpowder and Lead," the third single from her sophomore release Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Even though it's at the bottom of the upper echelon country songs here I'm hard pressed to name another single from that side of the musical spectrum this decade that was so instantaneously impressive. I'm all for the slow build of a song whose greatness doesn't reveal itself all at once, but like with "Untouched" the immediacy of how "Gunpowder and Lead" grabbed me the first time I heard it - long before it was a single - was impossible to deny. Even more undeniable was how well composed the song was. It's a master's class in economy of music, taking barely three minutes to outline a very distinct and nuanced situation, cram in some of the most visceral images to hit the country charts in a while and, most importantly, do all that while not sacrificing catchiness. It's not that often that I'd describe a song about the most harrowing revenge on a wife-beating asshole as 'catchy' but that's part of the song's power; at the same time that you're trying to take in the ugliness of the chorus it seeps into your subconscious and refuses to let go. It's a powerful song, not in the cliched, melodramatic sense but in that it hits a difficult subject right out of the park and doesn't apologize for not sparing the details.

Of course there must have been other songs about abused spouses to crop up on country radio over time, but I don't think any of them have dealt with it in such a direct way. It's funny that the song doesn't focus on the abuse so much as the revenge for it, and yet its there in just as real a way as if it was being described in full, horrific detail. I sometimes have to remind myself that it's only ever mentioned in one line of the chorus and in the bridge, yet with those two lines the depth of it becomes abundantly clear. It helps that Lambert's not one for dramatics, instead remaining as fiery and defiant as the girl who burned down her ex's house in "Kerosene" and about ten times more angry than Carrie Underwood could muster in her own revenge tale. She's not looking for pity, she's made up her mind about how she's gonna stop her turmoil and doesn't exactly care about the consequences. It's not a pretty picture in any way, and the ending still makes me jump despite knowing that its coming - but really how else could the song end? - but it's a damned effective and efficient example of the sort of power this kind of music can yield when it's in the right hands.

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