MM#2 - The Formula
Depending on who you talk to and the realm of music they work in, there are either rules to music, or none at all. For some it’s a little of both, drawing from the classic school of thought that you need to know the rules in order to break them. These rules can be centered around any number of things from music theory to song structure to instrumentation. I for one, understand the need for a recipe at times, but also see the problems presented by “The Formula.”
In no genre that I’ve spent any time listening to have I found more of an issue with The Formula than modern country music. Let me be clear, it is not my intention to bash country music here, in fact, some of it I do very much enjoy (particularly Zac Brown), and I am someone who will never try to put someone down for having particular likes or dislikes. It is not my goal to explain why you should dislike something, but merely express why I myself do.
It’s not the style. It’s not the timbre. It’s not the instruments or the predictable verse-chorus-bridge structure.
It’s the dishonesty of the music.
So much of modern country feels forced to me. Rather than writing a song and finding a style that suits the content, it’s the other way around. Artists choose a genre and find the lyrics to match and it doesn’t feel very real. Above all, this comes from lyrical content, all the welcome clichés of trucks and dirt roads, pretty girls in cowboy boots on a Friday night drinking from red solos cups all summer long. We’ve heard it before, and that’s exactly why we’re hearing it again.
That’s not to say something has to be entirely original or unique to be honest or worthy of merit, but the specificity of the items pulled from the barrel of possible country lyrics is what tires them out. There are love songs and heartbreak songs across the genres that don’t say anything particularly new, but the concepts of them still feel vague enough and universal enough to not feel like they’re pandering or commercially targeted.
The point at which I decided this was a topic worth writing about was while listening to the latest album of one of my favorite bands, Green River Ordinance. It pains me to say anything negative about the band, and they are doing well with this album. Good for them, I’m proud of them, but in terms of my own enjoyment in listening to them, they’ve lost me with Fifteen.
GRO had been trending in the country direction for a while. Their previous release, Chasing Down the Wind, had stripped away the electric guitars and gotten a lot more of the folksy Americana violin-tinged style. The songs themselves though still sounded like the same band, in fact I thought the change in instrumentation suited them far better than the sometimes overly-produced alt/rock direction of their previous albums.
When Fifteen came out, it took me a while to get around to listening to it. I had read an article about their battle with Billboard or one of the other big chart bodies about how they hadn’t been accepted on the country charts, and saw a lot of comments about how they were trying too hard to be country. Having heard their previous release, I assumed that the music was probably similar and was on the band’s side, but once I started listening through the album, I found myself very disappointed.
I actually didn’t even finish the album. I got a ways into the fourth track, “Simple Life,” and gave up on it. The song talks about loving the simple life, complete with front porches in front of green grass and open skies, Willie and Waylon tunes, grill smoke, working with hands, etc. For those of a similar age demographic to myself, it reminded me of Mr. Hyunh’s country hit from that one episode of Hey Arnold (which to be totally honest is actually pretty damn good). It’s pandering, it’s tired, it’s been done before. The funny thing is, in a way GRO’s old lyrics weren’t exactly unique. They were sentiments you’ve heard before in other songs, but they were vague enough to still feel real. They weren’t so targeted as these.
I had a similar experience with another band called Love and Theft. I fell in love with them after seeing them at the Bluebird in Nashville on a high school band trip. I was all over their first album when it came out. But after tasting a bit of success and the departure of a band member, their second album lost me. It turned into a collection of country themes with songs like “Town Drunk” and “Girls Look Hot in Trucks.”
I just saw a Bo Burnham clip over the past week from one of his specials that talked about The Formula in country, and I thought it was pretty accurate and funny (although I actually do enjoy a fair bit of Keith Urban and think he is far from the biggest culprit), and I think it’s the perfect way to wrap up my thoughts on this. Watch it here (be aware there’s strong, crude language).