By now, Brooks’s big-tent idealism—cheesy and vague, to be sure, but sincerely and exuberantly expressed—feels like a relic of the early nineties, of a time when Michael Jackson sang “Black or White,” and it felt as though real progress might be just a catchy pop song away. Yet here is Brooks, in late 2014, on “People Loving People,” the first single from the new album, turning back the clock to what seems like a pre-modern age before irony, singing, “People loving people, that’s the enemy of everything that’s evil.” Country music’s liberal conscience has returned to the stage.
That sound you just heard was me rolling my eyes. You probably heard it Sunday night as I was reading that piece for the first time. I’m telling you, for all the world that story sounded like it was written by an anthropologist describing some sort of alien culture he just discovered.
And the infuriating thing about it is that wasn’t really the worst of it. What was the worst of it, you ask?
The worst of it was that there was very little in that New Yorker story about whether or not the new music itself was actually any good. The whole thing seemed to be a ham-handed attempt to paint Garth Brooks as holding the author’s preferred political beliefs. That in and of itself doesn’t have to be bad — but if the allegedly political music is so outrageously bad to the point that “People Loving People” is, then what’s the point? The lyrics were bad enough. “People loving people, that’s the enemy of everything that’s evil.” Really, Garth? Really? And as I’ve said before, I heard the song described thusly at Saving Country Music a while back:
“It sounds to me like ‘We Shall Be Free’ with a touch of ‘Right Now’ by Van Halen.”
Just reading that still makes me cringe. No doubt the more cynical politically minded country fans would get the idea that Garth was some sort of agent provocateur, putting out “liberal” music that’s so outrageously bad that it’s just going to be dismissed out of hand. I don’t think he is, but I do think it deserves to be asked why people do this sort of thing.You could say that this is the flip side of what we were seeing in 2003, with conservative activists singing the praises of Darryl Worley and Toby Keith (and trashing the Dixie Chicks left and right) without saying anything about how good the music actually was. Honestly. “Have You Forgotten” should never have been a No. 1 hit for rhyming “bin Laden” and “forgotten” alone. It’s like, “Hey, these artists think the right way, you should listen to them!”
Uh, no. I mean, I think “Snake Oil” is really out there as a political polemic, but it’s probably my second-favorite Steve Earle song behind “Hillbilly Highway.”I can sit here and say, “Steve Earle’s full of shit as far as his political beliefs go, but that’s a great fucking song, message be damned. Play the shit out of it.” Of course, there’s only so far I’d be willing to take that; if he’d been, say, advocating racial genocide in song, I’d be backing away from that. But I don’t see why so many people can’t take both the message and the music itself into account. I’ve always thought that championing music just because of the artists’ politics and the music’s message, not bothering with the music’s quality, cheapens music as an art form more than pretty much anything I can think of. And I don’t see anything changing that opinion any time soon.