Throughout the pitiful prepubescence that was fourth and fifth grades, country music was my bizarre musical way station between contemporary Christian pop and the MTV of Pauly Shore and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” Thanks to the influence of my best friend Tommy, I found myself sprawled on the lawn of our local big-box amphitheater seeing a young Tim McGraw open for Clint Black and huddled in front of my boombox studying the liner notes of Shania Twain’s The Woman In Me. (Incidentally, the same kid later got me into Ludacris, DMX, and Jay-Z; very influential figure!) My most embarrassing Halloween costume of the era was a Star Trek uniform, but it could just as easily have been a cowboy getup. I still think of Blackhawk whenever it smells like rain and can still hum along to Tracy Lawrence’s “I See It Now.” I preferred the John Michael Montgomery versions of “I Swear” and “I Can Love You Like That” to All-4-One’s more popular covers. There was other music in my life during those years; top-40 smashes by the likes of TLC, Blues Traveler, and Real McCoy dotted my radio-ripped cassette mixtapes, and many hours were devoted to Christian rock types like D.C. Talk and Audio Adrenaline. But I was way into country, and no country star captivated my young mind like Garth Brooks.
Brooks was mesmerizing a lot of people back then. Over the course of five albums in just five years — from 1989’s self-titled debut to 1993’s In Pieces, a run neatly synthesized on Christmas 1994’s most popular stocking stuffer, The Hits — he permanently altered country music. Brooks did so partly by injecting outside influence into Nashville’s carefully guarded formula and partially by ushering a mainstream audience into the Opry. It seems crazy to say this about a guy so unapologetically centrist that Jay Leno recently booked him for his farewell show, but Brooks was both a trailblazer and a rebel. He was even more popular than Taylor Swift is today, and just as polarizing for similar reasons — decried by some for being basic yet critically acclaimed for pushing his genre forward. For a window into the perspective on Brooks in the ’90s, read Spin’s glowing review of his 1996 album No Fences, which asserts that he’s a historic figure on par with Elvis Presley and that Garth apologists are being too defensive. “He means to steer people, to be a symbol of how far the mainstream can go,” critic Eric Weisbard wrote. Later: “The greatest pop, as Garth Brooks exists to remind us, is one thing above all else: shameless.”
Brooks used that shamelessness to advance his own messianic ego — check the album cover for The Hits, which was the inspiration for a ceiling mobile I made in fifth grade, or the time he recorded an entire album under the guise of fictional alt-rocker Chris Gaines, which was not even close to “alt-rock” — but also to advance country music’s boundaries far beyond the mere “countrypolitan” evolutions of the ’80s. Today’s version of mainstream country as a never-ending spring break fishing-trip kegger doesn’t happen without Brooks turning twang into an arena rock spectacle. (Luke Bryan is nothing if not the Poison to Brooks’ Zeppelin.) Less directly, I see Brooks’ influence in young feminist singer-songwriters such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark — both his folk-pop singer-songwriter tropes and his trumpeting of social conscience in the videos for “The Thunder Rolls” and “We Shall All Be Free.” Taylor Swift doesn’t exist without Brooks, and she certainly doesn’t cross over. Maybe country would have evolved in some other direction at some different speed, but the landscape we see now was made in Garth’s image.
Still, as Brooks kicks off a run of comeback arena shows tonight in Chicago and prepares to record a new studio album, it’s worth wondering where he fits into that landscape now. He famously retired from recording and performing after the release of 2001’s Scarecrow so he could be there to raise his children. Even the lucrative Vegas residency he started in 2009, during which he performed solo acoustic covers of his favorite songs growing up, was agreed to only on the condition that the Wynn casino let him use a private jet to commute twice a week from Oklahoma. Demand for new Brooks music is still huge — so much so that his live acoustic covers album Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences went #1 last year by selling exclusively at Wal-Mart; so much so that he can bypass iTunes and launch his own digital service; so much so that he was able to easily sell out five shows all the way over in Dublin, Ireland (shows that didn’t end up happening due to red tape, but still). So there’s no doubt he’ll move enough records to rule the charts and sell enough tickets to fill many, many arenas.
But what would a new Brooks song sound like in 2014? His last album came out the year before Kenny Chesney kicked off country’s beach-party era with No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem. His live TV special made him seem more like a relic than a vital creative force. If Brooks returns to the sound that made him a star 25 years ago, will it resonate as anything but a retro curio? If he tries to modernize for the Blake Shelton era, will he seem desperately out of place? By the time Brooks retired, he had already lost his grip on the zeitgeist, though that’s relative; Scarecrow debuted at #1 and went 5x platinum. Numbers like those raise questions such as, “What zeitgeist?” Like OutKast, Brooks was more popular than ever when he went away, he just wasn’t quite as hip — friends in low places, you know? His career trajectory is similar to OutKast’s, except he’s even more popular and arguably more influential, and he’s been gone even longer than they were. Just like Andre and Big Boi, by disappearing for a while he has stoked massive anticipation for his grand return. Whatever Brooks does now that he’s stepping back into the spotlight, he has that going for him because in 2014 nostalgia sells like never before. I can’t help hoping, though, that he’ll return with new music that shakes the foundations of his genre once again. That’s a tricky task, but what’s he going to do, stand outside the fire?
UPDATE: As commenter mjhk75 points out, Brooks actually did release a new song this week, and it is bad — so bad Grantland compared it to a Cartman composition. Pinch your nose and press play.
He is off to an underwhelming start.
By selling 169,000 copies of My Everything, Ariana Grande scores her second #1 album in just under a year. Billboard reminds us that Grande’s previous effort, Yours Truly, debuted on top with 138,000 in first-week sales after debuting 9/2 of last year. Wanna know which woman was the last to land her first two albums at #1? Believe it or not, that was Susan Boyle with 2009’s I Dreamed A Dream and 2010’s The Gift. (Way) behind Grande at #2 is Brad Paisley, whose Moonshine In The Trunk sold 53,000. R&B loverman Kem’s Promise To Love: Album IV is close by at #3 with 52,000 in sales. At 4-5-6 are the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack (48,000), Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour (30,000), and Wiz Khalifa’s Blacc Hollywood (30,000). Then it’s more top-10 regulars at 7-8-9: the Frozen soundtrack (27,000), Now 51 (25,000), and 5 Seconds Of Summer’s self-titled LP (22,000). Avenged Sevenfold’s reissued 2003 effort Waking The Fallen sneaks in at #10 with 22,000. (In at #13, by the way, is the New Pornographers’ Brill Bruisers.)
Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which Billboard says is up to 899,000 in sales already, continues to rule the singles chart for a second straight week. The territory below her is shifting, although the names remain mostly the same: Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” is back up to #2, bumping Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” down to #3. Jessie J’s Minaj-featuring posse cut “Bang Bang” (also starring Ariana Grande) is up to #4. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is at #5, followed by Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora’s “Black Widow” (which just gets worse and worse) and Ariana Grande & Zedd’s “Break Free” (which is growing on me). MAGIC!’s “Rude” is down to #8, then it’s Sia’s “Chandelier” at #9. Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” climbs back into the top 10 at #10 while also topping the Pop Songs chart.
Paramore – “Last Hope” (Live)
As previously noted, Paramore are so good.
Karen Harding – “Say Something”
MNEK, the teenage British New Jack Swing throwback, produced “Say Something,” which would have been enough to grab my attention on its own. But Harding sings it in a way that can’t help but capture my imagination too. Both of them are worth keeping an eye on.
Redfoo – “New Thang”
What if I told you this made me long for “Sexy And I Know It”? Would that make you avoid it like the plague or click on it out of morbid curiosity?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Any chance Idina Menzel’s Christmas album doesn’t debut at #1? [Idina Menzel]
- Iggy Azalea is releasing a repackaged version of her album with six new songs, including one with Ellie Goulding. [Popjustice]
- One Direction set a Guinness world record. [Digital Spy]
- Ciara is working with famed songwriter Diane Warren. [Instagram]
- Hilary Duff pushed back the release of her comeback album, presumably because neither of her new singles has caught on so far. [Idolator]