Monday, February 28, 2005

Tim McGraw, Master of Paradox

At first glance, Tim McGraw seems pretty comprehensible. Big hat, blond wife -- the country equivalent of Nick Lachey minus the reality show (for now). But the dude's complex, and I think the forces that are fighting for his soul represent the conflicts in country music today. Perhaps even the conflicts at the heart of America! (see how easy that was? Everyone should have a blog. Oh wait . . .) Back on the soapbox: Do we move forward into an unfair and ambiguous world or do we romanticize the troubled past? Only Tim knows for sure.

Exhibit A: Tim McGraw's unbelievable song "Red Rag Top." I've only heard this song on the radio once, in the car this fall, driving through Rock Creek Parkway on the way from one job to another, and I almost had to pull over in the parking lot because I was sobbing so hard. This is the single best pop artifact I've ever heard about abortion (take that, Ani DiFranco), and it's even more amazing given the strident and uncompromising language that usually characterizes the pro-choice/pro-life debate. In brief: the narrator of the song recounts how he was a teenager and got his girlfriend pregnant. As he puts it,

I was out of a job and she was in school

Life was fast and the world was cruel
We were young and wild, we decided not to have a child.

And that's how it goes. They don't descend to a fiery hell-pit. They aren't even consumed with horrible regret every moment of their lives. They are very young and take one of the options available to them. And it's a really hard choice. And their relationship doesn't survive it. From everything I know personally about teenage couples who choose abortion, this seems pretty damn accurate. Best decision in a hard place? Maybe. Gonna mess with your emotions? Let's hope so. This is pretty much the same position taken by Hillary Clinton in her January speech, which, btw, was lauded as revolutionary. It's now being echoed by Andrew Sullivan. And Tim McGraw said it first. (I also have a long and fairly boring thesis involving a close reading of the visual imagery in the title, doing my best imitation of a New Critic, but this post is too long already. Basic point = this song is genius.)

And now that we see what complex heights Mr. McGraw is capable of, I bring you to Exhibit B: "Back When," his current hit song (played about 100 times a day on the local station) a dismal piece of pap that snuggles up way to closely to racism for its popularity to make me comfortable. The general gist of "Back When?" Well, it's that the narrator misses a simpler way of life, before life got so "complicated." So far, so understandable, if a little boring, given the surge in this kind of nostalgia in country these days. And then we get to the chorus:

Back when a hoe was a hoe
Coke was a coke
And crack's what you were doing
When you were cracking jokes
Back when a screw was a screw
The wind was all that blew
And when you said I'm down with that
Well it meant you had the flu
I miss back when

Let's parse a little, shall we? What, exactly, bothers this narrator? A series of double-entendre slang words, most of which come from and/or pertain to what we now like to call "urban" communities. Is crack really a problem for you, sir? Crystal meth, I'll believe, but crack? I doubt it. And ho's? Well, did you object "back when" they were called hookers? Finally, come on, "I'm down with that" -- at best you're a curmudgeon, Narrator-Man, and at worst you're pining for a world in which your vernacular (and, by extension, your worldview) was white, white, white. It's not too far a mosey from "I miss back when" to Trent Lott's infamous remarks about Strom Thurmond. Why can't we just avoid the problems we're having now, McGraw's song asks, why can't we go back to that simpler place in time (when, you know, segregation was legal)?

In conclusion: Do I think all Southerners/ country music fans are racist? Hell no. And I'll hurt the face of anyone who says so. Do I think Tim McGraw is racist? I highly doubt it, and not just because of his hypnotizingly repetitive duet with Nelly. Which is exactly what pisses me off about this song -- it's pandering to a base, in the worst way. Selling one thing by tacit inclusion of another, especially for someone who's as capable of complex emotion as I'd like to believe Tim McGraw is . . . well, it's a big, stinkin' cop out. The wind is not all that blows, sir. Your song does, too.


adoherty said...

Complex imagery--you can't convince me that the name "Red Rag Top" wasn't chosen intentionally. (And yes, it's a sad--and good--song.)

adoherty said...

Also, as the illegitimate child of baseball star Tug McGraw (who couldn't be bothered to acknowledge him until he was rich & famous on his own)*, the author has to think that he could well have been aborted, too. Which makes it all even more complex.
*See People magazine.

jean-pierre said...

Good commentary. Might have noticed the same thing, but couldn't have said it better. Maybe I've been living in the South too long.

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