Canadian country triumphs over all (so far)!
Anthony Easton: One of the things that happens in the back of the truck, in the back woods, is that women get raped. Though this song talks about learning “the hard truth about love,” with the forced drinking and the narrative of powerful men taking advantage of young women, it suggests that Isabella knows about rape in the woods. One of the problems of bro-country, and the absence of female voices, is that these stories don’t get told. I do not know if the recent attempt at pushing harder or pretending to be one of the boys means that voices are heard. There are other, more complicated ways. The backlash against bro-country, then is one that is deeply rendered, and listening to Musgraves or Clark, one thinks about the rhetorical forms they are engaging in, which is melodrama. One of the purposes of melodrama in our culture is the construction of women’s narratives. Often, country music written by women is profoundly melodramatic. This song is a melodrama. The whole town talking digitally is the only update — and it could have been sung by Dolly or Loretta. Her voice does not quaver; it takes its strength, and its moralist tone, from tour mate Terri Clark.
Alfred Soto: A sports metaphor inverted to show the rot beneath the referents. At first the strings don’t work — they signal that This is Meaningful in a high school English class way — and Isabella is breathy when she should bite hard on those syllables. For male critics it’s of course too easy to praise the Miranda Lamberts and Martina McBrides for responding to trauma with the wit and power too often in 2014 ascribed to men; when the subject is the girl in “Quarterback,” she’s turned into an object, a pathetic thing to be pitied. That’s where the strings and rudimentary acoustic chords interfere: they reflect the girl’s experience in a marching band playing awkward and often awful music. Best, that’s how Isabella’s vocals triumph: compassionate, lived-in. Note the way she cuts to the truth in the verse about the drinks: “Before she knew it she’d had three mo-o-o-re.”
Josh Love: Describing the protagonist as a trumpet player in the marching band initially put me in mind of the Dixie Chicks’ “Traveling Soldier,” where putting the girl in the marching band telegraphed her lowly social status and reinforced the anonymity of her fallen epistolary sweetheart. That designation works sort of the same way here, only to a far more chilling end — here the point is to emphasize the tremendous social gulf between the girl and the quarterback, and the improbability of his affections. Which means either she must have offered herself up on a silver platter, or worse still, even if she didn’t, she should consider herself fortunate rather than a victim. Isabella doesn’t need much more detail than that; the horrifying specifics already played out in Steubenville and innumerable elsewheres (though evoking the “bonfire party ” allows for an even deeper fracturing of good-timin’ country’s idyllic facade). We talk a lot about finding antidotes to bro-country when often that merely means giving women agency over their own lives and their own fun. This song reminds a country listener that a far more sinister road gets a little easier to travel when certain cultural mindsets are allowed to fester.
Katherine St Asaph: 1) “Quarterback” is a song about current events, but the brilliance of its songwriting is that it’s also a song about popularity, and who we deem to matter. The main character of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, the canonical required-reading book on this topic, has maybe one-third of a friend (she mostly uses her for free fundraiser-prep labor), teachers and administrators think she’s delinquent, and that she finds a resolution at all — lacrosse team ex machina — is acknowledged as mostly luck. I was lucky, growing up; nothing of the sort happened. I was too far off the social grid to even be bullied much. But in elementary school there was this one kid who, every day, would scratch up the backs of my hands until and after they bled. One day I came home and asked my parents if I could wear gloves to school. Horrified, they confronted the administration. The administration, who’d previously encouraged my mom to withdraw me, suggested I was cutting myself. This was first grade. The sorting starts early. 2) In college, someone once told me a school-paper colleague took advantage of a girl at a party. She didn’t say who; maybe she was protecting her, maybe she was a freshman or a newcomer, like Isabella’s protagonist, never matriculating to mention. He has a career now. People seem to like him. Judging by my college’s past M.O. for rape cases, it is likely there were no repercussions. I am hesitant to mention this not only because it’s hearsay, but because it seems banal. Everyone has a story like this, with the same participants in the same parties and the same social strata. 3) Kira Isabella’s been vague about what “Quarterback” was written in response to, but it seems likely to be Steubenville. What made Steubenville especially harrowing weren’t the facts of the case, though plenty harrowing, nor the peanut-gallery cyberbullying; what the whole town posted on Facebook, they’d have said at barbecues or playdates, with even fewer repercussions. No, it’s the way the usual litany of condemnation — she was drinking, those boys had promising futures — became socially charged: she went to the party alone, she didn’t have friends there, she wanted to social climb, and thus, and thus. It’s like a twisted version of that Echosmith song. Being a girl in high school is like walking a minefield; being an unpopular girl means walking that minefield alone. 5) “Quarterback” was first pitched to Carrie Underwood, who passed, as Tony Romo was also the quarterback — it’d send the wrong message It was since shunted off to Canada, and thank God; the production, unencumbered by post-Idol bombast, knows when to keep quiet and listen. Isabella’s light, unforeshadowed delivery of on the story makes it sting all the more when she bites the verse on “the whole town too,” and Marti Dodson’s songwriting, particularly how “how do you explain” fades into “who you gonna blame.” The video may make this go viral, attempt to make this an Issue Song (albeit a necessary one); even then the song would transcend that.
Thomas Inskeep: This is very good and very horrifying, taking on the issue of sexual assault by high school (and by extension, college) athletes. Well produced, well written, superbly sung by rising Canadian country star Isabella — but it’s disturbing enough that I don’t necessarily want to hear it again. That said, after living with it for a week, it’s stuck in my head, and I say that to its credit.
Brad Shoup: How incredible is it that Isabella is capable of depicting hunter and prey? So many lines are delivered at a register mixing disbelief and disgust, especially the title itself. The song proceeds like a closing statement, from scene-setting to laying out the facts to the plea for justice; the arrangement accrues forcefulness as well, switching from a legato string figure to something more anxious and lacerating. A Canadian country masterpiece, and a thematic milestone for the genre.
Edward Okulicz: It makes sense that the football player should take some of the load of being The Desirable Male Archetype from the cowboy in a genre that’s evolved to take into account the demographics of urbanisation. The small-town heartbreak treatment is a bit antiseptic, but the words here have real bite, and Isabella’s voice is by turns cautioning and condemning. We hear about the girl in the hushed verses, but the chorus simply summarises the protagonists by their status, and it’s very effective as commentary. The song puts a mirror up to the reporting around young men who commit acts of rape; the boys are promising athletes or students whose bright futures are being jeopardised by all this scrutiny from some girl who’s nobody. The final verse, where we are reminded that allegiances operate independently of truth and justice, subverts the teen-movie soundtrack surroundings brilliantly. If Isabella sounds a bit detached at times, consider the horror of what’s being narrated.
Will Adams: We were just six kids left alone on a hot summer evening, stumbling back from a day of drinking to sprawl on the living room floor and keep drinking. We passed around a fifth of vodka; I sipped a cheap beer slowly. We tried to keep a semblance of party alive, playing drinking games we didn’t know the rules of, turning up the stereo. We were tired but still restless. We were just kids. I lost track of everyone, fiddling instead with the playlist. And then some of the others snickered wildly; he had just taken her by the hand to a bedroom. Their quiet laughs turned to howls as they realized this was his first time, that he was totally smashed. Her friend shook her head and said that she’d promised herself she wouldn’t this weekend. And I was there too, stunned at what was happening in front of me. I couldn’t change it. At least, I didn’t think I could. I felt sick inside for a long time afterward. I felt confused — why did I feel so responsible? That’s when I realized that these stories, unfortunately common, have an unspoken third character: the bystander. Two summers ago, it was me. In “Quarterback,” it’s Kira, it’s you, the listener, it’s everyone. It prods that scar, and it hurts. But it reminds you of what happened, and that it’s a story you’ve been a part of. But it asks you to change it.