Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Carrie Underwood – Mama’s Song

Course, she’s not actually broken-hearted here, but I’ve got my theme and I ain’t letting go no way nuh-uh…


Jonathan Bogart: If there’s one thing that irritates me more than anything else in modern country, it’s the near-dogmatic insistence on happy endings. It’s an old and grumpy complaint, sure: country used to be about heartache and busted marriages and girls murdered horribly down by the riverside, what’s wrong with kids these days, etc. etc. And who am I to begrudge America a first-wedding-dance song for new brides without dads? But America’s Sweetheart doesn’t do enough with the tritest, most facile lyric in ages to make it sound lived in, substituting vocal runs for emotion. Pretty chords are nice, but they’re no basis for a long-term relationship.

Josh Langhoff: Music for use! If people start playing this for Mother/Daughter dances at wedding receptions, because Dad’s not in the picture or whatever, I’m totally on board. I also like how Mama “gives away” the daughter, reclaiming the barbaric women-as-property tradition. Lovely and open-hearted, with a supportive crowd of background singers.

Anthony Easton: This is where the kitsch of sentiment becomes an earnest expression of emotion–and the idea of good becomes an ontological category. The problem is that she is so wrought on convincing us that this man is good, we are only convinced that he is anything but.

Pete Baran: I cannot help but think that, since Carrie is professing the man’s goodness so much, he is almost certainly a serial killer.

Renato Pagnani: How much of a bastard must Carrie’s pops have been for her to spend a whole track called “Mama’s Song” insisting to Ma Dukes that the dude she’s with now isn’t beating the shit outta her?

Martin Skidmore: One of her sweetest vocal performances in a while, but it’s on a rather wet song. It’s a simple reassurance to her mom that she’ll be fine because she’s found a good man. Trouble is, everyone is a cipher in this — the lack of specificity is particularly apparent after playing Taylor Swift’s new one — and there is no sense of ambiguity, of her maybe being wrong or whatever. Nonetheless, it is a rather lovely vocal.

Alfred Soto: He’s so good that he’s unbelievable, which is where Underwood’s voice – dusky, committed – carries the slack.

Frank Kogan: Could’ve been moving if a Karen Carpenter or a Gloria Estefan had taken hold of it and given it a quiet, uneasy stillness. Instead, there are too many expressive touches, too many instruments.

Zach Lyon: I try my best to keep my writerly side and my music-appreciating side separate from each other, for fear of destroying them both. I understand that the two media follow different dialogues and that lyrics can’t be held to the same kill-all-clichés(-unless-you’re-subverting-them) ideology that dominates prose/poetry culture. Certainly, if I held lyrics to that standard — ignoring the fact that, in the right song, from the right musician, in the right context, a now-meaningless phrase like our love will last forever can catch me crying on the freeway — then I’d be left with practically nothing outside of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and some Pharcyde tracks. I know this, and I hope I don’t come off sounding like an Creative Writing major when I say this shit is unforgivable: “Mama, you taught me to do the right things,” “so now you have to let your baby fly,” “you’ve given me everything that I will need,” “to make it through this crazy thing called life,” “and I know you watched me grow up,” “and only want what’s best for me,” “and I think I’ve found the answer to your prayers.” This is not writing. This is rearranging. This is a series of phrases that have been used by every living English-speaking person without a single original word. And it actually took Underwood three(!) additional(!) writers(!?) to come up with it. After the first couple verses, there was nothing the song could do to redeem itself. Not that it tries: for some reason the bulk of “Mama’s Song” is Underwood defending her new boyfriend in another unbearable series of faith-crushing clichés that may actually be about Jesus, because it sort of sounds like she’s singing about Jesus, which would actually make the song better because at least it’s something. But I don’t think that’s right.

Jer Fairall: In affecting a authentic twang in her vocals, she thankfully downplays her usual Idol showboating, and the pleasant wisps of acoustic guitar and piano never goad in the wrong direction. That’s not to say that she adds anything particularly fresh or insightful to this bit of Mama-I’m-a-big-girl-now sap, but she manages to sell it reasonably well this time out simply by virtue of ignoring her worst tendencies.

Michaelangelo Matos: It seems heartfelt and something about the arrangement catches me. But the song is another big pretty nothing.

17 Responses to “Carrie Underwood – Mama’s Song”

  1. If there’s one thing that irritates me more than anything else in modern country, it’s the near-dogmatic insistence on happy endings.

    I’m not this is true, or at least more true of country than other genres, and if it IS true why you couldn’t just accept it as one accepts tropes in other genres. Someone wanna help me out here?

  2. *I’m not SURE this is true.

  3. I’m a country dilettante, but most of my favourite country songs have a near-dogmatic insistence on unhappy endings (or at least dissatisfied ones).

  4. near-dogmatic insistence on happy endings.
    I’m not SURE this is true.

    It’s not.

  5. Seems to me the problem’s more inspirational songs’ near-dogmatic insistence on glurge. And yeah, Carrie’s not an “inspirational artist,” but the song’s clearly in that mold.

    Surprised nobody went for the “but Carrie, what if your daughter doesn’t in fact meet a man who is so good, or doesn’t want to meet men, or anyone at all?” question this time around. Unless I’m misinterpreting.

  6. To me it just seems like she’s over-insisting, almost making up for something, hence my blurb.

  7. Katherine is right. Righter than I was, even.

    On reflection, it’s not happy endings but sheer lack of narrative that irritates me: when everything is always for the best in the best of all possible worlds, I get cranky.

  8. Just want to point out that Carrie’s actual Jesus song would have gotten a 9 from me, and it is taut and plain-spoken. Does have a happy ending, sorta, though the happiness is left as potential, envisioned…

  9. Jonathan, it isn’t best in the best of all possible worlds, in this song or in country music in general. There’d be no song here without the raw fact that both sides of the conversation here are awash in distrust, Carrie trying to get Mom to turn off the worry machine but not trusting her to do so, and Mom shackled to the worry machine herself, her distrust of men. Or anyway, if country is supposed to think all’s right in God’s universe, underneath is the continual uneasy grappling with the actual everyday experience of things being pretty damn unhappy and wrong. I simply don’t know where you get the idea that country music has a near-dogmatic insistence on happy endings. Not in the country songs we review here on the Jukebox. And what do you make of the oeuvre of Taylor Swift, for instance, with some tracks – “You’re Not Sorry,” “Cold As You,” “Forever & Always,” “Tied Together With A Smile” – not even offering the solace of vengeance? I would say that in country old and new, the old “Lost Highway” and “Mama Tried” as much as the new “Sinners Like Me” and “Whiskey Won The Battle” and “From A Table Away” etc. etc., there is the underlying feeling that God is right and it’s we who have strayed, so there’s an ultimate right ending that compensates for the actual unhappy endings in our lives; but some performers, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift most prominently, seem to be even outside of that sense. And I’ve argued that Reba had taken the same step outside when she covered “Because Of You.”

    I’m surprised at you, since you’re someone I go to for just such nuances and understandings, don’t think of you as someone who bowls them over. You are right that “Mama’s Song” is headfirst in goo, and tries to be all too easy and emphatic in its resolution, at the cost of any real tension in the narrative – though I’d claim that this doesn’t subdue the uneasy subtext, so the tension remains anyway. But unfortunately the subtext isn’t insistent enough to make these lyrics good, and the music doesn’t help.

    Katherine, I’m hardly a frequent listener to CCM, but I know that not all of it escapes its own uneasy subtexts either. Flyleaf spring to mind, not to mention the band a couple of whose members left and went on to co-write “Because Of You,” who may not have been CCM per se, but CCM tried to claim them, until they disagreed. And Krystal Meyers hardly strikes me as being at peace with herself; in fact, if she were at peace, there’d be no story. And the idea behind Amy Grant’s “Breath Of Heaven” – which Grant wrote when she was pregnant – is that Mary doesn’t know if she’s up to having the child.

    You’re 100% right in your “but Carrie” statement; but there was just too much else wrong here for that wrongness to take top priority, since the most debilitating problem was the music. Better country songs by the likes of Brad Paisley and Travis Tritt have the same sort of blinders as “Mama’s Song,” but if I stayed mad every time I heard such songs, I’d have died from stroke years ago, and anyway missed what else was happening in the songs.

  10. Wasn’t referring to CCM specifically, but I’d say the point absolutely applies at least to worship music, where the whole point is to write simple songs that congregations can remember and that untrained church musicians can pick out on guitar. (No citation just now, but one of the big names — Chris Tomlin? — was quoted in Time or Newsweek saying pretty much that.) But you’re right, Flyleaf and Amy Grant aren’t really working in this space.

    I was thinking more along the lines of secular inspirational music, though.

  11. It was Time.

  12. Don’t know what you mean by “secular inspirational music” but I immediately thought of “Up Up Up” by Rose Falcon, which I love but the lyrics of which would probably have inspired me to commit murder if they’d belonged to any song less insanely catchy.

    Love the YouTube comments: “i had a to sing? this song in 3rd grade!” “i did a dance recital to this song and i? used to listen to it 100 times a day in the car cool song though,” “Me and my friends? danced to this in like 2nd grade at our talent show.”

  13. Katherine, you’re absolutely right about the intentions of worship music, where the point is to get a congregation worshiping in as quick and unencumbered a way as possible. Subtext would get in the way, although Glenn Dixon has shown that you can read an unintended subtext into CCM and worship music; but you can do that for anything. It’s worth noting, though, that even plenty of older praise hymns and spirituals have subtexts of suffering — for instance, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith”, because to come this far we had to start off somewhere worse, and if we only came this far BY FAITH, there must’ve been plenty of other stuff trying to keep us back. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” can be painful, because who wants Jesus to be their only friend? This stuff’s all rooted in the psalms, where praise and suffering are wrapped up together.

    AHEM. Sorry. With the no-subtext worship music, some of it’s energetic and pretty, some of it’s not. I like the first kind. In “Mama’s Song”, I don’t hear the same uneasy subtexts that everyone else is mentioning, except for the possibility that Dad’s not in the picture (which might be fairly big, actually). Maybe this is because it just sounds like a typical wedding toast, with unoriginal “arranged” language, like Zach said. But it’s energetic and pretty, so there.

    When I think “secular inspirational music”, I think “Wind Beneath My Wings” or “You Raise Me Up” or Mariah’s “Hero”, all of which have happy endings but ALSO subtexts of having been down before. I’d argue that, by even reminding us of the down times, they MIGHT also remind us that the down times could easily return, depending on how open we are to hearing that message.

  14. Frank (and Chuck), you’re right. I was thinking about two songs, not country as a whole: this, and Paisley’s “Anything Like Me,” in which serious trouble is unimaginable and the privilege just drips.

    This has been your weekly “Jonathan Bogart says dumb things about country music.” Join us next week when, etc.

  15. Anyone thinks the intro to this song sounds very much like The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” slowed down? I immediately thought of that when I first heard it.

  16. Another point in its favor!

  17. Speaking of wedding toasts and uneasy subtexts, I’ve long felt that the line “And we’ll never be lonely anymore” in “Chapel Of Love” completely turns the song around, highlighting loneliness as the normal state that marriage is supposed to cure (and the supposed cure hasn’t even happened yet in this anticipatory song). Of course, at the time in the early ’70s when I was rediscovering “Chapel Of Love” as something other than an occasionally heard oldie from a distant, far-off universe, I was well aware that Greenwich and Barry had written the most anguished of the teen-tragedy melodramas, and not only was I thinking of the song in that context but also in the context of the New York Dolls’ melding of those teen-tragedy songs into “Like A Rolling Stone.”

    Surely happy endings require non-happy middles, and if the story is any good there’s got to be something at least marginally compelling about the unhappiness or danger that’s ultimately subdued; and if the unhappiness/danger was convincing in the middle, it remains as one of the possibilities of life, hence uneasiness should linger (and therefore inspire you to go out and buy another song, novel, or video along the same lines).