Thursday, January 28th, 2021

Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard – Undivided

Nice is different than good…


Alfred Soto: Basking in a good review since “Humble and Kind” revealed him, as if doubt existed, as a hearty liberal in a town that sells reaction as amiably as T-shirts, Tim McGraw joins hands with Tyler Hubbard to sell crinkly-voiced sentimental mishmash. Not a single metaphor enlightens, not a single stress surprises, that’s the point.

Jonathan Bradley: “There’s only a few professions more based in performance, more reliant on public acclaim — and more potentially dishonest — than politician.” Tom Ewing once wrote. “Pop singer is one of them.” Country performers are acutely familiar with the precarious demand of reconciling different audiences and different sensibilities into a unified whole, which might explain their attraction to songs like “Undivided”: this is, after all, a genre that understands and fears the contradiction between its claim to speak for all America and the actual fact of its extremely white-dominated industry and culture. Maybe that’s why it best captures a united America when it comes at it sideways, say on Rodney Atkins’s “Caught Up in the Country,” or Brad Paisley’s queasily cosmopolitan “Southern Comfort Zone,” or the careers of Lil Nas X, Darius Rucker, and Kane Brown. The guest on McGraw’s song, Tyler Hubbard, is one half of Florida Georgia Line, and that duo has apparently discovered that political tension can divide even their indiscernible gloop of Southern signifiers. Hubbard’s verses yield to his band’s expected earnest pluck, and it’s almost dumb enough that I think that this song could work if it were only a FlaGaLine track. Yet McGraw is smarter than that, and seemingly more cowardly: to what is his opening verse about “Billy [who] got picked on at school for things he couldn’t change” supposed to refer? (If Billy is gay, Tim, please just tell us.) He’s quietly made clear his commitment to the ideals of the Democratic Party, which makes me more certain he understands the political context into which he’s releasing this song: one where “unity” is not a value-neutral proposition, but a rhetorical weapon wielded by ideologues aiming to excuse violence and equivocate over the right of a people to choose their own government. “I’m tired of looking left or right,” McGraw sings, and I want him to read Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein. “Why’s it gotta be all white and all black,” says Hubbard, echoing Big & Rich on “Love Train”: “I see people gettin’ mad on CNN. Who’s right: Democrats or Republicans?” “I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard to unify when they’re impeaching a president who’s no longer in office,” says US Congressman Jim Jordan, defending a man who urged his supporters to entomb democracy as they stormed the Capitol. 

Edward Okulicz: Tired of both-sides-ism as lazy punditry? Would the sour pill go down better as a Train song? Maybe it does, but going from someone being picked on in the first verse to uniting the country straight in the chorus is dubious; it feels like someone decided to go from “Follow Your Arrow” to “Only Prettier” and forgot to show their working. 

Andrew Karpan: The observations about the Capitol Hill riots that so stirred Florida Georgia Line-man Tyler Hubbard to make his solo debut come from the same pot of profundity as “Accidental Racist,” but there’s also a certain smug self-awareness in Hubbard’s choice to give himself the track’s most embarrassing lines. In exchange for the mercy of his appearance, McGraw gets to sing primarily about bullied kids, a nimble little story he tosses off stoically and without feeling. (In the video, he compounds the effect by reading the lyrics off his phone.) For himself, Hubbard authors a set of almost electrifying yelps, a canny advertisement of his usefulness to any producers listening, jammed in between a stream of radically lazy sentiments like “why’s it gotta be all white or all black?” and “I just kinda wish we didn’t think like that.”

Thomas Inskeep: Ah, Nashville, where big (usually male, always white) mainstream country stars never take sides, but instead issue “can’t we all just get along” bromides. And after 1/6, especially, I have no fucking time for this. I really don’t need to “see through someone else’s eyes” when those eyes are attempting to kill in the name of white supremacy, Tim and Tyler, thanks. Maren Morris’s “Better Than We Found It” and Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me” get blatantly ignored by country radio — and in country music, radio is still the gatekeeper of the genre — while the good ol’ white boys get immediate, huge radio adds. Even more frustratingly, McGraw is one of the more openly Democrat-supporting stars in the country ecosystem, but his music is still milquetoast and retrograde. In 2021, fuck that; we don’t need more of this Kumbaya bullshit.

Katie Gill: This is the song equivalent of your mom asking why you don’t just TALK to your racist uncle who spams anti-abortion memes on Facebook. Because of COURSE the “we all just need to come together! unify! don’t hate on people!” song is sung by two cishet white men. Like, buddy, I’m bisexual. I don’t really want to unify and see the other side with people who wholeheartedly believe I’m going to hell.

Samson Savill de Jong: A song saying, in the blandest of terms, that maybe it’d be nice if we were nice to each other feels incredibly of the moment, which speaks to the profound weirdness of the newly minted Joe Biden era. Like Biden’s milquetoast centrism, this is actively inoffensive to all but the most looney of right-wing nuts, but given the genre and the church/hell line, it’s clear McGraw has the Trump crowd in mind. Of course, change comes from political action designed to pursue particular goals, rather than abstract notions of “coming together” with unreasonable people who cannot and will not “just listen” to people plead for their humanity; but unlike a politician, I’m not expecting Tim McGraw to come along with a radical agenda to fix all of America’s ills. That means the genericness of “Undivided” and its message don’t leave me feeling the mixture of mad, depressed, cold and exasperated that the platitudes of centrists like Biden (or Keir Starmer in my country) do. Instead, I just don’t care about it beyond thinking, in passing, “that’s nice.”

Al Varela: The song itself is fine, pleasant to listen to, nice hook, well-produced mostly, and its heart is in the right place, but your enjoyment of this song will depend entirely on whether you believe this idea of “unity” is even possible. The Capitol riots were instigated by white supremacists and extremists trying to overturn an election result because it didn’t turn out the way they wanted. I don’t think those people are looking for unity or to be together under God or whatever. I know it’s unfair to level the seriousness of this song with the event it’s responding to, especially since there were likely label concessions that kept this from leaning toward any one side for fear of alienation. But there’s more to this conversation than a Republican and Democrat disagreeing over a candidate. It isn’t an event that you can be in the middle over. And I think they know this, too. After all, they only got the liberal half of Florida Georgia Line on this song. If they really believed in unifying and learning not to hate over differences, Brian Kelley would be on here, too. Not that I’d want him there, but Tyler knows why he didn’t bring him along.

Katherine St Asaph: “Accidental Centrist.”

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6 Responses to “Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard – Undivided”

  1. Outstanding writing all round. Also, so glad that K*er St*rmer’s first jukebox appearance is in the same breath as the word “milquetoast”.

  2. I was kicking myself for not getting a blurb in on this one, but never mind: “Accidental Centrist” is absolutely perfect.

  3. For all this song’s faults, I don’t hear it as a call to make friends with racists. Like the writers above, I have not much use for its squishy centrist tone, but for all the comments that it isn’t harsh or specific enough, I assure you that the MAGA faithful understand that Billy is gay, that they’re being called bullies, that this song is criticism aimed at them specifically, and that they will reject this song on those grounds. This is a day and age where platitudes are pointed subtweets and it’s not lost on anyone.

  4. Unless you have proof of this I don’t really think MAGAs will think it’s about Billy being gay, considering they also don’t think it’s “something he can’t change.” The thing is written to leave plausibly deniable wiggle room of him being short or having bad acne whatever, which makes it cowardly. Which is what everyone is saying.

  5. I think in 2021 most MAGAs agree that gay kids can’t change (though many still judge them for it anyway). Whatever they think about it, they definitely understand what left-leaners like Tim and Tyler mean when they say “things he can’t change.” And also, bullying for acne and shortness is also bad! And also an implicit criticism of only one side!! “Unity” has been in the past a call for overlooking racism, but that’s not what it means in 2021 — it can’t be when only one side wants “unity”. This song is flaccid, unimpressive bullshit, I agree it’s written like that to provide plausible deniability. But I can’t go so far as “cowardly”; “undivided” only sounds to me like a reverse dog whistle, designed specifically to piss off one group of people.

  6. I audibly guffawed at Katherine’s review.