Monday, February 24th, 2014

Miranda Lambert – Automatic

“My Nokia 5150 didn’t have Flappy Bird but, by gum, that was a cell phone with heart…”


Crystal Leww: Musgraves’s win for Best Country Album at the Grammys was a pleasant surprise, an up-and-coming country star challenging the genre from within. Miranda Lambert, country’s current queen, opens the campaign for a new album, appropriately titled Platinum, with “Automatic,” a track that preaches the old-fashioned values of slowing down and doing things yourself. It’d be a boring return to business as usual if it weren’t for Lambert, always filling in the little details. These are inexplicably Lambert’s voice: the Rand McNally maps, the fact that the girls turn the boys on the phone, and the backing vocals “push, push, push, push, push a button” barely audible. This is country music’s reigning queen for a reason.

Anthony Easton: Lambert’s voice is strong, her musical chops are present, she can hire the right people, and I keep thinking there will never be a bad song by her. This comes really close, and the problem is that it is really lazy. Not necessarily the politics, though the good ol’ day nostalgia is beneath her, but the music as well. The choppy strum, the luscious strings, how even the vocal upswing that doesn’t commit, even the rhyming of had it and automatic. Country music has refused to deal with the problems of class, and though this mentions taping Country Countdown off the radio, Lambert continues not to complicate the narrative. I mean, this has been a problem from the beginning, and this isn’t even as egregious as something like The Judds’ “Grandpa, Tell Me Bout the Good Old Days,” but her previous work suggests a sense of adventure that is disappointingly absent here. 

David Sheffieck: The first verse had me primed for a Lambert-style “Juicy” (or at least a Lambert-style “Started from the Bottom”), which made it somehow more disappointing when the chorus swooped in and made it clear this is actually a Lambert-style “Get off my Lawn.” And a mess of one, at that: being nostalgic for mailed letters is one thing — albeit a thing you can actually still do, Lambert might want to look into it — but being nostalgic for a time when people couldn’t get divorced? Genuinely cringeworthy.

Katherine St Asaph: Lambert’s dog-whistled before — “Only Prettier” is like this Facebook meme as a song. But this is more like a foghorn, a whatever happened to class? rant steeped in talk-radio code like “everything handed to you” and “whatever happened to waiting your turn.” I can match the chorus to its corresponding verbatim Tea Party newspaper comments, it’s that blatant. And while it’s perversely amusing to imagine Lambert alienating everyone who found her via Pistol Annies hype, nothing in this Buzzfeed list of analog fetishism or reactionary bullshit was remotely better. Sun tea tastes disgusting, cassette recording is clunky, it’s good for girls to be able to ask out boys (or girls, if that’s something they’re into), staying married sure was great for abused and unloved spouses, and Protestant work ethic aside, what’s so virtuous about busywork anyway? I mention lyrics only because in this, as in most polemics, the music’s been given so little care it’s hardly worth mentioning. You could even say — no, too easy.

Josh Langhoff: My automatic response to this bit of tomfoolery was to Google examples of Miranda’s own hypocrisy — like, I bet she doesn’t use a French coffee press! But Googling just made me part of the problem, so instead I rode my bike to her house and sifted through her garbage. Man, she and Blake really burn through the rennet! A Luddite myself, I admit to some sympathy — the last time I went to Target looking for a road atlas, the red-shirted kid stared at me like I was speaking hieroglyphics. On reflection, anti-automatism seems the perfect conceit to unite two factions of Miranda’s radio audience: NPR types who enjoy hearing her chat with Renée Montagne about the good old days, and country-slash-conservative-talk types who think national healthcare and food stamps equal getting “everything … handed to you.” Anti-automatism is the go-to response for half their problems; it’s too bad the two factions can’t agree on which half. Miranda’s natural constituency, the Amish, will sadly never hear this song.

Scott Mildenhall: What a clumsy lyrical concept. There isn’t even any attempt at metaphor, instead almost all the subtext you could ever try and ascribe to a Keep Calm And Carry On revision presented as text. On what format is it being released, wax cylinder? A series of hieroglyphs to be painstakingly decoded into notation? The irony of a whine about progression and time sounding like a droid wrote each and every cadence and rhyme is a good one though. It’s the circle of life — if Lambert is lucky, climate change could yet send things back to the real halcyon days within her lifetime. Fingers crossed!

Brad Shoup: Sunset-dappled in the way that most midtempo mellotron songs end up being, with perfectly granular detail in the first verse. But how insufferable would it be if Win Butler wrote a song about the glories of posting letters? The “waiting your turn” bit carries an underlying grumpiness about country singers; even if it doesn’t, I have no idea what she’s complaining about. Welfare recipients? Instagram? The Voice? The irony, of course, is this kind of back-then twaddle is a virality powerhouse. I don’t know if I can keep blocking out the whole second half if that happens.

Alfred Soto: It takes a songwriter of exceptional craft to assemble these reactionary complaints so that the buildup is the word “automatic”; a lesser talent would call this thing “Everything’s Handed to You” and wait for Megyn Kelly’s call. And what a singer: she’s so present that those reactionary complaints sting, and she’s shrewd enough to project enough rue in the fortune cookie maxim “stayin’ married was the only way to work your problems out” for readers of US Weekly cover stories about her and “Blake.” But after two amazing collections of thought-through and lived-in collections of songs written with and sung by women who laughed heartily and stuck their middle fingers at men who trapped them in bad marriages, not to mention the dozen great songs she’s written since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this sounds like a retreat — the female version of bro country. Like the new Eric Church, the confusion is not without its musical merits, but if she keeps moaning she’s gonna learn fans will respond in the old fashioned way.

Jonathan Bradley: “Where the traditionalist takes the objects of his desire for granted, the conservative cannot. He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being — or have been — taken away,” Corey Robin wrote. “But as soon as those objects enter the medium of political speech, they cease to be items of lived experience and become incidents of an ideology.” I’m tempted to end my blurb there: return fire in a culture war against a woman who, if you’ve convinced yourself that all her words are polemic, prefers women to end marriages through murder rather than divorce. But though ideology and culture are intertwined, they’re not equivalent, and, truthfully, most Americans are simply not political. Lines on “Automatic” like “We drove all the way to Dallas just to buy an Easter dress/We’d take along a Rand McNally, stand in line to pay for gas” are about memory and the hazy process of constructing personal narrative, not Luddism. There are more moments in “Automatic” like this, but there are also list items, which are not particularly interesting, especially not over a guitar arrangement that remembers what it was like to wait for hours until that OneRepublic download had completed. “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation,” Tony Soprano once sniped, and even if he’s right, it’s one in which we are nonetheless all too likely to engage. That propensity crosses party lines.

Megan Harrington: Lambert pines away for the good old days as her band plays a song that’s about as country as Keane. It’s not only our stuff that works instantly in the Digital Age; mixing nostalgia and big chords is about as formulaic as it gets. 

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11 Responses to “Miranda Lambert – Automatic”

  1. Good stuff here (as I expected). The marriage line confused me, because I was as sure that it could only be intended with a sideward glance as I was there was absolutely no sense of humour or self-awareness in the rest of the song. It’s literally just a list of things, a pile of fish in a barrel, and so that was really quite weird; disconcerting. (I couldn’t even make sense of the ‘boys calling girls’ lines, either.)

    That said at least the inclusion of cassettes was fully-formed, unlike in that Eliza Doolittle nonsense last year. Though that one wasn’t quite so boring to listen to.

  2. ive never had sun tea but it DOES sound awful (i would assume its akin to sweetened piss? gross.)

  3. always think of

  4. My Mom’s sun tea is really good, so nyah. And I totally forgot to stick in a Ron Swanson comparison, but he’s the character this song most reminded me of, with his blend of boutique handcraft and libertarian politics.

  5. it’s basically leaving tea out to go sour and/or become a bacterial death trap. (although automatic iced tea makers do the same thing because they encourage you to leave the pitcher in the machine and not in the fridge! also if it’s sweet tea the effect just gets doubled either way)

  6. i got heavy bob seger vibes and i love jonathan’s blurb – so fair to lambert when she’s done nothing here to deserve it!

  7. and I swear, JB, I thought of Corey Robin too.

  8. Thanks, Katherine, for tapping into the rage that I felt but didn’t really express about this lyric – “reactionary bullshit” is exactly right.

  9. “The first verse had me primed for a Lambert-style ‘Juicy’ (or at least a Lambert-style ‘Started from the Bottom’)…”

    Maybe a Lambert-style “Things Done Changed”? ;)

  10. Thanks Megan!

    Alfred, have you read The Reactionary Mind? (I have not.)

  11. Yep!