Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

The Highwomen – Redesigning Women

And yet they couldn’t get Delta Burke to do a cameo in the video…


Joshua Lu: The Highwomen should, in theory, be a triumph for country music, at the very least because of the four amazing artists involved: Natalie Hemby (songwriter who’s penned works for artists like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and… Nelly Furtado?), Amanda Shires (singer/songwriter/violinist with six solo albums to her name), Brandi Carlile (responsible for one of the best albums of 2018 and for several other excellent ones) and Maren Morris (renowned hitmaker who recently sent “Girl” to #1 on the country airplay charts). Why, then, does “Redesigning Women” fail to muster the magic any one of the artists could deliver on her own? Vocally, the four of them blend together into each far too much; only Brandi’s vocals ring distinctly, leaving the other three acting as part of her backdrop, including Maren, whose particularly potent pipes I shouldn’t struggle to pinpoint. Lyrically, it’s filled with signifiers for traditional vs. modern female roles, with requisite mentions of babies, the kitchen and hair dye, which make for evocative imagery but don’t make for any meaningful message other than… that women’s roles have evolved over time? It’s too comfortable just describing the current state of affairs instead of demanding something more, and I’m left wondering what a listener is supposed to take away when the last guitar chord fades away.

Michael Hong: The supergroup should involve a group of artists who know their strengths and weaknesses well enough that they’re able to cover each other’s weaknesses and emphasize their strengths in a way that wouldn’t be possible as solo artists. The Pistol Annies worked so well on Interstate Gospel, not only because of the trio’s harmonies, but also in the way that each artist brought something as a writer, like Monroe injecting some of her trademark dry humour into Lambert and Presley’s wickedly smart small-town life observations. It comes as a confusing surprise then that across The Highwomen, less than half of all tracks are writing collaborations between the women, with Natalie Hemby being the sole member credited with writing their first outing. While Hemby has established herself as a great songwriter in Nashville, her strength was in the charming intimacy of her hushed vocals and finger-plucked guitar, but her own writing was hindered by her reliance on traditionalism that occasionally veered into cheesy nostalgia. “Redesigning Women” lacks the personal charm of Hemby’s solo music and allows Hemby’s penchant for cheesy traditionalism to seep through on awkward lines like “running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen” and “changing our minds like we change our hair color.” Confusingly, the track pushes this narrative where women have control, so long as they continue to provide in the more “traditional” gender roles. It makes for the track appearing to be a female empowerment anthem on first glance, but ending up being more outdated and restrictive, akin to Maren Morris’s GIRL. Without the voices of Carlile, Morris, and Shires as writers, The Highwomen fall flat as a supergroup. While the four do sound pleasant across the track, pleasant just doesn’t feel like enough on a track titled “Redesigning Women,” which ultimately falls flat as another version of female empowerment written by the current Nashville songwriter du jour.

Alex Clifton: In general feminist Americana/folk/country plays well with me, but where “Redesigning Women” gets really good is when all four women sing the title line. I hear so many older country superstars in their harmonies — I could swear Dolly is in there singing along with them — and it’s a revelation. The lyrics are pretty good too, giving a light touch with lines like “breaking the jello mould” while still delivering a sincere message. The thing I have always liked about classic country is its strength, the confidence of the sliding guitars and banjos, how the singers sing out and loud, how even when there are quieter moments you still remain on solid ground. “Redesigning Women” does that while returning to an older sound that feels so rare these days, all the while making it fresh and glorious to hear.

Alfred Soto: Shtickier and less distinctive than expected, “Redesigning Women” hews to a pattern — a Jell-O mold? — that acknowledges no middle ground between saints and surgeons; someone else, after all, a man, makes a woman a saint. It survives because Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires harmonize with the ease of women who understand how doing a job well is too often not reward enough.

Jackie Powell: This song is an anthem and after my first listen, I didn’t think I’d ever come to that conclusion. Country music for me is polarizing. But, each member of this quartet is Grammy-nominated in their own right and is enduring massive individual success. So why now for The Highwomen? “Redesigning Women” and the entire project coming from these four is selfless in nature. On CBS Morning before their debut at the Newport Folk Festival, Carlile referred to it as “a movement” rather than “a band.” And the lyrical choices on this track are mostly consistent with that analysis. A goal is to inspire and that’s admirable. Although I’ll be frank, the first verse annoyed me; it reminded me of Girl Scout campfire songs. The chorus, however, is where The Highwomen shine. Each voice is heard, unlike the verses, and layered to provide a vocal texture that juxtaposes the nasal one you hear at the top of the song. I’m a sucker for alliteration and Hemby’s serves as the best phrases in the entire song. But I don’t love some of the female stereotypes referenced. Can we please move away from this idea that women almost always “need to look good,” “clean the kitchen” or feel pressured to “feed the baby”? The Highwomen redeem themselves on the bridge which offers a call and response to a question that all who identify as female can relate to. Womanhood isn’t black and white. There isn’t a formula and if there is, then maybe you are doing it all wrong. The Highwomen have a broader audience than they think. I hope they take advantage of it as they continue to tell the stories of those who have redesigned and redefined their own womanhood.

Joshua Copperman: The Highwomen have an interesting idea here — “Running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen” is clunky but appears to speculate that while gender roles are changing for women, men aren’t meeting that change halfway. So you have podcasts asking if Women Can Have It All, and entire empires built on the Plight of the Working Woman — in this song, the progress society has made (lol) indicates that “traditional women” take on all the responsibilities and nothing has gotten easier, let alone more equal. It’s a thought-provoking message, but the rest is delivered in a surprisingly corny fashion from four women that, as far as I know, have either evaded or embraced corniness. This project could be a midpoint between Case/Lang/Veirs and Bridgers/Baker/Dacus, but the monotonous verses only bring to mind “Children of The Future” in their presentation and messaging. Maybe it’s because up to this point, I’ve presented and lived in the world as a cis straight male (regardless of my actual orientation or gender identity). But no matter how I present myself, I know for a fact that all parties involved have done better, and this is deeply underwhelming.

Iris Xie: A title like “Redesigning Women” begs something a lot more radical, maybe even jumping on the whole cyberpunk/anthropocene/post-apocalyptic aesthetic. But no, we get a song that is emblematic of conservative, tired, “choice” feminism. Why is buying 11 pairs of shoes considered moving progress forward? Why is a song about the fatigue in women’s gender roles lacking so much anger? Why does this sonically sound like a swallowed deference? “Redesigning Women” upsets me, because it’s like the time when I was a kid and asked older women if they’ve ever heard what feminism and seeing them wrinkle their noses at it and be offended at my question, and when I asked DC immigration lobbyists if they’ve ever experienced sexism or discrimination in their work and they stared at me because they didn’t know how to answer the question. It made me feel so confused in those moments, and realizing how effective obfuscation is in separating and talking about the ways oppressive systems function, and how we ourselves can be extremely complicit in perpetuating them while also surviving them. “Redesigning Women” is meant as a touch-and-go balm as an acknowledgment of life’s hardships, but without providing any solutions other than “let’s make the best of it, you aren’t the only one suffering,” which is the only time that collectivism seems to raise its head in this individualist capitalist society, for the moment you start complaining, you aren’t doing your part in your Dream. Bioessentialism and gender roles aside, this is a song that puts forth several arguments that The Highwomen and any other women just living their lives is redefining the roles of women. The imagery in “Making bank, shaking hands, driving 80 / Tryna get home just to feed the baby” is wonderfully succinct, and pretty much wraps up why life underneath capitalism absolutely sucks, whether you are or are not able to access that life. The rest of the examples — such as “breaking every jello mold” and “When we love someone we take ’em to Heaven / And if the shoe fits, we’re gonna buy 11” — mix relatable, down-home metaphors with ones that wouldn’t be out of place when it comes to simple desires to be a little too much, to be a little more ostentatious and a little less modest and “for the family!”, where your every move as a woman is judged harshly. The bridge itself hearkens to a place of moral simplicity, with “How do we do it? How do we do it? / Making it up as we go along / How do we do it? How do we do it? / Half way right and half way wrong,” that seems so innocent and very “we can do it!” But in reality, who is the target audience for this? It’s for the women with families and jobs, and for those single femmes (like me!) who are conscientious of those future realities, who are all trying to keep these impossible lives and demands afloat in this disaster called late crisis capitalism. This is supposed to be soothing and reminds me that we’re “all in this together,” but it honestly kind of hurts to listen to this song.

Katherine St Asaph: Designing Women is a relic of the ’80s-’90s deadzone, and though it’s getting rebooted and reconstituted, and was just rerun on Hulu (if you even knew), it is no longer a cultural touchstone, let alone enough of one to effectively snowclone. Jell-O molds reside in questionable ’70s cookbooks and not modern kitchens, even in the South. Rosie the Riveter predates even the ’50s. Nothing about this, from fusty lyrics to fustier vocals to women-are-fickle-but-good-fickle feminism, suggests it was written in the 21st century, let alone by “Country’s Ballsiest New Supergroup.” Who is this for? The kids are listening to Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X. The grownups are listening to country artists — including some of the solo Highwomen, probably — whose songs sound like they’re inhabited by real people, not the speechwriters for corporate retreats. Industry folks are undoubtedly listening to this out of pent-up goodwill, which would be better directed toward commissioning repertoire that doesn’t sound like it’d be dated in 1989. Extra point because at least it’s responsible for the best thing Dierks Bentley has ever recorded.

Stephen Eisermann: The idiot members of the Deplorable Choir have been all over my Twitter feed this week, so much so that I almost doubted if I ever wanted to listen to women of country collaborate for a track. I’m so pissed this song didn’t show up immediately after I first saw that horrendous performance because this track, with its rich harmonies and empowering lyrics, elevates country music in a way that melts the iciness that has developed around my heart in recent years. These are the women that are leading and should continue to lead us into the future. 

Thomas Inskeep: Better in theory than in practice, mainly because the song’s lyrics are just the slightest bit kitschy. But goddamn if Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires don’t sound great together, and are given perfect country production by Dave Cobb. Even though I wish I liked “Redesigning Women” a little more, it still whets my appetite for their debut album, because I know there’s even better to come.

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5 Responses to “The Highwomen – Redesigning Women”

  1. lol Katherine I thought you’d hyperlinked to the Carlisle-Bentley duet from his album last summer.


  3. Iris’s blurb is [chefkiss.gif]

  4. I mentioned this before but the fact that my blurb (and the subhead) was the only one to mention/allude to “Designing Women” sort of proves my point

  5. Thank you for the kind comments! Katherine, I vaguely remember watching Designing Women once on a rerun and being utterly confused so thank you for bringing back in the reference. Also watching that Dierks Bentley video gives me flashbacks to a terrible job retreat I went to once so “speechwriters for corporate retreats” is so so accurate lol

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