Could you please just not sound so happy?

  You have already voted.

As the owner-operator of a reasonably widely-read music blog, I end up fielding some interesting questions via email from time to time. One recent inquiry, from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter on the regional scene here in Northern California, struck me as especially deserving of wider consideration:

It seems to me that positive music is more likely to be panned by critics than material of a darker nature. Do you find that to be the case? If so, why? It is particularly relevant in my case because the record I’m working on is a very bright, optimistic one. There are very sincere reasons for that, but I want this record to be heard by critics without getting tossed because of its primarily good-natured content.

What do you think? Are critics biased against feel-good material? Should they be?

My initial feeling is that many critics are drawn to darker subject matter because there’s simply more to do there, more to unpack. Whereas a party song or motivational anthem is made to be taken at face value and enjoyed on a visceral level by even the most casual of listeners, a song that grapples with a problem or presents an unexpected or subversive notion gives you something to ponder. When you’re in the business of thinking about music, the latter makes for obvious, appealing source material.

That’s not to say that bright, optimistic songs can’t be interesting, or that compelling critical arguments can’t be built around them. I’ll be the first in line for a book-length breakdown of every happy song Roger Miller ever wrote. But in the often relentlessly positive world of today’s mainstream country music, the willingness to go a little dark – to be unsettling and ‘real’ in ways we don’t expect – automatically commands critical attention and respect. How could it not? If you’re willing to go to all the trouble of swimming upstream, you must have something particular and distinctive in mind. Otherwise, why make it harder on yourself?

By contrast, a new uplifting song can come off as more white noise, easily dismissed even if better than the average song of its ilk. Made for tailgate parties and minivan commutes, not serious examination.

If country music is about stories, storytelling is about conflict. Conflict is inherently interesting because we all have problems. When problems are glossed over or resolved in pat ways to motivate and inspire, it can feel like opportunity lost and time wasted. Worse still, it can feel like we’re being manipulated.

Yeah, that’s cute. Sure, that’s catchy. But where’s the story? Why should anyone care?

The best uplifting songs answer those questions. Most don’t.

When a song’s focus is darker, conflict and intrigue are nearly automatic. The elements are already there. Making ‘feel-good’ matter takes considerably more finesse. Non-cheesy feel-good songs are actually deceptively difficult to write, so lots of people try and fail, so many such songs get panned.

That’s what I say, anyway.

Contrary to my ramblings, though, I’m actually interested in your input. Reactions to this fellow’s question? Feel-good songs that were, or should have been, great critical successes?

Comments

  1. says

    I think it’s true that critics are disproportionately drawn to darker material. Not every song needs to be a personal tragedy played out in three acts. It does seem that anything positive gets dismissed out of hand and I think that’s a disservice to everyone. I enjoy a sad song as much as the next guy but there have to be fun ones too.

    As much as I enjoy your site and several other country sites, it feels a little pretentious to me how often positive songs or anything that sounds a little “slick” (which I still have no idea what that even means) will get dismissed out of hand. I’m going to stop before I go on a rant, but I’ll just end by saying that I am a music director at a country station and I definitely lean much more toward traditional country and I’m tired of reading people say that everything on the radio is terrible and shouldn’t be considered country. It’s a gross generalization and simply not true. You’re not nearly as bad about that as some other sites but it’s really been bugging me lately.

  2. KC says

    Definitely agree with your response, C.M. Positive songs are often panned because they are often poorly written. They’re generally cliche filled attempts at motivation; or party songs lacking anything funny or clever to say. It’s fine if fans like them, but it doesn’t make them worthy of critical praise.

    I don’t think critics hesitate to praise a positive song when they hear a good one. Just in the last week Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” has gotten a lot of praise. So has Ashley Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses.”

  3. Sarah says

    I think currently, a lot of pop songs within country are positive, and that tends to give them a bad name. I don’t think positive country songs are inherently worse than negative ones; there are just more examples of bad ones.

    However, I don’t think it’s fair to lump all positive songs in with the pop genre. One of my favourite things about Kristofferson is his ability to write optimistic songs, from Here Comes that Rainbow Again to If You Don’t Like Hank Williams. Pretty much any tribute song along the lines of If You Don’t Like Hank Williams qualifies as happy – Bob Wills is Still the King comes immediately to mind, and there were a lot of them in older as well as current country (though George Jones managed to write a pretty depressing one).

    More currently, I don’t think you can argue that something like Brandi Carlile’s Keep Your Heart Young is pop or lacks depth. There might be more inherent depth in sad songs, so writers looking for substance in their music will gravitate there and writer’s looking to make pop songs will gravitate away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write a happy song with substance. I don’t think happy songs should be seen as lesser than sad songs with the same amount of substance and depth.

  4. says

    “The best uplifting songs answer those questions.” I think this is spot on, and at the risk of being obvious: one of those great uplifting songwriters, albeit outside the realm of country, is Bruce Springsteen. He does a lot of uplift, and it’s always substantial and considered.

  5. Sabra says

    I like sad songs because I think it’s always been one of country music’s strong points.

    Critical preference for sad stories isn’t limited to music. Think about some of the dreck you had to read in English class. I have nursed a hatred for Of Mice and Men for over 20 years now. (I first read it at age 11.) Critics have been put through the same “you must dig for deeper meaning that may not be there” wringer as any given English major.

    There are certainly worthy happy country songs. “Mary Ellen’s Green House” comes to mind. Maybe any given happy song doesn’t have greater meaning, but it’s hardly necessary to be enjoyable. I laugh every time I hear “Bible on the Dash”, and (to show how very long it’s been since I listened to commercial radio, still have a warm place in my heart for “The Crowd Goes Wild”.

  6. says

    Critics are more engaged by more complex material. Great uplift songs or anthems have stated obstacles or implicit adversity to overcome, e.g., “I Hope You Dance,” “This Land is Your Land”.

    Speaking to the artist in question, if he is talking about an entire CD filled with “Hey, I’m OK, isn’t life great, my eyes are brimming with tears of joy, etc.” he has indeed put himself in a tough spot with critics unless he is an established “auteur” that they’ve been following with slavish fascination…you know, going way back, think of the Richard & Linda Thompson break-up in reverse, or unless his songs are magical transformative guru stuff that would move Jamey Johnson to recut “I’m the Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!” My pal Tom Russell tells a story on himself…he brought a draft to Ian Tyson for a co-write, one of Tom’s typically hyperliterate tormented tales, and Ian said, “They don’t all have to be f*cking Tolstoy, Tom!!!”

  7. says

    It’s primarily, in my mind, that many critics fall under a pitchfork-like mentality in that they automatically hate most of what is mainstream. The term “critic” can even be fans of how music sounded when they were growing up and in country music that often means to never changing or evolving. Sure, in a perfect world the great trad country would have equal placement amongst the Gilbert, Bryan, the Band Perry’s of the world but its not a perfect world. Although I do feel at least a little sonic change towards more “country” signifiers returning at a swifter pace..

  8. says

    “Although I do feel at least a little sonic change towards more “country” signifiers returning at a swifter pace.”

    How ironic that you’d use “swifter” in that sentiment.:)

    I have thoughts on this great topic. I’ll come back to pontificate ASAP.

    • says

      Sorry, Matt. Just a lame attempt at humor on my part, since you used the word “swifter”, which (naturally) made me think of Taylor Swift.

  9. says

    I’ll try to come back later to participate in this discussion on a more extended basis, but for now I’ll just say that C.M.’s article pretty much perfectly articulates my thoughts on this topic. A very enjoyable and enlightening read.

  10. CraigR. says

    wrote some of the best happy songs I know. His way of writing a happy song was to expresss in detail unique and authentic feeIings. I think that a happy song can be as moving and interesting as a darker song if the song and singer is authentic. The song cannnot pander or insult the listener. A great many of the happy songs of this age always seem to pander. And underneath they are all about being a happy, carefree child. A great happy song, to me, tells the story of how people come out of the darkness, and move on to being better, happier humans. It is easy to ignore that reward when the song being presented only carries the listener to a certain time in life that is lacking in experience and growth.

    I also think that darker songs appeal to the negative in us. It is very easy to be negative. Critics, by their very nature, have to be able to be honest about the negative. That can hinder one from even believing in some sort of mature bliss. But mature bliss can denote a conflict that has changed the way a person understands life. A great gospel song can be about mature bliss. I am not a true believer, but I like the way some gospel songs point out how complex life can be, while still defining a greater happiness. It is just a balancing act. And we need to be more alert to that balance.

  11. says

    Really great piece; I love the casual-ness of just responding thoughtfully to an incisive question. “C.M. Sez…”

    Anyway, I agree with Malte: “The best uplifting songs answer those questions” is the key here. And you’re right: so few do. Songs do need conflict, or at least some kind of tasty tension. I think a lot of darker songs get a free pass for going through those motions without doing so with much depth – but that’s a different discussion.

    Off the top of my head, I think of Radney Foster/Sara Evans’ “Real Fine Place to Start,” as happy a contemporary country song as you’d find anywhere. It’s very simply written, but the song unpacks a positive moment – and all that feeds it – so richly: the tendency to over-think matters of the heart, the crazy rush of discovery, the all-too-rare intersection of physical attraction and true emotion, the feeling that love “calls” us, the mystery that remains even after you’ve slept with someone (“figuring out just what love really means”).

    Or there’s Keith Urban, a clear student of Foster. I’d still say that stretch of happy/optimistic songs he put out at his commercial peak – “Somebody Like You,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” “You Look Good in My Shirt,” “Days Go By,” “Better Life” – represent some of the best country music of that era. The trick? Aside from great melodies/production – which is a big part of it; a lot of artists simply aren’t skillful enough to be convincing – he was so good at imbuing those themes with a sense of hardship being overcome. They felt like songs about optimism in the real world.

  12. Rick says

    I like an album to deal with a wide range of emotions, so an album full of “happy songs” would be boring to me no matter how well the songs are written. Since I let my ears guide my music purchases and read album and song reviews purely for entertainment purposes (not to influence purchase decisions), this topic is interesting but not overly relevant. On the other hand I do like interesting reviews and the negative ones tend to be more fun to read due to the jabs taken! (lol)

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>