Huey Lewis is a dick. It’s not hip to be square — it’s square to be square, the thing that the hip will always fight against. Garth Brooks could never be hip, because he’s a master of the square. And since as a music-loving society we’re ready to admit in 2015 that hip does not necessarily equate to good, that means we’re open to square, which is good...because Garth Brooks is good.
Of course, we weren’t always so open. In fact, Brooks has been savaged — even by country fans. There’s the studio-hack productions and his hiccuppy voice. His has often seemed to be arena rock that didn’t scream it at all. At its wildest it was Billy Joel and Aerosmith covers, and it loved reverb and the soft-loud dynamics that permeated every single genre of the ’90s. These days, when Taylor Swift has a record that flirts with dubstep and Cowboy Troy has challenged genre barriers as well as racial ones, it’s amazing to think that Brooks radicalized country at one point. But he did.
For starters, his lesbian sister played bass in his band for years, and his catalogue includes an anti-bigotry song called “We Shall Be Free,” which contains the crucial lyric “to love anyone we choose.”
Lyrically, Garth revolutionized Nashville by updating its language and tropes. How do you make a rodeo seem new? By offering up vivid imagery (“It’s the white in his knuckles/ The gold in his buckle/ And he’ll win the next go-round”) and then calling it “a thing.” How do you spin new gold out of a song about honky-tonk bars? Through the “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” where “every local chapter has a seven-day-a-week available consultation.”Even though the song ultimately complains about your tax dollars going to “the welfare line,” Garth had an eerie inclusiveness that presumably helped his sales in swing states. To wit, this paradox: “We don’t reach for handouts/We reach for those who are down.”
On a purely musical wavelength, there are the chord changes in “Callin’ Baton Rouge” that justify its oversinging, the Bo Diddley strum of “Standing Outside the Fire” that makes its melodrama fun. The all-time great anthem “Friends in Low Places,” meanwhile, wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if his voice didn’t reach such comically low places itself, like the “Don’t talk back” basso profundo guy in “Yakety Yak.” And then there’s the tons-of-fun Santana-style soloing on over-the-top murder ballad “The Night Will Only Know.”
Look, you have to want to like this stuff. If your jam is, like, At the Drive-In’s “Hulahoop Wounds” and your idea of good art excludes the literal and obvious, then stay out of “Papa Loved Mama”’s way (“Papa loved Mama/Mama loved men/Mama’s in the graveyard/Papa’s in the pen”). Unplug and let “going round the world in a pickup truck” be your idea of fun.
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And while it was genuinely cute when Animal Collective tried to harness domestic bliss for the indie set on “My Girls,” leave that shit to the pros. We already have “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House.” Stick to singing about applesauce.
Besides, Brooklyn will never spit out anything as weird as Chris Gaines, Brooks’s shocking attempt to look like Chris Cornell and sing like Blackstreet. No one on Earth bought the album, but you have to love the irony of the guy who frequently competes with Elvis for the title of world’s best-selling solo artist attempting to play a “pop star” and eating dollar-bin dust.
Everyone knows weird experiments don’t sell tens of millions of albums, but bestsellers are also rarely this brilliant. The thing is, he’s square. And unlike Pat Boone or Huey Lewis, he’s a damn genius at it.
Garth Brooks will play nine shows at the Pepsi Center between Wednesday, March 18, and Tuesday, March 24.