Miranda Lambert and the Nature of Pop
You ain't seen her crazy yet
I've always had a pretty easy time ignoring No Depression, a magazine that covers a very specific corner of the music universe, one that virtually never intersects with my interests. Flipping through this month's issue, though, I'm struck by how messianic and borderline-defensive the magazine's general tone is. It's probably overkill to suggest that No Depression only covers music that honors certain ossified American-music traditions; it's a little more accurate to say that the magazine only covers music that addresses those traditions. Still, this is a magazine that prides itself on exclusion and reaction. The magazine is named after an Uncle Tupelo album, and it documents the various different offshoots of alt-country, whatever the fuck that is. More specifically, it defines itself in opposition to slick Nashville production-line country music, and it covers artists that define themselves similarly. But I bought the magazine this month because Miranda Lambert, someone who embodies virtually everything that the magazine supposedly hates, is on the cover. Miranda Lambert is a smoking-hot 23-year-old blond country singer who first came to prominence on a reality TV show and who went platinum with her first major-label album. There's an interesting thread running through Barry Mazor's glowing profile of Lambert, sandwiched in the magazine between a glowing profile of Elizabeth Cook and a guardedly glowing profile of Bright Eyes. Mazor calls Lambert "the author of songs that are not production-line country by anybody's standards" and alleges that "a decade ago, Lambert's chances of charting in mainstream country as an unproven artist-songwriter, or even being signed as a singer, would have been close to nil." That's a bold claim; it's not like major labels are usually shy about signing and pushing smoking-hot blond singers. Inevitably, Mazor makes sure to note that she writes or co-writes most of her own songs and that her new album has songs by Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin. And Grant Alden's letter from the editor keeps the meme going: "She's on this cover because she made a very good record -- a mainstream country record that is, in fact, more than a collection of singles and toss-aways -- and because country music is a part of what we do." The message is clear: She's one of us! She understands! But here's the thing: Miranda Lambert is not one of them, and that's a big part of what makes her great.
It's probably too easy to single out No Depression here. The New York Times' recent profile of Lambert also painted her as an alt-country singer-songwriter who somehow managed to make her way into the Nashville universe, and that profile came from Jon Caramanica, one of my favorite writers. Those characterizations make sense on some level because Miranda Lambert uses rebellion as her pop hook; she's not too different from, say, Pink or Eminem in that way. But in Nashville, even a gleeful drinking song or a tossed-off cuss-word counts as rebellion, so Lambert doesn't have to do anything much to come off looking like a raging iconoclast. At last year's CMAs, she tried to smash a guitar, and even though it didn't break, the gesture still resonated more than, say, Win Butler's guitar-smashing tantrum on Saturday Night Live a few months ago. Lambert's bass player has a mohawk, and that's something that endlessly fascinates me. He's a big dude, and he usually wears a wallet-chain and a sleeveless cowboy shirt, but that mohawk is too tall and galling to ignore. Lambert may be pop-country to the bone, but she's a pop-country singer who's recognized the value of signifiers of rebellion. Still, even the things that make her rebellious are basically pop virtues: her snarl, her choppy little rock riffs, her focus on rhythm, her unreformed where-I'm-from Texas twang. She's a pro, and she makes great pop music. Kerosene, her 2005 major-label debut, was my favorite pop-country record since Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her new one, may be even better. When Alden writes that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is more than just a collection of singles and toss-aways, he's right. It's a collection of singles. I'd be happy to hear virtually any one of these songs all summer long, and if you told me that it was a greatest-hits album, I'd believe you. It gleams.
Every magazine profile I've seen on Lambert takes care to note that her father is an ex-cop and private investigator, the sort of detail that gives her bio a real-life Veronica Mars appeal. And Lambert's worked hard to cultivate a sort of unstable live-wire appeal. On the title track, she sings from the perspective of a crazy-eyed stalker, teasing the word bitch before finally spitting it out, tossing off lighthearted threats: "Don't give any second thought to being throw in jail / Baby, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail." The vengeful-female archetype is an old one in country music; Carrie Underwood is riding it to a massive crossover hit right now with "Before He Cheats." But "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" stands out even among those songs because of how dizzily happy Lambert sounds reveling in her fury. Every element in the song exists in to serve the song's tense, racing beat: the bleating Southern-soul organs, the banjos, the percussive guitar snarls. "Gunpowder and Lead," the album's opener, takes that ferocity even further, turning its revenge-and-retaliation fantasy explicitly toward violence: Lambert sings from the perspective of a woman ready to kill the man who beat her. The obvious point of reference here is Martina McBride's "Independence Day," but that song was way more elegiac in tone. "Gunpowder and Lead" sounds more to me like another song: Sarge's 1998 riot-grrrl pop-punk banger "A Torch," wherein Elizabeth Elmore sings about a girl who burns down the frat-house where she was raped. Both of those songs find release and exhilaration in violent revenge. They're not laments; they're fight songs. But Lambert's persona works just as well on the album's ballads, most of which start out sounding confessional but end up being about how some guy is too much of a chickenshit for her. "More Like Her" starts out with Lambert looking at a guy's new girlfriend and musing to herself "I guess I should've been more like that" before making things more concrete: "You don't look much like a man from where I'm at." In fact, the only moment where Lambert doesn't stick hard to her persona is the actual first single. "Famous in a Small Town" is a sweetly wistful little back-to-roots song, but it doesn't have the defiant edge that turns songs like Little Big Town's "Boondocks" and Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" into redneck-pride anthems.
Just as important: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sounds huge and unstoppable. "Gunpowder and Lead" is immaculately produced Southern rock, its chilly acoustic groove flaring to monolithic proportions on the chorus. The bridge on "Down" uses Celtic fiddles and tin whistles the same way that, say, the Dropkick Murphys would. Lambert's voice is a crystalline high-pitched Texas twang, more durable than pyrotechnic. If anything, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a triumph of Nashville's production line. If labels can find artists as fiercely talented as Lambert and turn them into stars, the machine is working right. "Guilty in Here" starts out with a textbook outsider-country touch: the feedbacky clunk of an electric guitar being plugged into an amp. But here's the thing: it's total theatre, a lo-fi noise that the album's producers probably edited in rather than neglecting to edit out. Everything else on the album sounds utterly smooth and professional; this isn't one of those records where you can hear the sound of fingers squeaking on guitar strings. But maybe that's Lambert's genius: she can convince No Depression dudes that she's one of them and pop-addled dorks like me and J. Edward Keyes that she's one of us. So now she's got both margins rooting for her; all she has to do is convince everyone in the middle.