Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Big Country: What Garth Brooks, Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, and Barney Have in Common

Since his 1989 debut, Garth Brooks has been the biggest album artist in the U.S. by better than two-to-one. He's already moved more of the music industry's staple product in his brief career than such prolific artists as Prince, Madonna, and U2 have in their much longer ones. Among the '80s megastars, only Michael Jackson maintains a healthy lead; assuming Brooks's sixth album, In Pieces, keeps pace with 1992's quintuple-platinum The Chase, as is very likely if not certain, Bruce Springsteen should fall behind sometime next year. All told, Brooks has sold some 30 million albums in the U.S. Four of his five other albums are current best-sellers, and last year's Christmas collection can be expected to rechart after Thanksgiving. The quintuple-platinum Garth Brooks has spent 181 weeks on the chart; its decaplatinum follow-up, No Fences, spent 163 consecutive weeks in the top 100; album number three, Ropin' the Wind, has sold nine million.

Brooks's success is so phenomenal that almost everyone has some inkling of it, especially in a city like L.A., where country music is never too far away. Yet among the self-consciously cultured the awareness often stops at around an inkling--the overlap between elite aesthetes and Garth's masses is considerably smaller than the raw probabilities would indicate. This aberration connects to two other peculiarities of Brooks's achievement: his relatively puny singles sales and his failure to make significant overseas inroads in an increasingly multinational entertainment age. And these can be attributed in turn to the peculiarities of Brooks's chosen genre. Country music is now presumed to be a largely suburban phenomenon. But despite its recent surge on the pop album charts--the familiar multiplatinum roll call includes Billy Ray Cyrus, Wynonna Judd, Reba McEntire, and the otherwise unrelated Brooks & Dunn--the audience for country singles is delimited by country radio, a thriving yet defiantly insular segment of an industry whose growth sector these days is talk, not music. And country has never aroused much interest in Europe, although the mythic status of '50s-'60s country-pop crooner Jim Reeves among an earlier generation of English-speaking black Africans is a quiddity worth bearing in mind.

In short, country music isn't considered very classy, and country fans know it. One reason country radio looks askance at crossover, often to the point of dropping artists who score big on the Hot 100, is that its audience feels embattled in its very commonness. And of course, defensiveness is rarely the kind of thing that makes music more inviting. Yet the strange transmigration of Jim Reeves--praised by one Nigerian informant of ethnomusicologist Charles Keil for "his cool sentimentality, his heart-awakening compositions, the voice and the instruments which make you feel the angels around"--makes equally clear that it needn't be this way. Hear country songs with an open mind and some of them should touch you no matter who you are--including the pop stuff, really. And one more thing. No matter who it is--Nirvana, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees, Barney--any pop musician who makes this major a splash didn't do it by imitating somebody else. He or she has something unique going, which means there's always a chance you'll like the music more than you expect. And Garth Brooks has stirred up bigger waves than any of the aforementioned pikers.

In strictly formal terms, Garth Brooks is even more country-pop than Jim Reeves. As an Oklahoman, he comes by his country naturally. But he's obviously no purist, no neotraditionalist, and his voracious musical appetite is legendary. He grew up on AOR radio in an era when singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg were considered as "rock" as Kansas and Bob Seger, and his breakthrough version of Billy Joel's "Shameless" was remarkably unforced. Moreover, Brooks's sentimentality isn't much like Reeves's, because Brooks is anything but cool--he emotes as forcefully as his band rocks, and on ballads he's shameless. The nakedness of his show of emotion recalls no current singer more than Michael Bolton, the difference being that Brooks's country loyalties rein him in. His albums do run a little longer than the average Nashville product, but because he respects the tight conventions of the genre--10 tuneful, well-constructed songs, with no indulgent solos or overwrought apostrophes--he gets away with wearing his heart on his sleeve. It also helps that, unlike Bolton, he doesn't appear to be an egomaniac. And unlike Cyrus or Clint Black, he's by no stretch of the imagination a hunk. Basically, Brooks is what is called in the biz a women's artist. But guys have no trouble relating to his ex-jock's paunch, his good old good-timing energy.

A devout Christian like so many Nashville artists, Brooks has made a point of being devoutly monogamous as well ever since the near-breakup of his marriage in 1989. What's surprising is that despite his adherence to these conventions he's often socially progressive by Nashville standards, most explicitly in the lead single from The Chase. Described by Brooks as a one-of-a-kind inspirational song, "We Shall Be Free" not only takes aim at racism, poverty, and the suppression of speech, but includes a line about how we all should be "free to love anyone we choose," which he happily told interviewers was intended as a defense of same-sex relationships. He's also done big-time benefit work for Feed the Children and--much more remarkably, considering his demographic--the reconstruction of South Central. More recently, however, his most controversial stand has been his energetic support of the recording industry's heavy-handed campaign against the used-CD trade. While other prominent artists maintained a discreet-to-embarrassed silence, he refused to permit the sale of his albums in stores that trafficked in the profit-cutting things. And In Pieces includes a Bryan Kennedy-Jim Rushing song that reprises an old Nashville plaint--dollars trickling down from the "achin'-back/Over-taxed, flag-wavin' fun-lovin' crowd" to otherwise undescribed miscreants "standing in a welfare line." So in the end it isn't so much his positions that set him apart from the average country singer as his willingness to stick his neck out--all the better to examine that heart on his sleeve.

Since it seems obvious that welfare will be necessary until somebody not only takes aim at poverty but blasts it to smithereens, and that in the meantime the economically disadvantaged at least deserve a cut-rate deal on one of the world's few "indestructible" commodities, I was prepared to find In Pieces a regrettable first step on the downward path every megastar treads sooner or later. Instead, I was won back by two of the gushiest songs he's ever put his name on, songs expressing sentiments that would be intolerable from a Michael Bolton: "Standing Outside the Fire," the lead cut and a guaranteed future theme anthem, and "The Red Strokes," an extended metaphor comparing sex to, yes, a painting.

Admittedly, "The Red Strokes" is pretty far out there. "Moonlight on canvas" nothing--this work of art was made for velvet. Still, Brooks, described by the wife he swears fidelity to as "a very sexual person," puts so much juice into the way he sings his purple fantasies ("Passions uncaged/Thundering moments of tenderness rage") that you can almost taste them. And "Standing Outside the Fire" feels like a manifesto. Like "We Shall Be Free" (and "The Red Strokes" as well), it eschews the specificity of the classic country song for philosophical generalization, devoting a stanza apiece to the self-possessed "cool" and "strong," a stanza to the self-indulgent "fools" and "weak." The switch that ensues should come as no surprise, because Brooks thinks the strong ones are the ones with their hearts on their sleeves: "But you got to be tough when consumed by desire/'Cause it's not just enough to stand outside the fire."

The metaphor (lifted from Warren Zevon's "Stand in the Fire"?) functions first of all as an aesthetic manifesto. But at the same time it says something about the suburban escapists who buy so many millions of his records. It says they don't regard themselves as escapists at all--that they prefer to see their own lives as romantic sagas, as theaters of heroic feeling. It says they don't equate security and material well-being with passivity and complacency: "Life is not tried it is merely survived/If you're standing outside the fire."

I don't want to make grandiose claims for this impulse. Heroic feelings aren't necessarily useful, much less progressive, and anyway, this is art, not life--and also fandom, not life. Without doubt many of Garth's admirers let their man do their standing in the fire for them, just as rock fans let Aerosmith, of all people, do their living on the edge for them. So it would be a simple matter to readjust one's distanced disdain for Garth's masses to take such secondhand romanticism into account. But that isn't the only possibility, and the response that works for me is rather different. When I hear this song I remember again that the emotion Brooks puts into his singing--an emotion that compounds Hank Williams and George Jones not just with Dan Fogelberg and Gregg Allman but with Julio Iglesias and Michael Bolton--is rooted in something more than his own not inconsiderable accomplishments as a performer. It's rooted in his faith that five million purchasers of this album are singing along. And I remember again that those who believe a democratic culture has no room for the miraculous are standing outside the fire.

L.A. Weekly, 1994