Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Party On, Garth

Garth Brooks has done nothing wrong. In fact, for a 30-year-old country singer who's sold 27 million copies of five albums in under four years, he's a paragon--humane, modest, hunky only by association. Yet his constituency shows surprising limitations. Most important, Brooks has yet to break pop--his albums dominate the charts because the charts now reflect raw sales, but while his numerous hit singles have made minor inroads in the dread adult contemporary format, not one has gone top 40. Second, he's a throwback to the premultinational age, a megastar who sells almost exclusively in the U.S. of A. And last if also least, he's not what you'd call hip.

It's a stretch to call this a surprise, I know. Country isn't hip, pop isn't hip, so why should Garth Brooks be hip? Is being famous for selling records that much different, not to mention better, than being famous for being famous? After all, Brooks was the first SoundScan celebrity--a known new-Nashville icon whose No Fences shocked bizzers by leapfrogging over such long-running phenoms as Wilson Phillips and C + C Music Factory the week Billboard hooked its charts to real live cash registers in May 1991. By September, debuting at No. 1 the way the follow-up Ropin' the Wind did was no big deal. N.W.A and Skid Row had been there and gone, and sure enough, Guns N' Roses knocked him off the very next week. But two weeks later Garth was back, and with annoying interruptions from U2 and Michael Jackson and Nirvana, he topped the chart till April. Country pockets were proving a lot deeper than big-city marketeers had figured. As I write, Billy Ray Cyrus, Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill, and Wynonna Judd have albums in the top 20. And so, of course, does Garth--four of them, including a Christmas collection he presciently released in August.

Yet because he's classified as a country artist--a pigeonhole Garth encourages, since country stations can get nasty if they decide you're selling them down the river--New Yorkers are more likely to have read about him in the dentist's office than heard him on the radio. So here in Hipville Garth finds himself a nonentity among casual music-lovers and a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy for tastemakers smart enough to know better and dumb enough to consider Dwight Yoakam the real thing. The problem is, artists rarely go quite this far through the roof--outselling Michael Bolton two to one, say--just because people have bad taste. Even if you buy the lie that honky tonk is the one true country music, or claim like Dave Marsh that the country boom reflects a cynical manipulation of antirap racism, the question remains: why do benighted record buyers give Brooks more bucks than Billy Ray Cyrus or Vince Gill?

The short answer is that Brooks isn't just a country artist. Growing up in Oklahoma he preferred Dan Fogelberg and "Dust in the Wind" to George Jones and "Ladies Love Outlaws," and as both singer and songwriter, he definitely remains a softy. His weakness for schlock emotion does indeed recall both Elton John and Billy Joel, whose "Shameless" he claimed for Nashville on Ropin' the Wind. And more than John or Joel, although less than Barry Manilow or Julio Iglesias, he's a women's artist: where most male country singers are content to wallow in their guilt, he actively identifies with female complaints and concerns. At the Spectrum in Philadelphia October 23, where there was no discernible male bonding and plenty of out-with-the-girls, the biggest and highest-pitched cheer of the night came on the video-only final verse of "The Thunder Rolls," in which a wife murders her errant husband. Most of the female groups seemed to be better halves (or divorcees) on a spree, but unless fashions are different in Philadelphia, I also spied a few lesbian couples. Garth's bass-playing big sister, Betsy Smittle, a major stage presence in his band, was outed by the National Enquirer last March, and he's happy to make clear that the lead single off his latest album, "We Shall Be Free," introduced as "our first and only attempt at a righteous or a gospel song," attacks any notion of family values that excludes same-sex relataionships.

Though by now eclecticism is an overripe cliche, Brooks's musical fusions signify creative courage in context, and it helps that he can write. An advertising major turned composer who hit Nashville in 1986 with mucho solo-acoustic time under his belt, he's one of these guys you can tell just loves a great song. Sometimes he rolls his own--the Midwestern swing of the debut-opening "Not Counting You," or the cheerful live-and-let-die of Ropin' the Wind's "Papa Loved Mama" ("Mama loved men/Mama's in the graveyard/Papa's in the pen"), or, on the new The Chase, the jauntily malleable "Mr. Right." But like any self-respecting Nashville pro, he smokes o.p.'s--Dennis Robbins et al.'s rowdy domestic-bliss fantasy "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," or "Learning To Live Again," Stephanie Davis and Don Schlitz's wry heart song about a divorced man's blind date, or the show-stopping "Friends in Low Places," in which Dewayne Blackwell and Bud Lee concoct the kind of chorus that convinced God to create Music Row: "'Cause I've got friends in low places/Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases/My blues away/And I'll be okay/I'm not big on social graces/Think I'll slip on down to the Oasis/Oh I've got friends/In lo-o-ow places."

There are worse models than Elton John and Billy Joel, both of whom have loads of great songs behind them. If Sonic Youth can try and make something out of Kim Fowley, Brooks has the right to do the same with Dan Fogelberg. And it's about time a man in a less fantasy-driven subgenre than pure escape-pop spoke directly to women. But Brooks's pop-eclectic reach isn't the all-things-to-all-people pandering you might guess from the infotainment mags. He really is country, and if you can imagine John and Joel kept in check by a form less tolerant of conceptual flab than the pop/rock they embrace so juicily, you have an inkling of why he might be worth your attention. Often he's too untrammeled by the conventions that impart an almost sonnetlike minimalism to Nashville product, and he regularly goes too far--where most country albums founder on filler, his overreach, although on Ropin' the Wind and the somewhat moister The Chase the songcraft compensates for the excess. I could do with fewer forces-of-nature metaphors and rodeo songs--lots of times hot sex is more like gobbling lobster than hearing thunder, and if you're going to get nostalgic about a country folkway, better it be blood on the barroom floor. But he's onto something. With assurances that the opinion expressed herein in no way represents that of Mr. Brooks or his umpteen million fans, let me put it this way--I don't give a fuck how Hank woulda done it. Hank died way too young to suit me.

I already knew most of this when I drove down to Philly with my wife and daughter. According to official Garthmyth, the singer's life changed in 1989 when Sandy Brooks phoned to say her bags were packed because he'd been messing around on her--"Women are so cool and as different as snowflakes," explains the now-reformed Garth, described by Sandy as "a very sexual person"--and he's talked about quitting the road for the sake of his marriage, which recently added an infant daughter. So I would have felt insincere taking the trip alone. I wasn't surprised that my little girl was far from the only under-12 in the 99 per cent full Spectrum. But I didn't anticipate that kids would outnumber teenagers. It was date night only for marrieds, and white marrieds at that--not counting security, the one black person we saw appeared to be Nigerian. In short, this was the suburban horde Garth-haters believe has stolen the soul of country music. Even I never would have guessed how they'd stoke the show.

Based on common sense, word of mouth, and his relatively engaging stab at that tiredest of genres, the concert video, I figured Garth's live strategy would be to dazzle folks with rock moves, and from smoke machines and flash pots to ladder-climbing and cable-swinging, the moves were there. But they were icing. It was a given that the best-of format would accentuate both the consistency and variety of his material, and that his band would sound just as casually expert cranking it up as slowing it down. I expected too that Brooks's fundamentally ordinary voice--the kind of strong, flexible instrument journeymen die believing deserved better--would crest again and again on enthusiasm and emotion (though I was surprised at how many corny ones got me, especially the solo acoustic "Unanswered Prayers," about how glad he is he didn't land that high school honey). But more even than with most arena acts, his audience was there not just for music but for each other--for the hell-raising camaraderie this society normally reserves for teens and singles. They were there to be worked and served.

What's most appealing about Garth Brooks is that he's simultaneously self-deprecating and voracious. His megastardom took him by surprise, and though he craves the world's love, he doesn't whine about it like Dan Fogelberg. The linchpin of the evening, and proof of the thing ladies still have for this monogamous, balding javelin thrower gone to pudge, was the gifts. As with Barry or Julio, flowers predominated, dozens of dozens of them, but the traditional nighties and house keys were nowhere to be seen; instead there were cowboy hats, a Garth statuette, stuffed animals, and, proudly displayed against the drum kit, baby clothes for Taylor Mayne. A gofer-percussionist reduced the accumulation periodically, but left a little more than Garth could comfortably carry off at the end, so that the last we saw of him he was literally staggering under the weight of his fans' largesse. Then he came back and ripped into the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself."

I love honky tonk, and so does anybody who signs his set with "Friends in Low Places." But though I treasure the style's rebellious irreverence and bitter grit, and have little use for country artists who quash them the way Vince Gill and Billy Ray Cyrus do, they're not everything I care about; often, in fact, they're suspended somewhere between memory and metaphor. I'm a country fan because country is this century's most credible music of domestic life. Early pop was pretty much coextensive with the Victorian parlor, but as Tin Pan Alley evolved, it became either too sophisticated for such a setting or too escapist to bear. At its worst, suburban country is as icky as Barry Manilow or Michael Bolton. But at its best, which is Garth Brooks, it cuts "Oh! Susanna" with "Home Sweet Home" and mixes in some sex and suffering so you know where you are. It doesn't capture the meaning of existence any more than "Home Sweet Home" or "Oh! Susanna" did. But it might just be good for what ails you.

Village Voice, Nov. 10, 1992