By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Rock critics notoriously hate country music. Not Cash or Willie or even Merle, but what we've dismissed as "pop" or "Nashville" country. And "hate"well, that's almost too nice a word. Despise. Detest. Loathe. I'm talking Toby. Shania. Trisha. Those condemned as overly grandiose in image, style, and soundtrite, bland, overproduced cliché-mongers who reduce complex problem-solving to "putting a boot in your ass" and brashly insist that it's the American Way.
Not to say that pop country hasn't infiltrated Pazz & Jop a time or two. In 2004, Big & Rich landed at #39 with Horse of a Different Color (primarily by touting their affinity for hip-hop), while the Dixie Chicks have historically fared well, peaking at #20 in 2006 with Taking the Long Way. But they'd broken out commercially long beforeit was only when the Chicks became a political cause that critics really caught on. That in itself is more telling: Without some liberal/cosmopolitan backstory, country music and the culture it depicts (and celebrates) is disconcertingly alien to many big-shot, big-city critics, a foreign country we abhor to acknowledge as our own.
Why, then, have the previously unconverted so rapturously embraced Miranda Lambert, who painstakingly markets herself as a small-town girl, who's as likely as anyone to prescribe the boot/ass solution? Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's cover includes a logo depicting two revolvers, gun barrels crossed, angel wings attached. She's a cute, cherubic blonde who wears tight jeans and wife-beaters: She could pass for the girl next-door, or a University of Tennessee sorority sister. Regardless, from the look to the résumé (runner-up on the American Idolstyle reality show Nashville Star), she looks and sounds every bit the manufactured Nashville artifact. Such tidbits should've flung her into a well of critical desolation, but haven't.
It's not that Lambert doesn't celebrate country culture, or even "redneck" culture. Sure, she likes guns. Sure, she sings about solving problems with booze. She's just smarterand savvierabout it. Much as Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury vividly described the drug trade and enraptured critics with very, very little personal drug-dealing experience, Lambert sketches out her small-town life in a laser-accurate and very humble way, one that even battle-hardened New Yorkers can appreciate. She is very aware of this. "I think some people can overdo it in making us look like backwoods hicks," she tells me. "I mean, I am a hick, and I'm proud of that, but I think my record isn't portraying us as backwoods hillbillies. We are Southern and redneck, but we have stuff to say, too."
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, naturally, is best known for its bad-girl streaka popular archetype this year, from Carrie Underwood to Kelly Clarksonand indeed, it's an addictively attractive pose: cool, confident, sexy. She's intimidating at times, funny at others, usually empowering, and occasionally frightening, particularly when she muses that "your fists are big but my gun's bigger"you can picture the cigarette dangling out of her mouth as she rips into her second six-pack. But much of the record is far more nuanced, that rage mingling with depression, self-pity, and timidity, particularly the string of forlorn love songs at the album's center. "Even with my ballads, like 'Desperation' and 'More Like Her,' it takes a strong person to admit that you're desperate," she says. These more exposed portraits bolster her outlaw status just as much as those moments when she opts to leave her pistol in the car during a bar fight.
Lambert's made an album even certified country haters have learned to love, and she knows it. "I've been credited as far as being a little left-of-center, and I think my music is real, because it is real," she emphasizes. "I write it from a real perspective on life, and people can relate to that. And I think that's what I can accredit the crossover appeal to."
That we've embraced Ex-Girlfriend is all the more remarkable because, while we're welcome to enjoy it, it wasn't made for us, but instead for a pop-country universefans, artists, industry wonksthat blatantly doesn't care what we think. Lambert was never meant for us; that she doesn't pander to critics, of course, makes her all the more attractive. "There is something to be said for people knowing you and supporting you," she tells me, describing the odd sensation of seeing posters of herself in her hometown's shop windows: a far more important venue for her than this poll, even. We don't hold it against her.