Deana Carter’s “The Girl You Left Me For,” first track on her excellent The Story of My Life, could be the greatest teenpop single of the decade except that since she’s a c&w woman pushing 40 it won’t go teenpop. But it’s the hookiest, catchiest thing you’ll hear, yeah yeah yeahs and wails, a sob story that comes on like a delicious feast, an emphatic “Yes” to a question she’ll never be asked. Deana’s voice is cute but with a burr underneath, so not so cute. Kind of a Dolly Parton thing: sweet but determined.
Bubblecountry, as a semi-subtendency, has never really taken hold, but some country babes will do it every now and then, go cute and pretty in their sound: Alecia Elliott’s “I’m Diggin’ It,” which got some action several years ago but didn’t chart huge, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Jessica Andrews—though none of them, Carter included, are primarily selling the cutes. But then, teenpopsters aren’t selling the cutes either, not all that much. Cute is just one element, and mere cutes won’t get a song over; cute is more a tension than a simple attribute. Also, little else on the Carter album comes close to even attempting the pop catchiness of the first track; there is bright color on a lot of her tunes, and this is interesting, since “shiny” isn’t the color of country, usually. The promo sheet quotes her praising her new label, Vanguard, for giving her the freedom to express herself as a total artist—but they all say that. As for rocking and bouncing, she did it more on her previous album. On this one, the colorfulness is like a subdued version of late-’60s Beatles, a low-impact carnival sound that strangely appears most often in her quiet quasi-reflective numbers, during breaks and fade-outs. The lyrics don’t go dangerous but sometimes claim they do, allude to self-assertion and the idea that Deana is daring and independent, a woman who follows her own sexually provocative path. But this is never made explicit. “You only got one chance in the world/It’s a chance you’ve got to take.” Chance at what? One song, about an adolescent girl, goes, “She’s a lovely loaded gun/She’s a vegetarian,” and a little further, “She lets her belly button show.” Golly.
What’s really striking about the opening bubble track is how extreme Deana is in her self-denial. “I wanna be the girl you left me for/I wanna be the one that you adore” is followed by the aggressively self-abnegating plea “Make me your puppet without any strings,” delivered without hesitation or irony. This is another reason the song won’t hit Radio Disney: The average Avril-era girlpop single is ambivalent, assumes that love has a price and relationships have their uneasy entanglements and love isn’t all there is to life anyway. In Deana’s song, such ambivalence is relegated to subtext—i.e., the song is a fantasy of offering up total devotion and submission to a lover who is, in fact, long gone, presumably because Deana hadn’t delivered on the fantasy during the actual affair. Teen girl stars aren’t allowed such flat-out longing and loss. They’re busy modeling self-assertion and emotional complication instead. There are no modern girlpop equivalents to the Shangri-Las’ teen melodramas of old, where if someone falls in love in the first verse, someone dies in the third. And the Deana Carter songs that deal with teen years (the one with the belly button girl, another looking back on Deana’s own past) are all about being admirably assertive. Only adults these days are allowed to be infantile and berserk and self-destructive. Kids have to be keen to nuance, adults get to go crazy. Kids dispense wisdom, adults dispense insanity. Kids think, adults drink.
Which isn’t to say there’s no nuance here. “She parks her car on Woodland Street/She’s got a job at the Meat-n-Three/She’s kind of pretty/In a peculiar kind of way/And I try hard to like her/Because she’s so good for you,” which is wise and complex enough to be a Skye Sweetnam or an M2M lyric. And lots of Deana’s songs are about asserting one’s identity. “I got a friend who wears go-go boots to Sunday school.” In fact, more assert independence than claim devotion; but oddly, the assertive songs (unlike “Liar” and “Girls Night” on her previous LP) tend to be soft, as if confessional, and to be vague, as if whatever it is that makes her special eludes speech. “Flying high without a net.” Some line has been crossed, but we’re never told which. Her self-assertion songs can be designated “tasteful,” and seem to have no contact with her heartache songs. The latter—the love-lost ones—are far more vivid than the identity-found ones. And it’s the cute tracks rather than the confident ones that sound assertive, that rock the hardest.