In the run-up to (and in the run-down from) last week’s release of her fourth solo album, Joanne, much has been made of Lady Gaga going country. “She’s cred-desperate,” “She’s idea-bankrupt,” “Nashville is one of the most rapidly growing cities in North America with a thriving cultural scene and an uncanceled self-titled TV show and a rejuvenated downtown,” “She’s copying Madonna again” … everyone, these days, it seems, is a Gaga critic — with a theory about how to make sense of the Gaga that country hath wrought.
My theory? It begins and ends with her sincerity. That’s the key; it always is. For any country phase, from any artist — that, over everything else, is the question you have to ask: How sincere is this person being … and how sincerely are they being it?
It’s a question with, by our count, six potential answers: sincerely sincere; insincerely sincere; sincere; insincere; insincerely insincere; and sincerely insincere. These are the variations on the part-time country perspective.
Where does Gaga 2K16 fit into all of this? It’s hard to say — but let’s put on our work clothes and find out. This is the Country Phase Sincerity Index:
Sincerely Sincere: Gwen Stefani
First, some positives: If your country phase is grading out as “sincerely sincere,” then that shows you care. Caring is good, kind of, and important, sometimes. That’s great, maybe. But grading out as “sincerely sincere” means — to be a little blunt — that you’re trying too hard. “Sincerely sincere” is the mode of country phase for artists who don’t quite understand where we are as a modern music-listening society — and who have embarked on their crossover bid, full bore, without first grasping the cardinal rule of going country in 2016: no one really gives a shit.
Gwen Stefani made what will perhaps go down as the definitive “sincerely sincere” gesture of our lifetime — when she literally agreed to marry someone as a country phase. She even sang a country duet with him.
Getting engaged to Blake Shelton was an incredibly strong going-country move, and absolutely the sort of idea that said to the world, “Country music — yeah, I’ve heard of it, for sure.” Also the NFL’s camo line of apparel just looks really sharp, in general, I think, and makes sense on anyone. I like how it brings out the team logo, without burying it in bright colors, or overexposing it on a black/white base.
But here’s the thing: It’s too much. Not the hat, I mean — marrying Blake Shelton. A duet would have been more than enough. Especially when that duet is pretty good:
But the sincerely sincere country phase can’t settle for pretty good. It has to go that try-hard extra mile. It has to do more than just mean it — until it risks meaning nothing at all.
Insincerely Sincere: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry
And that they grade out to “insincerely sincere” shouldn’t be a surprise: out of all of the country phases, it’s the surest shot at pop stardom. If you’re looking for a reason Ryan Adams’s covers record didn’t work, this is it: “Insincerely sincere” doesn’t mean meaning it; it means doing it.
Sincere: Nelly, Michelle Branch
The “sincere” phase is the platonic ideal of going country. It is at once the simplest and — by far — the most rare.
Michelle Branch successfully completed a sincere phase in 2006, with her side project, The Wreckers:
“Leave the Pieces” is a flawless country-crossover song: assured but relaxed; twangy in service to, rather than in conflict with, its melody; newer frontier while still within the borders of old bangers.
But while Branch’s feat is impressive, she has nothing on Nelly — who’s had not one but two sincere country phases. The first came in 2004, with his Tim McGraw–featuring single “Over and Over.”
“Over and Over,” for my money, is the best country crossover ever. There is something so pure about it — so beautifully … I don’t know: meritocratic. Like, when I listen to it, I really do imagine Nelly playing the demo back for himself, in a big, luxury desk chair, in a big, luxury conference room — while his team is discussing which singer they should get for the hook. And then I imagine Nelly slowly taking his headphones off … as the room falls silent … and saying, “Get me McGraw.” I also like that Tim McGraw broke kayfabe and used Faith Hill’s picture in the video.
Nelly’s 2013 remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” doesn’t ever reach the heights of “Over and Over,” but it’s no matter: it’s the thought that counts. What makes “Cruise (Remix)” work — and every other point at the intersection of Nelly and “going country” work — is the acceptance that, yeah, OK, maybe Nelly will never have an out-and-out, capital-c, capital-p Country Phase … and maybe country isn’t Nelly’s hands-down, no.-1-with-a-bullet, “Garth Brooks is bigger than the Beatles”-conversation-having, all-time favorite music genre … and maybe [listens to more than two Florida Georgia Line songs in a row], well: a lot of things. But even still: He likes it a lot; and he’ll fuck around and name a diamond-selling 2000 debut record after it; and he’ll throw a post-peak Tim McGraw on an ahead-of-its-time concept album’s mid-tempo second single, four years later, just because; and he’ll wake up Brian Kelley (I looked it up), in the middle of the night, with a text that says, “You know the one that goes, ‘When I first saw that bikini top on her / She’s poppin’ right out of the South Georgia water,’ yeah, let me get on that,” eight years after that.
The point is — Nelly and Michelle Branch are nothing if not sincere. And the sincerity of their country phases has given way to the best endgame of all: now they’re just country.
Insincere: Aaron Lewis
Aaron Lewis, lead singer, Staind, 2001:
Aaron Lewis, lead singer of “Aaron Lewis,” 2016:
99 percent of the time, and maybe higher, the notion of “going country” is overblown — or unfairly diminished, or abused as a punch line, or conflated with other transgressions, or misunderstood. But every now and then … I swear:
It really is just as simple as the dude who sang “It’s Been Awhile” putting on a hat.
Insincerely Insincere: Beyoncé, Kid Rock, Gwyneth Paltrow
Maybe my favorite phase. For shorthand, I like to think of “insincerely insincere” as the artists who pretend to pretend — and if that sounds complicated, then it’s because it is: Is “Daddy Lessons” a country song? Yeah, 100 percent. But it’s also a Lemonade song … which renders genre beside the point. Is “Country Strong” a country song? Yeah, of course. But it’s also a “country song” — a fictional plot point in a real movie where someone tells Gwyneth Paltrow “I don’t hear a single” and then she dies. And is (oh god …) “All Summer Long” a country song? Yeah, more or less. But it’s also Kid Rock drunk-scientist-ing a “Werewolves of London” loop into a hit about — is this right? This has to be right — fucking a jetski.
The “insincerely insincere” phase is extremely advanced, and few are skilled enough to try it. Even fewer are skilled enough to succeed. But they all have one thing in common: they don’t not love country music.
Sincerely Insincere: Jessica Simpson, Madonna, Lady Gaga
The “sincerely insincere” country phase gets a bad rap, but it’s one of the better phases around. Its strength lies in its transparency — and in its ability to be completely upfront about its reason for going country: every reason, and no reason.
“Sincerely insincere” is the collapse of genre at its most nihilistic and true: Forced and dated bid for [very, very Val Kilmer in The Doors voice] authenticity? Why not (don’t answer that), sure. Skinny-Elvis-of-the-mind last gasp at chart relevancy? Definitely, all in. Semi-arbitrary aesthetic shift? You had me at semi-arbitrary, and then again at aesthetic, and then again, for the third time, at shift. In the end, the sincerely insincere country phase just doesn’t care all that much about what you think of its country phase. It hears your complaints, and understands your criticisms — but also politely asks that you consider its counterargument of, “Look, relax.” Like I said, it’s a really good phase.
Jessica Simpson’s half-hearted late-’00s crossover attempt is a sincerely insincere country phase that inspires me to this day.
With her commercial prospects as a pop artist flagging, Simpson didn’t do anything desperate like “persevere,” or embarrassing like “refocus.” Instead she looked around … and saw a quick buck lying on the floor … and grabbed it. And then she handed it to an assistant, and told that assistant to be her body double for the tight shots of guitar-playing in the video, and made magic.
The watershed moment of the “sincerely insincere” phase probably came in 2000, with the borderline-iconic video for Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me”:
Madonna is the patron saint of bullshit — and “Don’t Tell Me” might be her bullshit masterpiece: the “this is a fake background, and that’s the point, it’s a commentary on backgrounds, that sounds smart, when I say that, right?” desert road; the “pretty … much … a Madonna song” sonic palette; the hats; the belts; the painted-on dirt on her pants; the imported sandbox; the wind machine set to max; the backup dancers sentenced to “filming separately, on location,” with no parole; the hats, again; the belts, again; the strong “is there such a thing as karaoke … but for dancing” vibes; the mechanical bull — it’s all there, and it’s all on-message. Here’s the message: “I like this flannel shirt on me, let’s make a music video.” It’s a near-total aesthetic and thematic waste of time. It’s nothing on nothing on perfect. It’s a really great shirt.
And then there’s Lady Gaga, who joined the “sincerely insincere” ranks late last week with Joanne. The open meta-secret of Joanne, of course, is that it isn’t that country: a moment here, an untraceable wire transfer to Father John Misty there, some pre- or post-offensive working-class myth-building, a dorky song title or two. But Joanne is otherwise a phase strictly to the extent that, well, everything is a phase: that we do one thing, and then do another, and that more often than not those two things aren’t the same. I think that Gaga understands the value in “how do you do, fellow kids?”-ing an electric guitar while drinking cheap beer* (*sentence sponsored by Bud Light**) (**just kidding***) (***for now) in a Nashville dive; but I also think she understands that optics, once they’ve gotten you so far … will only get you so far.
Which is to say that Joanne isn’t a classic, but it is a keeper — the ideas are there; the songs are there; it’s a little bit bullshit and a lot of fun. And in this way, it might just be Lady Gaga’s best-case scenario in 2016: Never as weird as you’d figured. Always better than you’d heard.