by D. Henley
Maybe it’s as simple as stonewashed Wranglers and a cowboy hat. Maybe you hear an overproduced fiddle riff and think, Fake! A pop version of a pop version of real country music! Maybe it’s fiddles, period. Or maybe it’s the whole spectacle, the stupefyingly theatrical arena concerts, the television specials, the phony yee-hawing crowds, the Wal*Mart distribution deal. Maybe it’s that jackass you went to highschool with – the memory of him, from the bed of his pickup truck, throwing a rotted-out apple at you as you walked across the parking lot. You still remember what he yelled about your girlfriend, and while you’re not actually certain of this fact, you’re pretty sure that the music he was cranking from that dumb and dusty tape deck was Garth Brooks.
Many people dislike Garth Brooks, for many different reasons. He is the godfather of the country-pop crossover genre as we know it, and as such can be thanked for Billy Ray Cyrus, Lonestar, Kenny Chesney, the whole grotesque squadron. This is kind of like saying he is the single-handed inventor of a newer, deeper circle of Hell. And Brooks’s crossover tendencies may be even more reviled by true-believer country fans than by listeners who can’t stand the genre at all: to the diehards he’s not country enough, an inauthentic ambassador who plays watered-down tunes. The music is either unremarkable or remarkably bad. No matter what side of that fence they’re on, it seems people generally agree that Garth Brooks is corny and totally dismissible.
Another thing about Garth Brooks is that I love him. Unironically, unapologetically. This isn’t a joke or a thought experiment. This is a defense.
A lot of Garth-hate is likely catalyzed, in fact, by his success. With a record-sales total of 128 times platinum, he is the third-best-selling artist in US history, behind only Elvis Presley and the Beatles. He was the biggest musician of the 1990s. He redefined what popular music is, tipping the scales in a shocking direction. Brooks basically created an entirely new cultural space – within the music industry and within the listenership – that has remained one of the more dominating areas ever since. None of this has anything to do with why I love Garth Brooks. It is possible to talk about Brooks without deferring to the accomplishments. There are reasons for this rampant success that go beyond luck, fad, or a feverish marketplace.
Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of the music is its directness. When you turn on Garth Brooks, you are immediately aware of what you’re dealing with: what the song is about, what the artist is feeling, what the song expects you to feel. The music gets at emotion with a rare sharpness, each song providing a complete expression, working full-force towards the desired tone. This is not to say there isn’t any nuance, but only that Brooks’s music commits more fully to individual moods than most. It’s difficult to separate the Smiths songs one would want to listen to when in love from the Smiths songs to listen to when heartbroken – there is something that can be lost when an artist seeks to complicate emotion. Complexity is crucial to the beauty and success of much music, but it can also stand in the way of catharsis, keeping us in our heads when we’re listening to feel our hearts. Garth Brooks does not provide problems like this. The clarity that marks all aspects of his music, from lyrics and themes to rhythm and instrumentation, makes for an incredibly efficient, cathartic listening experience. Sometimes you want to hear whichever song is singing your story the loudest.
We have a word for this: earnest. It’s the quality we adore in punk and pop musics and much in between, from the unsparing discontent of Black Flag to the simple elation of Katy Perry. Yet country music often falls prey to accusations of being too earnest, saccharine in ways that other genres are not. While this charge may come as criticism of a steel guitar warble or fiddle line, it is often associated with the content of the music itself: the lyrics and themes. And ultimately, this is another reason I love Garth Brooks – that yes, definitely, “Two of a Kind, Workin’ On a Full House” is a cheesy song. Musically a bit of a flop, a line-dance jam if there ever was. But it’s also a song about trying to make a relationship work, about the excitement and pride in finding success therein. It’s a positive song about loving someone, released in an era dominated by Nirvana and N.W.A., a cultural-musical territory of violence, rape, and wholehearted objectification. Violence and shock have a place in music, and sometimes an important one, but music is always more than a catchy – or challenging – tune. Sometimes, one doesn’t want to be forced to assume a position of ironic distance in order to enjoy a haunting guitar line or smart rhythm. Genuine expression is a precious thing amidst a critical culture that places heavy weight on ambiguity, on enigmatic signification. Brooks sings this straightforward song.
And there is, of course, the question of relatability. Garth Brooks is not a rock star. He isn’t glamorous, doesn’t dress up for magazine covers and red carpets. He’d never successfully sell a champagne or wear sunglasses indoors. We don’t refer to him as an artist without the implicit “recording-” before it. This populist appeal doesn’t make him any better, except to the people that it does – I love him because he’s doing what my other favorite musicians aren’t. Dylan doesn’t sing about football, MF Doom doesn’t have much to say about family, small town life has no place in Animal Collective. When I need these things, I go to Garth.
One need not feel homesick for a place named Centerville, though, to appreciate the content. To claim that a listener doesn’t have access to Brooks because she’s from New York is like claiming someone doesn’t have access to The Wire because she’s from Oregon. The stories here go past individual experience, and the principles are rarely found elsewhere in popular music. Here they have a wildly talented mouthpiece, a representative who gets what these things are about and wants you to understand them, too.
But let us not forget these are songs we’re talking about. I didn’t fall in love with Garth Brooks for the message. His is one of the strongest male voices in all of country music, which is saying something. A simple, oft-unassuming voice that can go full-throttle Tennessee-whiskey robust in the space between eighth notes, and can make syllables read like Greek tragedy act IIIs. But normally he keeps that in reserve and what we get is a plainer beauty: crystal clear notes, the kind of vocal talent that made Auto-Tune necessary. Brooks sings the way other musicians dream to. The songs cover it all with aplomb. There are quiet, painful stories of heartbreak and undeniable bar-rocking anthems. Where many musicians capture a single feeling, Brooks navigates between them with ease. What’s more, he gets them right.
The characters and emotions are strong and palpable, the music with which he delivers them expertly crafted, the voice manly-angelic. It’s admittedly surprising coming from a guy who looks like your dad in cowboy costume. But then again, he’s got the platinum to prove it.