The mid to late 1990’s are characterized by several interesting developments in the music world. Many remember the post-grunge and soft rock movements which brought us the likes of Counting Crows and The Smashing Pumpkins. Other’s point to the rise in West coast and gangsta rap which would eventually bring hip-hop to the zeitgeist of American culture where it remains today. Few, however, seem to remember the massive boom in country music from this time period.
Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins and many more rose to popularity during this era, and country music enjoyed one of it’s biggest growth periods since the 1970’s. Unbeknownst to many, another country artist, one of the most prolific in the genre’s long and storied history, debuted and ’93 and enjoyed impressive success. That man was Toby Kieth.
When Kieth’s name is mentioned, the general associations probably include cheap beer, burning grills, and late night bonfires. He mostly seems to appeal to a more hardcore section of the genre’s fanbase, and is usually a bit strong for casual fans, though a few of his more popular tracks have reached the mainstream in one way or another. He is, like the vast majority of modern musicians, considered to be wholly harmless, aside from a few unsavory political statements, but what if I told you that this perception is incorrect? What if I told you that Toby Kieth’s lyrics and musical career are heavily indicative of a low point of decency and discourse in American culture? You’d likely say that I’m being dramatic, and you’d be correct, but allow to be dramatic for just a bit.
Toby debuted in ’93 with a self titled LP, but his early fame came from the success of the album’s lead single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” This track is unique for it’s time, not only differing obviously from the popular grunge and hip-hop of the day, but differing from the trends of softer, stadium friendly country music which were rising during this era. Instead, the instrumental was far more orchestral, in the vein of Country’s golden age, and his lyrics called back to the once hugely popular Westerns and imagery which characterized the golden age.
His next radio hit “How Do You Like Me Now,” the title track of his 1999 album, which tells the story of an “outsider,” boy, played by Toby, who’s more popular crush never acknowledged his advances in high school, most of which consisted of harassing and insulting her, which she did in turn to him. Now, with Toby’s fame and success, he uses his radio popularity to brutally mock the woman’s misfortunes, most of which could’ve been corrected had she simply chose him. It’s an infinitely singable track which uses catchy melodies and an infectious chorus to smuggle genuinely misogynistic ideas into the cultural mainstream. This is an extremely common topic in country music, but Toby is particularly brutal on this track. Again, this may seem like an overreaction, but the issue really come’s to a head just a few years after the track’s success, when he rose to the status of one the most successful musicians in the country.
Any true Toby Keith fan will tell you that the peak of his career came in the early 2000’s, specifically during the three album run of Unleashed, Shock N’ Y’all, and Honkytonk University. The first two of these albums went quadruple platinum, with the latter reaching double platinum, and while this can be attributed to Toby’s coming into his own as a writer, it can be much more accurately attributed to one of the worst tragedies in world history. The attacks of 9/11 brought with them many cultural changes, among them a sense of mindless nationalism which manifested itself culturally in a sharp turn toward a far more shameless form of country music. No one filled this gap better than Toby Kieth. He filled it with catchy, if a bit gimmick heavy country music, but, as he did with his earlier singles, he used this music to smuggle in some pretty terrible ideas.
2002’s Unleashed kicks off this run and is, by far, the best of the trio. This album three number one singles, two of which went platinum. The first of these is “Who’s Your Daddy,” a catchy sing-along which tells the story of a man who offers a much younger woman who is down on her luck a place to stay, an offer which is blatantly laced with sexual implications. The second single is Toby’s collaboration with the legendary Willie Nelson on “Beer for my Horses.” This track is a staple on the backyard playlist, as it should be. This chorus is iconic and the gimmick is nothing short of hilarious. However, lines like “its time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground,” among others, give clear support for capital punishment and violent law inforcement. And, of course, the album opens with Keith’s magnum opus, his ode to blind nationalism, and his biggest hit to date, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which propagandistically lauds the freshly started “War on Terror,” and warns an indiscriminate group of enemy’s that “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”
Just a year later, Shock N’ Y’all was released to remarkable commercial success. The record featured “American Soldier,” a much more tasteful tribute to soldiers, as well as the opener, “I Love This Bar.” The latter is particularly interesting as it is uniquely apolitical for this period of his career. Another, often forgotten, but at the time very popular track on this album, is the wonderfully subtle and thoughtful “Taliban Song.” I am, of course, being sarcastic. This track not only mocks the Taliban, which should be relatively inoffensive to all, but cracks a few jokes at the poverty experienced by victims of the Taliban, glorifies George Bush in an almost fetishistic way, makes light of the bombing of the Middle East, and even, I’m not kidding here, takes a break for Toby to tell his live audience that “this is a patriotic love song. Y’all can salute if ya want.” This song is fascinatingly unsubtle, and ends up being less offensive and more laughably small minded than anything, but it is, again, a catchy sing-along.
Honkytonk University rounds out the trio as the weakest of the three. It sports, essentially, one massive hit, “As Good As I Once Was.” Much of the tracks narrative, unsurprisingly, takes place in a bar, and Toby’s general message is that, even if you’re getting older, as long as you get into random fights and go home with more than one woman every now and then, you’re still a man. Again, the catchiness of this track masks the odd and unhelpful themes.
From here, he largely fell off, though one of his most popular and most mind-numbing releases was yet to come: 2009’s “American Ride.” It is honestly fascinating how many bad ideas Keith can pack into this track. The first verse is four lines long. In the first, Keith expresses doubts about global warming. In the second he bemoans the “tidal wave comin’ ‘cross the Mexican border.” The third speaks to gas prices, and the final warns “just don’t get busted singin’ Christmas carols.” The chorus repeats his doubts on global warming, and the second verse complains about lazy women living off the hard work of their husbands. The third verse blatantly insults Ms. America winner Venessa Williams for losing her crown, claiming that she gained a few pounds and then scored an undeserved record deal. We’re treated to something of a bridge which, again, seems to suggest some kind of persecution of Christians in the US while making a fantastically uninformed statement on the infamous McDonalds coffee case and in support of tort-reform, before heading back into one last chorus. It’s almost exhausting to try and follow the barrage of bad ideas in this song, and yet, again, I find myself singing along to every uninformed word!
So what’s the point? Should we all hold album burning’s for Toby Keith records? Are you a terrible person for not hating every Toby Keith song or even liking a few? Is it wrong even to agree with him a few political points? Absolutely not! In fact, I myself thoroughly enjoy the bulk of Keith’s catalog, and I’m sure when I’m of age to drink beer I’ll enjoy it even more.
Perhaps I was a bit sensational in my headline, because, while Toby Keith’s success is illustrative of an interestingly vulnerable social and political era in our nation’s history, what he teaches us about our nation may be a bit less profound than what he can teach us about music in general. Art, and especially music, has been used to convey ideas for thousands of years, and that doesn’t stop with Toby Keith. He has an ability, as many artists do, to write incredibly catchy tunes which leave us singing along on the first few listens, but he completely abuses this ability by refusing to put any thought whatsoever into the statements he makes. Through these melodies, he’s able to smuggle in some very bad, or at least poorly conceived ideas. He doesn’t seem to do this intentionally, but by virtue of his character. Even if you agree with a few of his views, his wording is hardly eloquent, and certainly won’t be making anyone smarter.
If Toby Keith can teach us anything about music, it’s the power it has over us, and the importance of being cognizant of just what ideas we are singing along to.