I try to avoid negativity in my posts. But right now my mind is consumed with loathing for the Band Perry, and I must purge myself of these thoughts before I can move on. Just look at these sots!
These a-holes won both Best Single and Best Song at last night’s Country Music Awards for their mawkish, saccharine hit “If I Die Young”:
Everything about this song is nauseating. The trite, puerile metaphors (“the sharp knife of a short life” – what the hell does that even mean?), the celebration of untimely death as a glamorous, ennobling fate that keeps the subject forever young, beautiful and pure, and – need I even say it? – that appalling hair!
Leaving the band member’s baffling coifs aside for the moment, let’s go back to the text, shall we?
“The sharp knife of a short life”: if we are to parse this line from a grammatical standpoint, the “sharp knife” is not what cuts the life short; rather, the short life itself is the sharp knife. You follow? The cutting, the sundering and the tragedy stems from the briefness of the narrator’s time on earth. (Nowhere are we given a clue as to what caused her premature end – probably some quaint antebellum disease like consumption or whooping cough.) Presumably the “sharp knife” slices through her community and family, rending them with grief. But why? The tone of the song is celebratory, even smug. This untainted innocent declares that she’ll be “wearing white when I come into Your kingdom” and goes on to proclaim,
I’m as green as the ring on my little cold finger,
I’ve never known the loving of a man
But it sure felt nice when he was holdin’ my hand
The “green ring” simile is strained in the extreme. Is the “ring” a circle of putrefying flesh, a symptom of the disease that killed her? I kind of doubt it. But somehow jade, oxidized copper or colored glass or metal seem out of character for the virginal narrator. Shouldn’t she be wearing a silver purity ring? There are lots of green things that could have served better. Leaves, for instance, or grass. Both signify freshness, innocence and vernal promise much better than a piece of jewelry. So the ring and the “little cold finger” (an image that’s simultaneously precious and voyeuristically grisly) must have some special significance (perhaps the fact that’s it’s not a wedding ring?). Or not. Maybe it’s just more bad writing.
If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song
And if I die old, cremate me and call it good? This song exemplifies an enduring myth with particular salience in American culture: that of the “innocent”. The fact that she’s “never known the loving of a man” is not the narrator’s tragedy, but her triumph. Would this song have been written about the town slut? I don’t think so.
A penny for my thoughts,
I’ll sell em’ for a dollar
They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner
and maybe then you’ll hear the words I’ve been singing
funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’
But what exactly are the words that she’s been singing? What wisdom does this “green” young’un have to impart that’s so valuable now that she’s dead? Ah, yes:
The ballad of a dove (uh, oh)
Go with peace and love
Gather up your tears, keep ’em in your pocket
Save them for a time when you’re really gonna need ’em, oh
Ooooh-kay… so her precious insight consists in telling people not to grieve for her, to put their tears in their pockets (genius!) and “save them for a time when you’re really gonna need ’em”. When will that be? Will the mourners need their tears for the dull knife of a long life? The jagged knife of a tainted life? Should they weep for the wanton whose death presages only hellfire?
The song flirts with profundity because it’s about death. But the only thing the lyrics yield up is an incoherent sentimentality, a sappy, maudlin paen to youth and innocence. It hardly deserves to be dignified through textual analysis, but I had to get this off my chest. Country music, like that other quintessentially American genre, the blues, has a rich history of dealing with themes of death, dying and suffering. However, I’ve never heard a country song about death that’s so sanitized and inane, letting bland, hackneyed tropes of untimely death and innocence stand in for real poignancy.
Griping about the decline of a musical genre is undoubtedly as old as the very concept of a musical genre, but the CMAs are an indication of the disappointing direction mainstream country’s been heading in for a while now. Get off my lawn, you ridiculous-haired whippersnappers!