My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

A fearless look at lists

So among critics and bloggers alike, it’s usually cool to blast “list songs” as being lazy excuses for songwriting right? I’m sure by now you guys have heard the song “It’s America” by Rodney Atkins (I envy those that have not heard it yet…)? Well songs like that give list songs a bad name- it’s lazy and uncoordinated pandering. However, I want to talk about list songs in general- but I’ll start with “It’s America” as an example.

 

It's America

It's America by Rodney Atkins

Let’s look at this song, because it really is lazy. What really annoys me about this song is how almost every thing listed in the song could be about any country on Earth. A rock and roll band? Kids selling lemonade? Cities and farms? Fireflies in June? God‽ I find it incredibly hard to believe that these things solely define America and no other country can have them- especially the last one. It’s that kind of arrogant attitude that Americans have sometimes that annoys people from other countries and Atkins’ incoherent list perpetuates that stereotype in every way- and it’s a terribly annoying song. The objects mentioned have nothing to do with each other, let alone even making any sense. They literally made a song trying to pull at all the heartstrings possible in their audience and it seems people are taking the bait, seeing as the song is currently at #5 on the charts.

 

 

Jazmine Sullivan

Jazmine Sullivan

So now that we’ve looked at my least favorite “list song”, I want to try and find good list songs. Here’s one of my favorites- an R&B song called “Fear” (Click to listen) by Jazmine Sullivan (Who, if you’ll remember was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, as well as a few other R&B awards). The song is very simple, but the list that is created has a specific theme, all the things that Jazmine is afraid of. It comes off as an intimate list of what really scares her, things such as flopping albums, gaining weight, paparazzi and love, ending with the chorus:

 

This may sound silly but it’s true
So don’t pretend it ain’t you too
We all afraid of something here
Cause you ain’t human without fear

She takes that list and by revealing her fears, she tells the listener that they have fear too- a very powerful message. Her list isn’t random and incoherent, but tight and focused toward a bigger message. Now I know R&B is probably not your thing, but I really hope you’ll give the song a chance- her performance is amazing and she really shines in this song.

So what does this say about country music, that to find a good list song, I had to reach outside the genre? There are many examples of list songs that have been successes in country music- but I can’t think of any that are really good songs in any way. I wish the writers that are making these list songs could be like Jazmine, and make songs that don’t sound lazy- to have lists with a real purpose that make sense.

So here’s the question I’m posing:

Do you agree with me on list songs? Can you think of any good list songs? Or what is your least favorite list song?

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28 responses to “A fearless look at lists

  1. Razor X April 4, 2009 at 10:34 am

    While I’m not going to pretend that this is a good song, I think your interpretation is a little off-base. At no time does Atkins make the case that the items in his list are exclusive to America. I don’t know any American who thinks that this is the only place where lemonade, rock-and-roll and God can be found. Hypersensitive America-bashers might try to claim that it’s evidence of an arrogant attitude, but the real reason to dislike this song — as you pointed out — is the lazy songwriting and the fact that it really doesn’t have much to say.

    • J.R. Journey April 4, 2009 at 10:43 am

      But when you look at all the things being listed with the title of the song, ‘it’s America’, the song does imply these thing are America. So you could make the judgment either way.

      I personally don’t like the Atkins song – and I didn’t listen to the Sullivan song – and right off the top of my head, I can’t think of any great list songs. Though I’m sure there are some out there …

    • Chris April 4, 2009 at 10:47 am

      I can see what you mean Razor, but by Atkins saying “It’s (insert random image here)” he really is saying these things are America, and when looked at critically, it’s a very silly thing to say in every way.

      • Razor X April 4, 2009 at 11:00 am

        Absolutely. It’s silly and it’s a poorly-written song. I just don’t see it as a song that is putting down the rest of the world, though.

        • J.R. Journey April 4, 2009 at 11:02 am

          I don’t take the message that far either.

          But I definitely agree it’s a bad song. And it just doesn’t make any sense. It appeals to the lowest common denominator.

  2. J.R. Journey April 4, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I had almost forgotten, but I wrote about this song when it was first released, comparing it to other patriotic songs.

    Read it here.

  3. Occasional Hope April 4, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I think the children selling lemonade thing really might be an America-specific thing. I’m not sure about the geographical distribution of fireflies, but I don’t think we have them in the UK.

    • Razor X April 4, 2009 at 11:14 am

      No, I think it’s too cold for fireflies in the UK. We don’t usually see them here in the northeastern US until July or August, at the peak of summer.

      You don’t have proper lemonade, either. 😉 The stuff you call lemonade, we call ginger ale.

      • Occasional Hope April 4, 2009 at 11:23 am

        Really? It’s not very ginger-tasting, although I admit it’s not very lemony either – faintly artificial sweetness more than anything.

        • Razor X April 4, 2009 at 11:31 am

          To be honest, it’s been such a long time since I tasted it, I really don’t remember. I think it’s got a less strong taste than ginger-ale, but that’s about the closest thing I can compare it to. The first time I visited England, when I was 9 years old, someone asked me if I wanted some lemonade, and I was expecting the kind of lemonade I was used to at home. Not that there was anything wrong with what I got; it just wasn’t what I’d call lemonade. But we’re getting way off topic here … 😉

  4. Chris April 4, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Razor:
    I didn’t say he’s trying to put down the rest of the world, but the song does perpetuate that kind of attitude- I never said he was aiming for that. It just has that sort of attitude that America is the best country out there, when that comes across as awfully ignorant.

    Occasional:
    That does kind of make sense, I never noticed that. xD

  5. Erik April 4, 2009 at 11:35 am

    “It’s America” is what we un-Americans hate about America.

  6. Leeann Ward April 4, 2009 at 11:37 am

    I’m not against list songs as a rule. There are alot of bad, pandering list songs out there though, with the Atkins song being one of them. I think that’s the problem with so many list songs, the goal is to appeal to as many people as possible, because someone is bound to relate to something on the list. With that said, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” is a song that employs the list form and it even has something for everyone, but it still works for me. The thing about it is that it wasn’t lazy. It managed to sincerely capture how everyone felt in their various outlooks on the situation.

    I know there are other great list songs in country music, so I’ll have to chew on it for a bit.

  7. Leeann Ward April 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Yeah, you’re right, Razor. It seems too easy when everyone’s doing it.

  8. Michael April 4, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Chris, you’re right on the money regarding Atkins’ latest single.

  9. Brady April 4, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I’m not really seeing the claim of arrogance in regards to “It’s America,” so you’re gonna have to explain that one a little better. However poor the song is, it’s simply a celebration of one’s country and doesn’t put any other countries down in the process.

    As for list songs, they aren’t all bad, but the argument goes beyond the simple claim of lazy songwriting. Typically, they have no goal in mind except mass appeal and in doing so, they lose any sort of interestingness. In their quest for broad appeal, they simply list a bunch of unrelated items hoping that the listener will identify with just 10% of the song, because if they can do that, then the listener will usually overlook the other 90% and consider it to be “so true.” Psychics rely on the same sort of behavior to dupe undiscerning participants.

    Choosing a R&B song really just says you’re more familiar with a particular song in that genre rather than saying much about country music. You just need to expand your range and depth of country music knowledge to find examples of good songs. Off the top of my head, Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Guy Clark’s “Hank Williams Said It Best,” and “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” by Kristofferson all employ lists to an extent.

    • J.R. Journey April 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm

      Great points, Brady. I don’t think the song should be taken so literally myself. I mean, it’s just a ‘lazy’ song as several people have said – meant to appeal to as many people as possible.

      And as I said before, I think you could make a judgment either way as to whether the song is ‘arrogant’ in speaking about America. I don’t think that was the intention, but if people feel that way, then certainly something about the song itself is conveying these feelings.

    • Chris April 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm

      I completely see your points Brady- I know there are so many songs in country music that I don’t know, especially since I only know recent songs, since I’ve only been into country for 2 years now. I think it was just the first list song that popped into my head, and I’ve been listening to her CD a lot recently.

      I did think of one other good list song- “Love” by Sugarland. It isn’t even really country though, so it doesn’t count for much, but it is a really good song.

      I think about the arrogance, I might be reading into the song a little bit too much, but it’s still that attitude of “America is always the best, no matter what”. It just comes off as ignorant of the reality of what America is, and the images are too simplistic to paint an accurate picture of America.

      • Brady April 5, 2009 at 5:12 pm

        I certainly agree that the images are too simplistic to paint an accurate picture of America and even your assertion from the article that most of what’s listed can describe other countries just as easily, but that’s a totally different argument than saying there’s an identifiable air of arrogance in the song. Atkins certainly comes across as proud of his country, but that’s not nearly arrogant.

        Aside from quality, what makes a song like this arrogant over a song like “America the Beautiful” which has a line like “God shed his grace on thee?” Or is that one arrogant as well?

        I don’t mean to harp on the arrogant claim and I’m not trying to discredit you, Chris, but I’d hate to think being proud of one’s own country would be deemed arrogant.

        • Chris April 5, 2009 at 6:09 pm

          About “America The Beautiful”, that lyric is a little out of context:

          O beautiful for spacious skies,
          For amber waves of grain,
          For purple mountain majesties
          Above the fruited plain!
          America! America!
          God shed his grace on thee

          In that song, literal images of the beauty of America’s landscape are listed, and that is the “proof” of God’s grace- a coherent and logical lyric. “America The Beautiful” goes on to describe pilgrims and patriots, things that really do distinguish America from other countries and make it unique. This is in contrast to the images in Atkins’ inane song that don’t convey much about America at all. Comparing the two is comparing two different things because one song has good specific images that portray the real spirit of America’s origins, and the other has stupid images that make no sense. Is that a good explanation?

        • Brady April 5, 2009 at 10:34 pm

          It certainly works as an explanation of why “America the Beautiful” is a better song, which I don’t deny, but doesn’t say anything about arrogance. Anyways, I really do hate to harp on this, so I won’t say anything else about it.

    • Leeann Ward April 4, 2009 at 8:55 pm

      I really like “I’ve Been Everywhere” too, but I kinda think it’s in the danger zone of being lame as well.

      • Brady April 5, 2009 at 5:13 pm

        Just curious as to what you think is lame about it, Leeann.

        • Leeann Ward April 5, 2009 at 6:33 pm

          That it names every imagineable place to fit rhyme scheme. If it weren’t for the catchy melody, I don’t know that I’d go for it. Even my little town is in the song, which is fun, but strange.

          I was totin’ my pack along the long dusty Winnemucca road,
          When along came a semi with a high an’ canvas-covered load.
          “If you’re goin’ to Winnemucca, Mack, with me you can ride.”
          And so I climbed into the cab and then I settled down inside.
          He asked me if I’d seen a road with so much dust and sand.
          And I said, “Listen, I’ve traveled every road in this here land!”

          [Chorus:]
          I’ve been everywhere, man.
          I’ve been everywhere, man.
          Crossed the desert’s bare, man.
          I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.
          Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
          I’ve been everywhere.

          I’ve been to:
          Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
          Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
          Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
          Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
          Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
          Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla, I’m a killer.

          [Chorus]

          I’ve been to:
          Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana,
          Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana,
          Monterey, Faraday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa,
          Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa,
          Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake,
          Grand Lake, Devils Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete’s sake.

          [Chorus]

          I’ve been to:
          Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika,
          Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica,
          Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport,
          Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport,
          Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina,
          Pasadena, Catalina, see what I mean-a.

          [Chorus]

          I’ve been to:
          Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
          Ellisburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado,
          Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika,
          Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika,
          Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City,
          Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.

          [Chorus]

  10. Razor X April 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I’m not sure if this is a list song in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s much better than most of the list songs we’ve been inundated with lately:

    http://www.last.fm/music/George+Strait/Somewhere+Down+in+Texas/Texas

    • J.R. Journey April 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm

      I think that song is a great example of a good list song – especially given the aspects of this conversation. The Strait song lists all the great things about Texas, much like the Atkins song tries to do with America. But the Strait song lists things specific to Texas and the hook is what really brings the point home, ‘if it wasn’t for Texas’. ‘It’s America’ doesn’t have a clever hook and the things it mentions are very vague and general.

      George Strait likely didn’t record ‘Texas’ with the intention of appealing to the masses though. So it doesn’t have to pander.

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