On occasion, All Shook Down gives a listen to the music that is to real America what brine is to a cucumber. This is one of those occasions.
Eric Church, "Homeboy"
There's a fine bit of bullshit in Jay-Z's Decoded, that tony slab of image-sprucing book art in which the man who once bragged about leaving condoms on Nas' baby seat makes so nice that he got invited to chat with Terry Gross on NPR. (He charmed her and probably moved some units.)
Still, there's something fascinating about a pop musician insisting that what's reprehensible isn't the lyrics that he spits but the lyrics the audience hears.
I expect a switcheroo like that might make Eric Church still feel like a good person despite having co-written and belted the new single "Homeboy," which pretty much denounces stereotypical hip-hop/gangsta behavior as the antithesis of everything good about small-town American life.
The first lines ridicule a small-town loser for his "hip-hop hat" and his "pants on the ground." The second verse assails this schmoe -- the narrator's brother -- for thinking the "fake gold" in his teeth has "the hood here snowed." Then Church calls him "homeboy" -- pissily, the same way people say "Sherlock" after "no shit" -- and reminds the homeboy that "there ain't no shame" in living "a small-time story" out at the lake with "a blue-collar forty."
There's a book's worth of cultural studies gold to be mined from that last signifier: How is one cheap-ass piss-swill malt liquor pure and "blue-collar," while another is the choice of wannabe gangsters? And there's a tweet's worth of lyric-writing criticism to be dug from it too: "Hey, homeboy, 'forty' don't rhyme with 'story,' @ericchurchmusic."
That detail suggests a truth of America too rarely acknowledged: When it comes to poverty, or to drug running (which the song implies), or angry young men turning on their families, the difference between small-town and big-town, between meth and crack, is -- at best -- demographic.This problem perseveres wherever boys face too little real opportunity.
Church's song draws a casual equivalence between homeboys' crimes and homeboys' hip-hop affectations: as if one necessarily follows the other.
But then Church lets himself off the hook. The final verse drops the antihip-hop talk in favor of specific complaints that anybody could get behind: "Homeboy" should be helping out on the farm instead of worrying his family and running the risk of jail time. He should be helping take care of aging parents, one of whom seems touched with Alzheimer's. He should "come on home, boy," as Church sings, cutely, patly, and -- to be fair -- somewhat memorably. It's turns of phrase like that that endear country music (and musical theater) to their audiences.
Still, it's a "99 Problems" switcheroo. Technically, the song isn't about a conflict between what we think of as black and white culture. It's about one particular ne'er-do-well in one particular family. But there's a gulf between a song's avowed intentions and the way that song is likely to be received, and in this case there's no way around it: "Homeboy" certainly sounds like a white dude laying out the rules for how it is that white dudes should dress.
Oh, yeah, there's music too. Bizarre music: first an earnest acoustic Southern rock riff, then plinkety banjo and pizzicato strings that swoop in from an XTC record or some damn thing, then electric power chords and a "November Rain" guitar solo and a general sound like someone thought to mash up the Verve and Hank Jr., just by playing both at the same time.
"99 Problems" crushes it.