Rascal Flatts Is the Worst Hugely Popular Music Act in America
Rascal Flatts is produced by the guy who played guitar on "Straight Up" by Paula Abdul.
That's not reason enough for them to be the worst hugely popular musical act in America, of course. After all, country fans don't much mind that today's typical Nashville hit sounds like all of previous pop balled up into 3:30 with a hint of twang, so why should it bug us?
No, the reason Rascal Flatts is the worst popular music act in America is how atrocious all those pop influences sound when wadded together and caterwauled over by Gary LeVox.
But let's start with that producer.
Before rising to prominence as one of Nashville's top hitmakers, Dann Huff played guitar in the Christian rock band White Heart, and then the pop-metal band Giant, which broke up once Nirvana wiped power ballads off rock radio. Huff also enjoyed an impressive run as a session guitarist, playing on Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night," and Bette Midler's soundtrack to Beaches, the record with "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Frankenstein those four songs together and you'll have a sound something like the three CDs Huff has produced for Rascal Flatts. A Flatts cut mixes together any of the following elements: Whitesnake's cocksure swagger, Jackson's pop-gospel triumphalism, DeBarge's empty-headed party boogie, and Midler's theatrical emotion. (Like Midler's, LeVox's vocals are so over-the-top they can see your house up there.)
In short, Flatts' seven number-one hits with Huff have the mad, magpied feel of mash-ups from some alternate '80s. On "Here," a Flatts No. 1 from 2008, there's the austere-to-grandiose build-up of Giant's power ballad "I'll See You in My Dreams."
On "Why Wait," a No. 1 from 2010, a glittery guitar figure echoing the bass shuffle from Michael Jackson's "The Way you Make Me Feel" loops endlessly beneath crisp power pop suggesting lesser Rick Springfield -- whom Huff, of course, once played with. (Slick, Springfieldian new-wave is also the primary mode of hat-eschewing country star Keith Urban, another artist produced by Huff.)
Of course, rote sonic signifiers tweak Huff's pop/rock numbers into something recognizable as country. Some off-the-rack fiddle might offer a measure or two of counterpoint at the end of a verse, and the whine of a pedal guitar might be layered in the guitars and synthesizers like a thin strata of clay in a rockbed.
Then, contemporary signifiers remind listeners these songs are of the now, rather than of the actual 1980s. The vocals often glisten with that silvery sheen of Autotune or a vocoder. To build drama, most of the instruments drop out for a breath or two before the final chorus, which than explodes like confetti from a cannon. Beneath all this there often thumps a rubbery dance beat out of those 1990s hits that Mutt Lange produced for his wife Shania Twain, whose global club-hit empowerment anthems were re-worked for different markets: country, pop, and world.
Huff, of course, played on Twain's Come On Over LP, and Lange, tellingly, also produced Def Leppard's Hysteria, a pioneering effort in making mass-market pop out of a genre act. Add a fiddle in there someplace, and tweak the lyric so it's about fidelity, and the Lep's "Pour Some Sugar On Me" could likely be a country No. 1 today.
Even fewer changes could flip pop hits of the past to 2011 country, from "Suspicious Minds" to "Black Velvet" to "I've Had the Time of My Life" to any ballad from any Disney movie to Tom Cochrane's hard-pop '91 hit "Life is a Highway," which, with its placeless road imagery, its impersonal exuberance, and its loud and sexless rock momentum always struck me as the progenitor of Rascal Flatts well before Rascal Flatts covered it for the soundtrack to Cars.
Once the retro-pop stew is cooked up, LeVox hollers thinly on top, his every note birthed in the sinuses. On "Easy" he works so hard sounds like he might pop something; on "Summer Nights," he offers Morris Day-style shout outs to the ladies and then to the fellas, and then he vaults up into an aiming-for-Journey falsetto scream that sounds less like Steve Perry than it does Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
So, the music is terrible. But it is still country, in its way, especially in the lyrics. For the first 90 seconds of "Why Wait," Gary LeVox seems to be singing a horny come-on in the tradition of the thousands of other horny come-ons that are the through line of American pop. LeVox insists that he and the woman he's singing to should "do something crazy," should "do it now" and "think about it later," and shouldn't "wait another minute" for something they "should have done yesterday."
Then, at the end of the chorus, he promises, "I know a little church with a preacher that could hook us up right away." LeVox's chipperness suits this chaste courtship, and the music likewise is keyed to celebrating rather than hungering.
The same goes for Keith Urban's giddy power-pop love songs "I Want to Kiss a Girl" (not any particular one). Imagine if Rick Springfield's Jessie were after some tangible woman the singer burns for but instead some idealized vision of womanhood itself, like Betty Crocker or a Dickens heroine. Perhaps a better name for producer Dann Huff's pop-country is "abstinence-only rock 'n roll."
Terrible, terrible abstinence-only rock 'n' roll.
Oh, Rascal Flatts also has its own clothing line at JC Penney.