On Friday (10-3) Garth Brooks unveiled the cover art and title to his first album in 14 years called Man Against Machine set to be released on November 11th through RCA/Pearl, and almost immediately the cover and accompanying quote had the country music populous buzzing. Garth strikes a much different pose on the Man Against Machine cover than we’re used to from him, almost like the image you would see of a wrestler right after he switches from the good side to the bad—all in black with a tough and defiant countenance. Even more interesting is the quote offered up with the album announcement.
“Music has always been a reflection of where mankind is at the time. For 14 years, I have watched heart and soul, dreams and individualism, fighting for their very existence in a world of increasing technology. This album is a reminder to all those who dream, work, and fight for what they believe; do not give up your vision.”
So wait a second here, what exactly is Garth Brooks saying?
Ever since Garth Brooks began hinting at his comeback, country music pundits have been hypothesizing about what type of impact Garth’s return could have on the music. Would he be the one to save country music by returning a more traditional sound to the top of the mainstream? And wouldn’t this be ironic since many finger Garth as the one who started country music on its downward spiral? Garth has already iterated that he won’t be chasing trends like Bro-Country or hick hop. But maybe he does have lofty plans for his triumphant return beyond simply re-starting his career. The Garth quote certainly seems to allude to this. But it also seems to allude to a much deeper, and more difficult charge.
Embedded in this Garth quote and in the very title and cover art to his new album seems to be a belligerent war cry against the technology which has sent the entire music industry, not just country, into an economic tailspin, sapping the revenue that recorded music can generate, and tying up courts in endless rights cases that ultimately will decide the future of how music is monetized, if it is allowed to be. In other words, Garth Brooks with this proclamation isn’t just looking to save country music, he’s looking to save music in general.
Technology and the advent of music downloading and now music streaming has created a dilemma of historic, and potentially momentous proportions as the industry teeters on solvency and struggles to figure out how to sustainably monetize streaming. Even with the meager revenues music is generating, massive companies like Apple are looking to re-negotiate rates even lower for music. What is Garth’s plan for solving all of this? His GhostTunes alternative to iTunes has been laughed at by many technologists, but it remains uncertain if Garth is truly wanting to change the music buying paradigm with the new technology, or simply to offer a digital alternative for his own music specifically without all the trappings of iTunes (the inability to sell albums cohesively, and the ability to bundle products).
It may be November 11th before we learn the full breath of Garth Brooks’ plans, or at least how successful they are. But in the meantime the cover for his new album presents its own curiosities and discussion points, principally, what the hell is going on here? Garth seems so out-of-place within himself—even for Garth. He’s always been flattered with his face on a cover, but the image presents this weird, almost anachronistic vision that is in opposition to the ball cap and hoodie Garth we’ve gotten used to over the last dozen years, and makes even more of an oddity out of the song he chose for the album’s lead single “People Loving People” which sets its eyes on world peace (but can’t even crack the Top 20 in country radio play yet).
1. Sunglasses — What seemingly every aging celebrity who refuses to face their own dwindling time on earth dons as if it’s ageless armor.
2. Goatee — The dead giveaway of the average white male trying to be edgy.
3. Crossed Arms — We’ve all seen Garth Brooks lately, and his 14-year retirement has made him somewhat doughy. Yet he crosses his arms here, and his forearms look like Popeye’s, and his pectoral muscles look toned. We know better, Garth.
4. UnderArmour-Style Stretch Shirt — Please. Garth Brooks doesn’t need to be sporting anything with over 40% Spandex material content.
5. Phiten Necklace — Regularly seen being worn by professional baseball players, Phiten claims to be able to liquify titanium and infuse it into their nylon necklaces, giving athletes and everyday individuals physiological benefits such as improved strength, dexterity, faster recovery time, and mental clarity. Though the claims of the necklace maker have never been proven through scientific study, many users swear by the health accessory’s benefits. Phiten necklaces have become a favorite of Garth recently (even stimulating this fake story from SCM about Garth’s hope of their powers).
6. Menacing Cogs & Sprockets in the Background — Almost like they’re coming to get Garth, and Garth is standing tough.
7. Mud-Spattered Font — To again project this tough guy image.
8. Big Black Cowboy Hat — The only thing that feels appropriate to both Garth, and a country album cover.
Is Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks, really trying to present himself as some anti-industry tough-skinned rebel rouser, or dare I say, a country music Outlaw? Especially after years of being one of the most commercially-centric music artists the world has ever seen? Or is something else entirely going on here, where instead of fighting the industry (i.e. “The Machine”), Garth is actually fighting for the industry by trying to return its ability to monetize its products, and the “Machine” is technology that has eroded those revenue channels and rewarded the public with free music? Or is it something in-between, where Garth sees both the plight of the industry, and the artists who’ve fallen under one of the most authoritarian regimes country music has ever seen because of the constrains the technology paradigm has put the industry under? Is Garth Brooks calling out the “Machines” such as Auto-Tuners and electronic drum sequencers that have blighted the country music landscape with digital intrusions?
Whatever the case may be, and we’re sure to find out soon enough, once again Garth appears to be a little off when it comes to the presentation. The album cover just presents Garth as slightly out of touch to the styling and sensibilities of today. It’s very late 90’s feeling, done in a wrestling motif. And it bolsters the concern that Garth may be surrounded by yes men who don’t have the guts to give him the constructive criticism he needs like saying, “Garth, how about you go with a little bit more understated cover, and let the music speak for itself?”
If nothing else, Garth Brooks and Man Against Machine promise to be nothing but interesting.