While critics were showering Maren Morris with continuous praise and crowning Kelsea Ballerini the next Taylor Swift, a new young female miraculously slipped through the oligarchical wall made up of old and fat radio programmers who aren’t supposed to let anything with mammary glands through, and all of a sudden we have a new female demanding attention.
There are only four females total in the current country radio Top 40, and one of them is former American Idol contestant Lauren Alaina. She also happens to be holding the topmost spot for a female with her current single and the title track off of her second album Road Less Traveled. At this point, with the positive push behind the song and it already sitting at #4, there’s a chance chance it could hit #1, or at least climb from its current position before Sam Hunt’s putrefied “Body Like A Back Road” ensconces itself in the top spot for what promises to be an extended malaise of misogynistic mediocrity.
No matter what opinion one holds on Lauren Alaina’s “Road Less Traveled” song, to see a female not named Ballerini crack the Top 5 is a miracle in itself. Even Miranda Lambert, who is the most decorated country music female in history, and a bona fide current superstar couldn’t crack the Top 10 with her recent single “Vice,” even though it crested the consumption-based Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #2, speaking to the gulf between public appeal and radio play that continues to exist for female artists. Even “80’s Mercades” by Maren Morris, which for a moment felt like it was going to be the female version of “Cruise” and become a blockbuster, petered out surprisingly at #12 in airplay, and now they’ve given up on it altogether.
This proves just how remarkable the climb of “Road Less Traveled” has been, even up to this point. All of the think pieces, all of the organizations to support women in country music, and we’re still facing this dilemma. New female artists are not supposed to bust into the country Top 5, though Lauren Alaina is only “new” by the loose standards the ACM uses to nominate artists in their “Best New” categories (of which Lauren Alaina was one of this cycle). Alaina released her debut record six years ago. A few meandering singles later, it didn’t look like much would be made of her career, like most of the female prospects in mainstream country that rarely pan out. And then here comes “Road Less Traveled,” somehow defying odds. Alaina had never had a single even crack the Top 25. Now she’s accomplished something even Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood struggle with these days.
But just like the asterisks that go beside Kelsea Ballerini’s #1’s, it’s only a true victory if the single from a female is actually of quality, and is actually qualified even by a loose interpretation of standards to be considered country. And when it comes to “Road Less Traveled,” it’s doesn’t really carry either of those categories.
Yes, “Road Less Traveled” has a positive, uplifting, and empowering message, and let’s give it credit for that. This is so much better than Kelsea Ballerini’s innocuous and frapish “Hey Boy” or “Dibs,” or some Bro-Country selection sullying the country charts. But ultimately “Road Less Traveled” is cliché lyrics, formulaic production with its rising chorus, and not really in any way country. In fact it goes beyond country pop in the way urbanizes the production and certain annunciations. There’s nothing wrong with urban adult contemporary, unless you try to call it country. And this is ultimately where “Road Less Traveled” fails.
Frankly, these empowerment songs are dime and dozen cannon fodder when it comes to their creative aptitude. How many hundreds, if not thousands of times has this been done before? The phrase “The Road Less Traveled” comes from the bestselling self-help book by M. Scott Peck from the 70’s, which quickly became an oft-used colloquialism throughout culture. Since then, George Strait released an album called that, Preston Reed and Six Feet Deep did too. Melissa Etheridge had a Greatest Hits compilation called The Road Less Traveled, and I’m sure I’m missing dozens of other examples.
This doesn’t make the Lauren Alaina single ineffective in itself though. The bigger problem is when you dig down deep into the lyrics. On the surface the song seems to be attempting to inspire an empowering stance of taking control of one’s life and making history by believing in yourself and being bold in the face of what society thinks. But when you listen closer, “Road Less Traveled” is just as much about being uninhibited on the dance floor, and dressing as you want. “History is made when you’re acting the fool,” the song assures, but is this really true? Maybe bad history is made. There’s a difference between being yourself and being foolish, but “acting the fool” is a popular buzzphrase, so it’s shoehorned in to the detriment on the song. “Show what you got and just own it” and “Dress sizes can’t define, don’t let the world decide what’s beautiful” downgrades the importance of the “Road Less Traveled” message by adding the specificity of some anti-bullying song instead of letting subtly and story convey the message.
Sure, body image issues are important as well, and are big challenges for young women. But a more broad, overarching theme about being yourself in the face of criticism and adversity would cover these issues and many more. “Be yourself” is a much more important maxim than “Who cares if that dress makes you look fat?”
And this brings us to the other issue with these empowering songs, which is they’re often intertwined in mainstream music with the self-assuring “you’re perfect just as you are” message which frankly is untrue. Nobody’s perfect. You have a mole on your neck that kind of looks like Mickey Mouse, or you’re 15 pounds overweight, or your hair is thinning. If you really want folks to find confidence in themselves, don’t lie to them, or goad them to lie to themselves. The best music empowers people by letting them know they’re okay despite their flaws, or even better, inspires then to confront the flaws they can fix, not justify them by saying, “Hey, acting crazy is okay, because you’re perfect and the world is wrong.”
I hate to psychoanalyze Lauren Alaina’s pop song meant for the masses that probably is healthier than most of what they’re exposed to, especially through country radio. But these things are worth pointing out when saying that perhaps we should tap the brakes on bringing up “The Road Less Traveled” in Song of the Year discussions.
I’m glad there is a finally another female in the Top 5 of country radio, and I’m glad that it’s via a song that isn’t completely awful. But “Road Less Traveled” feels almost immediately forgettable aside from an infectious chorus. And as for Alaina’s Road Less Traveled album, it’s very much like the same story. The songs are better, but rarely good, the production is mostly adult urban contemporary, and it probably doesn’t belong categorized in country.
All the best to Lauren Alaina, and good for her for being able to stick her nose past the country radio female embargo, and for releasing a song and album that attempts to say something. But these type of songs aren’t the leadership in the mainstream we see from Kacey Musgraves, Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark, or Lori McKenna, they’re vehicles for workplace inspirational poster-style platitudes, and for incursions upon the roots of country in mainstream music.