January 9, 2009
You could write one heck of a great song by exploring the complex perspective of a boy who feels obligated to fill the void left in his family by his father’s engagement away from home. So why was this song written instead?
Look: it’s very easy to dismiss sap just for being sap. Wicks emerged onto the scene with a patented Critic’s Dartboard on his face thanks to the cute ‘n’ cuddly “Stealing Cinderella,” and this single, which finds its ten year-old protagonist doing dishes for his mom and pouring Cap’n Crunch for his sister, instead of “playing ball and video games,” certainly does some unsolicited yanking at the heartstrings (and the patriotism, as an added bonus: the father’s absence is the result of military involvement). So alright, that Dartboard probably won’t be coming off any time soon.
And yet, something about this song’s offense goes deeper than the fact that it’s just super-sweet. Something about it disturbed me in a way “Cinderella”‘s innocent (if overstated) portrayal of father-daughter affection never did. As I was trying to put my finger on exactly what the issue was, I asked myself why I liked certain other songs that could be thought to fit into the same “sappy” faction. I thought about John Michael Montgomery’s “Letters From Home.” And I thought about Gary Allan’s “Tough Little Boys.” How did they manage to be so unabashedly sentimental and still evade this kind of uncomfortable territory? Why didn’t I feel manipulated like this when I listened to those songs?
The clue that got me going was that both of them are told in the first-person. Well, of course. In the first-person, it’s much harder to tell anything but the uncompromised truth, even when your topic is potentially sappy. You become instinctively aware, as a singer, that you are speaking directly on behalf of the character you represent, and you feel uncomfortable singing anything that does not seem emotionally authentic from that perspective. Otherwise, it’s like lying about something you yourself did. It just feels wrong.
But in the third-person? In the third-person, the character can be whoever you need him to be. He doesn’t necessarily have to be authentic, and the way you present events that impact him doesn’t have to be authentic, so long as the story sounds somewhat plausible and makes its desired impact on the listener. Because your performance doesn’t really need to feel so personal if you’re just telling a story, just talking about someone else. Maybe even someone you basically made up. No big deal. A lot of songwriters write about people they’ve never met, right? Sure.
But here’s the thing: we’re not talking about some safe, flexible character here, like, say, a guy hoping to marry his girlfriend. We’re talking about a young child, a boy who has been thrust into the harshest sort of reality – the departure of a parent – long before he is ready to deal with such a thing. And that boy is not fit to be treated like a neutral piece of human-shaped Play-Doh in a songwriter’s head, no matter how good the writer’s intentions might be. That boy truly exists in many places in this country and others in the world, and at a higher rate than ever before, for reasons both military-related and not.
And quite frankly, I don’t want to hear what two guys with guitars assume about that boy’s feelings, or how he acts on them, or what he “oughta” be doing with his time as a boy. I don’t want to hear Chuck Wicks gush for four minutes about the parts of the boy’s life that elicit easy “awww”s before dumping the matter as soon as it’s time for a new mushy hit. I don’t want to hear that boy’s experience get reduced into a string of little tragedies that make me feel like I have no choice but to sympathize with him. I don’t want to have my sympathy ripped off of me like that, as though I’d be too stupid or cold to give it freely if the song simply gave me a bit of truth, a second of storytelling that didn’t sound like it came more from guesswork and calculation than from any kind of genuine, confessional experience.
I want to hear that boy speak for himself. Or I want to hear him spoken for by a narrator who can present his life without turning it into a cloying spectacle, the way hundreds of country songs have managed to with equally real, relevant characters. “Man of the House” might as well have “radio success” written between each and every contrived line, but don’t let its accessibility fool you into thinking it’s fair.
Because that boy deserves better.
Written by Mike Mobley & Chuck Wicks
Listen: Man of the House