Review: Chuck Wicks, “Man of the House”

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January 9, 2009

chuck-wicks-backYou 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

Grade: D

Listen: Man of the House


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  1. BradyNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t want to have my sympathy raped 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…

    You speak strong medicine. Good stuff, but I feel violated just reading it. And I agree with you on the song. I haven’t seen anything from Wicks or his 5 o’clock shadow that suggest he’s capable of thinking, much less crafting, anything on a meaningful level.

  2. AaronNo Gravatar says:

    Dang, this guy can’t catch a break from you guys huh??

    So I’ll admit that I kind of like this song. It’s one of my favorites from his album probably because I was a bit “fooled” by the song. I don’t know, I did end up to feel sorry for the kid being portrayed in the song. I think it was because I not only saw the boy in the song, but also, all the other kids that are going through a similar thing right now. I guess if you bring kids into the mix then it sure can cause a listener to say “awww” (which I did upon hearing this song).

    I like the song, but I don’t see it doing anything for Chuck. I think it’ll be a flop because to me it doesn’t sound “radio” enough to be a single.

    By the way, is someone going to review Carrie Underwood’s next single, “I Told You So,” anytime soon?? I’m interested to see what the writers here think about it.

  3. Matt B.No Gravatar says:

    Dan,

    That was quite the passionate response to this song! I see your points and actually expected many in the blogosphere to have a general opinion as yours (that it feels contrived). I, on the other hand, felt completely different and as much as I wanted to dislike the song (I barely listened to Chuck’s album and only knew the singles), I couldn’t. There’s just something about it, be it the vocal delivery, soothing melody or some other factor I can’t name. I also don’t think that it’s contrived but rather just a short story song that used the military metaphor only because it fit in our times.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Aaron,
    I’m surprised that you don’t think this sounds like it would fit on the radio. I don’t know if it will, but it really sounds like the stuff that radio loves to play, which isn’t a compliment coming from me.

    Dan,Dang it, those are some strong words!

  5. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I do realize my response is a bit extreme, and I actually do understand how a lot of people may like this song anyway, because in some ways, I kind of like it. That’s the thing – it affects me even though I’m aware of all the places where I think it’s actively trying to affect me, which I take offense at. That’s a weird place to find yourself.

  6. Greg MNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, the negative vibe coming from here lately has been kind of stunning. Hopefully one of the writers can review a song in which they really liked just to know that there is some positive coming out of country music.

    As for this song, I have a question. Why is the mom portrayed as lazy? I mean it sounds like the kid is doing all the work, but what is the mom doing. What if the Kid was raised to be responsible and do that or doesn’t have an interest in video games. This song comes across as too judgemental on a kid in a subjective way that, emotionally, leaves me on the outside. I’m sure radio will love this, but I do kind of see your points Dan. Personally, musically, while the lyrics leave much to be desired, the melody and the song itself is sung well. As a compromise, I probably would have given it a C.

  7. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Ha, Greg, I’m just waiting for a good song to be released to radio right now. The singles certainly are disheartening.

    I had the same thought about the mom in this song. She really does seem to be portrayed as an inactive part of the family. I don’t think it was done intentionally, but it does seem like some poor songwriting…unless it was intentional.

    Interestingly, I don’t know if it was Dan’s review or what, but the song did not elicit any kind of emotion from me except annoyance.

  8. AaronNo Gravatar says:

    Leann,
    Yea I don’t know what it is with this song. I just don’t see it doing that well on the radio. As for a reason, I can’t really put my finger on it. I like the song but there’s just something that makes me feel that it isn’t a “radio” song. I can see where you think radio will eat this one up, but I just don’t think it’ll happen. I’ll have to listen and think about it some more.

  9. AaronNo Gravatar says:

    Dang I forgot I wanted to comment on the whole lazy mom thing!!

    Yea when I first listened to it, I just kind of got the impression that the mother was depressed. I just thought she couldn’t handle the fact that her husband is gone so all she does is just lay around the house depressed, leaving the son to kind of take over things while she deals with the reality of the situation. That was my interpretation of it.

  10. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I think the mom sleeping on the couch is supposed to indicate that she’s exhausted – like she was running around trying to do lots of things and finally crashed there instead of making it up to her bed, which would somewhat justify the son thinking he had to help out more. But the depressed thing works, too. Either way, I think it’s done pretty sloppily.

    The only way I can see radio rejecting this is if they find it all a bit too sappy. It would seem like Wicks still has a fair amount of momentum, and this is a pretty distinctive song.

    Greg actually a raises a point I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the review – I actually like Wicks’ singing on parts of his songs, this one included. His tone is very vanilla, but I like moments of his phrasing, although he goes overboard with the melodrama way too frequently for me to feel entirely comfortable saying that publicly. His least offensive songs thus far have been like listening to Rascal Flatts with a less grating lead voice, which at least makes for some really well-constructed ear candy (I’m thinking specifically of “All I Ever Wanted” here).

  11. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I thought more depressed than lazy too. I really didn’t get that she was exhausted though. If she was exhausted, they could have made that more clear and they seemed to avoid that idea altogether by having her do nothing throughout the whole song except falling asleep on the couch. In fact, if I remember correctly, that’s where she spends her time throughout the entire song. As Dan said, sloppy writing though.

    Wick’s voice is pleasant, I’ll give him that.

  12. Cowboy BleauNo Gravatar says:

    Dan I think you might have gone a little to into it personally there man. I admit the song isn’t persfect, but i disagree with your critical reception of the first over third person. I think it makes for a good song of observation rather than presentation.

  13. CMWNo Gravatar says:

    Dan, this is fantastically astute. To quote you, you’re pretty much a writing gangster.

  14. Matt B.No Gravatar says:

    The mother in this song was probably both exhausted and depressed. someone who is constantly tired, sleeps in, goes to bed early and naps all the time (and isn’t below 5 and over 70) would be considered clinically depressed. When you add in that the mother is probably fearful of losing her husband to war into the equasion along with all the stuff that used to fall on two sets of shoulders now firmly down on hers, we get the idea of where this song was probably coming from w/r/t the mom. At least that’s my take on it (my own mother was depressed while growing up, despite not being like the mom in this song). My image of my mom growing up is sleeping on the couch, no matter what time of day it was.

  15. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yeah, it makes sense that she was depressed. I wish the writers had developed it better or had left it out somehow though, because people may easily assume otherwise. As Dan said, sloppy writing.
    As far as the first over third person observation, I’m with Dan there. There are exceptions, of course, but when you’re trying to tug at people’s heart strings it seems more genuine to do it in the first person and more contrived to do it from the third…for the reasons that Dan has already stated so well. I had never really thought of it that way before, but a light went on when I read it here. Gary Allan would have lost all of his street cred if that “Tough Little Boys” song had been sung in the third person. However, since he sang it in the first, it would be kind of like laughing at the tough guy when something made him tear up. You just don’t do that. By the way, I never really liked “Tough Little Boys”, but I see why it still worked out for Allan anyway.

  16. LynnNo Gravatar says:

    I LOVE the passion Dan! While many might feel it’s negative (and it is to a certain extent), it’s also very constructive criticism. You didn’t just tear down, you explained how it could be improved. You explained what the listener wants to hear. I have a feeling, however, that your rant encompassed more than just this one single…si?

    If so, you definitely put into words my general unease with the material on country radio these days. It feels like Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. However, I’ve long outgrown the Chicken Soup books. I want something with hard-earned, honest emotion, not just a song comprised of a string of banal commonalities designed to pull heart strings and recorded with the sole intention of selling records. Music lovers understand the difference and they hate being manipulated. This feels like manipulation.

    Keep it up!

  17. PeterNo Gravatar says:

    I still think he sounds like Richie Macdonald and I’ve yet to hear one of his songs that didn’t remind me of something Lonestar would’ve recorded

  18. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I really appreciate that, CM. Cheers.

    Cowboy Bleau, my point with the first person/third person thing wasn’t that I think third-person songs are always impersonal and carelessly drawn like I think this one is. That was just the mental process of how I came to that conclusion about this song, which may be confusing. I guess what I was saying is that I think mainstream country has fallen into a habit of writing third-person songs like this one (another good example: Heidi Newfield’s new single) where the “distant” perspective of the narrator allows the characters to be poorly sketched or predictable or one-dimensional without it hurting the narrator’s conscience the way a first-person song with the same problems might. I think there are jillions of third-person songs which don’t suffer from that problem at all, though.

  19. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks very much much for that, Lynn – and also Brady, who I forgot to thank earlier. You’re right that this rant is a little more broad than just this single. But this single really distills a lot of what I dislike about certain mainstream country (much of which you summarized quite well in your comment), so I thought the review would be an appropriate place to make note of those things.

  20. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent pieces like this are why I love country music blog so much. Dan’s the man!

  21. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Great, we have Dan fans.:)

  22. janetNo Gravatar says:

    Apparently the bloggers in here have not lived this life. This song is a refresher to families in this situation that they are not alone. It does not come across as the lazy or depressed mom. It is a mom that has a lot on her plate. There have been many times I have fallen asleep on the couch from staying up watching the news. As a wife of military, and a teacher that has many former students stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, you pay more attention to the news and when there is a bombing you wonder if you are getting that phone call. This song became a comfort to my 8 year old son. He listens to this song alot. Another friend and parent told me about this song and when we listened to it it was a blessing. Other daddy’s, just like his, have told their oldest son’s to take care of mom. These kids can relate. There’s not much an 8 year old can do, but he already has the chores of doing the dishes, and taking care of sister is important to him along with his little brother. It’s a shame that it has received such a negative view. Maybe if you were living the song in real life you would have a different attitude. But, each person has a right to their own opinions. I only want to make sure that somebody that is living it voices theirs on behalf of the mother and son.

  23. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and experience, Janet, and for doing it so respectfully. Even if I dislike the song myself, I’m certainly glad to hear that it has served such a positive purpose in your life and your son’s – that’s what’s really important, as far as I’m concerned.

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