Written by Mikal Blue, Danielle Bradbery, Johan Lindbrandt, and Shari Short
It’s rare that something comes along that manages to be both so inept in its execution and so appalling in its context and implications that it’s hard to know where even to begin to dissect its failings. The past several years have offered no shortage of indefensible country singles— from Chase Rice’s “Ready, Set, Roll” to David Fanning’s “Doin’ Country Right” to Hayley Georgia’s “Ridiculous”— but not even those atrocities were as pandering and just flat-out gross as “Friend Zone” by erstwhile The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery.
Simply as a piece of music, “Friend Zone” does literally nothing competently, let alone doing anything well enough to justify its release by an artist of even Bradbery’s marginal name recognition. The song kicks off with a chintzy drum-machine beat and phase-shifted funk guitars that would embarrass even Maroon 5 before Bradbery begins to speak-sing lines like, “Seconds on the clock/You need a touchdown” and “There’s never three strikes in love, you know,” that can’t even be bothered to keep their overworked, clichéd sports metaphors straight for the duration of a single verse. That the lyrics resort to the increasingly common trope of repeating words as filler (“I’m not talking smack/ You know there’s no pity pity”) because the writers couldn’t otherwise manage a straightforward 4:4 meter is further evidence of the quarter-assed writing on display here.
The song’s would-be lyrical hooks hinge on phrases that don’t match the natural meter of the language, emphasizing the wrong syllables of words (“She got you on the sideline”) and repeating words to make rhymes (“You think you’re flying toward the end zone/But you’re just heading toward the friend zone”), so the single isn’t even particularly catchy. That it has nothing at all to do with country music is hardly its greatest offense: Without a decent hook, “Friend Zone” doesn’t even work as a throwaway pop single.
Still, that chorus is some kind of masterstroke of songwriting and performance in comparison to the sort-of-rap break that follows it. The failed attempts at a rhyme scheme are simply beyond comprehension: “Let me break it down to the facts / You will never get a girl like that / You gotta step up to the plate with a bat / That’s all I’ve got to say about that.” Bradbery has never proven herself to be a strong interpretive singer, and she tries to adopt a taunting sneer on the last line here but ends up sounding like a petulant child. Not that there was ever any hope for “Friend Zone” being any better than it is, but Bradbery’s misguided performance choices somehow make the single even more unbearable.
To that end, “Friend Zone” would surely rank among the year’s very worst country singles if it existed in a vacuum. But its context is what makes it far more noxious than anything from the likes of Fanning, Georgia, McKenna Faith, or Michael Ray.
What the successes of RaeLynn and Kelsea Ballerini and the emergence of other acts like Georgia and Faith have all suggested is that the new strategy for attempting to break women into the country mainstream is to double-down on the limited perspectives on women that have been propagated by men. Rather than attempting to develop their own identities or points-of-view, what each of these women and their respective teams have done is to adopt the persona of every “Girl In a Country Song” or to define themselves in terms of men. In Bradbery’s own press leading up to the release of “Friend Zone,” it is even explicitly stated that her goal isn’t to be an artist in her own right but to be “the female Thomas Rhett.”
On “Friend Zone,” it isn’t just that Bradbery fails to create an identity of her own, it’s that she’s openly trying to co-opt the artistry of a man whose work has never been something worth emulating in the first place. The song is delivered in the second person, as Bradbery sings of how a man can avoid being relegated to the “friend zone,” which means that the man needs to change his tactics if he wants to, in Rhett’s lingo, get him some of that.
While she’s subsumed her own artistic identity to try to sound like a man, she’s doing so while directly appealing to the language of the Men’s Rights Activist movement.
To say that the song trades in problematic gender politics, then, is an understatement. Singing about how the man who is the subject of the song needs to “step up to the plate with a bat” may not be an overt invitation to violence, but the image itself is thoughtless and loaded with implications that seem to have been lost on Bradbery and her co-writers. Moreover, invoking MRA rhetoric in any form— the same “friend zone” and “red pill” garbage espoused by misogynist pick-up artists like Tucker Max and entitled, violent man-children like Elliot Rodger— speaks to the depth of contemporary country’s ongoing problems with women.
Far more than #SaladGate, it is the release of a toxic song like “Friend Zone” that is perhaps the most irrefutable proof of modern country music’s contempt for all women except for those who are eager to surrender their agency. Whatever charms Bradbery’s debut may have offered are utterly lost here, so it’s going to be a real challenge for her to rebound from releasing something as actively vile as “Friend Zone.”