“Real Men Love Jesus”
Written by Brad Warren, Brett Warren, Lance Miller, and Adam Sanders
Its title is lifted from a bumper sticker, and the song itself offers just as much depth.
“Real Men Love Jesus,” the second single by Michael Ray, avoids the clichés of bro-country, which means that the song, like Florida-Georgia Line’s “Dirt” and Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer” before it, stands to be praised as something far greater than it actually is on its own merits. More than anything else, “Real Men Love Jesus” is a throwback to those halcyon days of 2008, when contemporary country songwriting became defined by songs that consisted almost entirely of lists of lifestyle signifiers rather than fully-realized characters or purposeful narratives that reflected anything insightful about human experiences.
Here, Ray uses his not-quite-on-pitch baritone to rattle off a list of predictable gender stereotypes that allegedly characterize “real men.” To the surprise of absolutely no one, these include but are not limited to: fishin’, fast cars, livin’ (way too long pause) out on the edge so far they’re gonna need forgivin’, football, cowboys, outlaws, Saturday nights out on the town, Sunday Morning Comin’ Down, mama, a cold beer in a dirty hand, and so on for what feels like ad infinitum.
The production avoids recent EDM-inspired trends and, instead, is a fairly run-of-the-mill take on modern country that doesn’t stray too far from the Blake Shelton mold. Ray’s voice is unremarkable and lacks a distinctive tone or timbre that could differentiate him from any of the genre’s other up-and-coming, would-be heartthrobs, but his performance is at least committed and conveys sincerity. Unfortunately, neither of those attributes is enough to elevate the song beyond a rote list of broad generalizations.
It all seems harmless enough at first blush, but, ultimately, what’s troubling about a song like “Real Men Love Jesus” is how it falls in-line with contemporary country’s tendency toward othering. As recently as the early 2000s, popular country music was still interested in drawing from a variety of authentic first-person experiences that allowed artists the opportunity to communicate with and on behalf of a wide range of potential fans. What the “bro” country trend and its subsequent shift toward dance-oriented music accomplished was a streamlining of country artists and audiences. The endless barrage of tailgate-and-dirt-road-party songs have been every bit as interchangeable as the brigade of lookalike artists peddling them, and the sum effect is to say that country music is by and for only one type of person.
“Real Men Love Jesus” is a song that, while avoiding the exact sounds and images popularized by Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell and Chase Rice et. al., nevertheless doubles-down on the idea of exclusion. The song clearly defines groups who are in and out, and there’s an explicit superiority and privilege granted to the “real men” the song describes. And country music in 2015 simply doesn’t need any more unexamined social privilege. Michael Ray may be trying to differentiate himself from the bros who came before him, but “Real Men Love Jesus” puts him squarely in their company as someone trying to define who is allowed to respond to his art and to count themselves among country music fans.