“What are You Gonna Tell Her?”
Written by Victoria Banks, Emma-Lee, Mickey Guyton, and Karen Kosowski
One of the most common and most infuriating responses to the actual data regarding the lack of airplay for women on country radio is that, rather than being granted equal time, women should simply have equality of opportunity. It’s an argument that comes almost exclusively from men and, frankly, from men who have bought the lie that feminism isn’t about true equality for everyone but is, instead, about an overcorrection that would give women the upper-hand, as though rights and freedoms are a zero-sum game.
As Mary Chapin Carpenter sang two generations ago: “The stars might lie, but the numbers never do,” and the numbers irrefutably prove that there is no equality of opportunity in a system wherein the status quo always favors one group at the expense of another. That’s hard for some of my fellow white men to accept, but shrugging your shoulders in defense of that status quo is, at this point in our (pop-)cultural history, an admission that you’re fine with discrimination simply because it’s always been part of the system.
Mickey Guyton, for one, has had enough of that system. And there’s no ignoring the fact that Guyton, currently the only woman of color signed to a major label with designs on a mainstream country career, is uniquely positioned to push back. While many other women of color thrive under the genre’s “big tent,” there are historically and presently very few women who look like Mickey Guyton vying for country radio airplay alongside countless interchangeable white post-bros.
Make no mistake: Country radio, barring intervention from one of iHeartMedia’s “On the Verge” promotions, isn’t going to play Guyton’s new single, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her.” She’s cracked the top 40 just once to date, and, despite a recent anomaly in which three women (Maren Morris, Ingrid Andress, and Gabby Barrett) all landed in the top 10 concurrently, there’s little evidence to suggest that women are faring any better now than at any point in the last five years.
“What Are You Gonna Tell Her” addresses that discrimination head-on. Guyton sings of a young girl who has been raised to believe in equality of opportunity. The aspirations Guyton sings about range from the innocent and fanciful (“love is love,” “everyone gets their ‘ever after’,” and “you just dream, and anything can happen”) to the all-too-specific (“she could be the President,” and “skin’s just skin and it doesn’t matter,” and “her friend’s older brother’s gonna keep his hands to himself” and “somebody’s gonna believe her when she tells”). What ties all of those dreams together is that they’re actively ingrained into girls from an early age. And, far too often, they’re not based in reality.
What impresses most about “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” in terms of its songwriting is that it is, at heart, a protest song, and what Guyton is protesting are broad social systems that have set generations of girls and young women up for failure and disappointment. Parents tell their children to follow their dreams, sure, but what of the teenage girl who heard Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift on the radio and dreamt of her own future as a country star? Hard data says that the system gives her an infinitesimally small chance of that happening, and country radio executives and program directors, to this day, claim that it’s either a problem invented wholesale by people looking to be outraged about something online or that women aren’t making good enough music.
To which: Bullshit and then bullshit, again. Guyton knows the reality because she’s lived it. She’s released extraordinary music– look for her name when we roll out our Best Singles of the Aughts feature shortly– and seen it make little to no headway at radio, and she’s certainly savvy enough to look at her contemporaries and see the same struggles time after time.
Still, this single isn’t just about Guyton’s first-hand experiences. Her focus is broader because these specific types of barriers and disappointments are enumerable. The real miracle of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” then, is that Guyton delivers her powerful message as a stately and beautiful piano ballad. She knows that to speak this particular truth-to-power with a Burn Down the Patriarchy fury would immediately overshadow the content of her message because then she’d just be accused of embodying the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. Instead, the production here is spare: She’s accompanied by only a piano until the final chorus, which keeps the focus entirely on her lyrics and performance.
Guyton’s performance is a marvel of complexity. In the verses, her voice quavers with empathy for the young women whose experiences she describes. With each repetition of the chorus, her delivery grows more emphatic: Initial disappointment gives rise to indignance and then to resentment. She’s always had a powerful voice, but Guyton continues to mature in her ability to unleash her power at the most opportune times when it is truly in-service to her songs.
The lyrics hinge on the impact of the titular question: “What are you gonna tell her when she’s wrong?” Notable in that line is Guyton’s certainty that the young women she’s singing about will be wrong. It isn’t a conditional “if;” it’s a definitive “when.” The follow-up is the real kicker, though, “Will you just shrug and say it’s been that way all along?” The implication of the song’s chorus is a gut-check: To accept things as they are is to reject the idea that they can and should be better and that we should want them to be better, if not for ourselves then certainly for our friends, neighbors, and children.
Yes, there’s a powerful element of intersectional feminism at play here. But on an even more fundamental level, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” is a song about what it means to be moral in contemporary society. To that end, it’s no surprise that Guyton leaves her central question open-ended. There aren’t any pat answers, and the question itself is one that lingers and inspires.