Single Review: Danielle Bradbery, “Friend Zone”

“Friend Zone”
Danielle Bradbery

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.”

Grade: F

26 Comments

  1. I… Um… Er…
    I have no words, seriously. This makes FGL look good.

    (OT: the link to Guardian shows up as text, not hyperlink, you guys make want to check that)

  2. Yikes, this is a sweet young girl who should be singing songs like that. Don’t try so hard. She has a voice they just have to let her use it on a age/experience appropriate song. Feel bad for her- management needs to help her out.

  3. God awful song, singer and production. Par for the course on Music Row these days sadly, everything Music Row has touched lately has been even worse than normal lately in my book.

    Sadly this crap and whatever Kelsea Ballerini is peddling these days will get way more airplay than Ashley Monroe or Kacey Musgraves could dream of.

  4. Yikes! This is atrocious. Not country at all and pop would reject this song too!

    I would add Dibbs to the most horrible country songs this year list too. These ladies aren’t doing anything positive for the tomatoes increasing their airplay.

  5. Wow, sounds like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Danielle Bradbery executes this song beautifully with her strong vocals. This is an edgier sound from her, which is what is trendy these days. Until she is a big same like Lambert and Underwood, she needs to play the game to get radio play, and country/pop/rock is where it is at. Sounds like you just need to get used to it. It isn’t going away anytime soon.

  6. she needs to play the game

    I think you missed half the point, which is that the game itself is rigged with a bunch of BS rules that don’t benefit the genre or the artists and fans who really give a damn about it.

  7. First off, let’s focus on the positive here…this thing is so utterly atrocious that I can’t see it actually cracking the top 40. Yeah, I know there’s some REALLY bad stuff on radio currently…but, this is in a league of its own. It almost reminds me of that terrible thing this website reviewed earlier in the summer, which had Uncle Kracker and the lead singer of 90s band Sugar Ray singing on it, (and thankfully didn’t become a hit). Like Jon implies with his review, I can’t see anyone wanting to listen to this song, as it isn’t even good pop music.

    But, onto the more important aspect of this review. I recall reading an article on C.M. Wilcox’s website, Country California, when the “Salad-Gate” controversy was at full roar. I remember Keith Hill making comments to a reporter for the Washington Post, giving advice for how women need to “get better records in order to get airplay.” His advice on what to record was this:

    “They should look for hot, salted butter popcorn sonics for your ears; better crafted lyrics; and the production needs to be mainstream. If they did, radio stations would be playing them.”

    I checked back to the date of when those comments were made (June 7th), and looked at Billboard’s Country Airplay Charts. There were two solo female artists in the top 20: Carrie Underwood (who’s basically an automatic add to radio at this point), and Kelsea Ballerini’s debut song, “Love Me Like You Mean It”, which would end up going to number one. Right at the time I read those comments from Hill, Ballerini was the first person that came to mind. It almost seemed like his comments were using her as a template to other female artists, trying to convince them to record the same type of music that she did for her debut album.

    Now, I’m not trying to tear down Kelsea Ballerini. I didn’t like her debut single, or “Dibs”, but I’m not going to say she is without talent, and I understand that her music, whether it’s country or not, has an audience. But, I have a serious problem with radio executives trying to pigeonhole female artists, or telling them that they have to record in a certain style to get airplay. It’s not fair to Mickey Guyton, Ashley Monroe, Jana Kramer, Kacey Musgraves, or the countless other young female artists who don’t get as much airplay because their music may have a more traditional type of production, or might deal with more mature themes. Comments like that are basically an attempt to stifle individuality for female artists, and an effort to constrain them to a certain role. This doesn’t really effect Carrie and Miranda (at least not yet), as they’re mostly entrenched in radio at this point. But, I think that younger female artists that don’t conform to the image that music executives want are facing an uphill battle for “hit-making success”. Unfortunately, I think that speaks to some of the major themes of this review.

    Which brings us back to Danielle Bradbury. Listening to snippets of her debut album, there is a large stylistic difference between her first record and “Friend Zone”. I hope “Friend Zone” is just an anomaly and not a clear representation of her second album. But, if her second album is in the same vein as her current single…it’s clear where the change in her musical direction came from.

  8. I would also say that male artists are pigeonholed too. If you are not a bro-country or a latest trend chaser singer, then you are not being played on the radio. Radio has devolved into one approach only.

  9. Absolutely, CountryKnight. I almost included something about that into my previous comment, but I thought my post was already long enough to be a dissertation.

    But, yeah, I absolutely agree with you…I think it’s a problem for all artists. I guess what bothers me is that, in my opinion…some of the best, most interesting music being made right now is by female artists, who at one point in time would’ve gotten the airplay that they deserved. I could absolutely see Ashley Monroe or Brandy Clark’s ballads being successful in the 1990s, in the same way that Pam Tillis and Patty Loveless were successful. I think many of the younger female artists would fit right in with the singers who were garnering airplay in the late 1980s into the early 2000s. I’m not sure the same could be said of the more critically acclaimed male artists who are currently being snubbed at radio. I could maybe see Chris Stapleton or Mo Pitney having success in the 1990s, but I don’t think a singer like Sturgill Simpson would’ve ever really aspired for commercial success at any point over the last thirty years…nor do I think he would’ve gotten it. For some reason, it irks me more with the female artists, who are doing music that is the equal of previous artists that have had tremendous mainstream success.

  10. Observations:

    Not much I can say about the song beyond what’s already been said, but I do have this.

    At its most charitable interpretation, the guy in the song is a cheapskate who leaves his would-be girlfriend wondering about his intentions, which makes me wonder why she’d want to have ANYTHING to do with him, even a friendship. He doesn’t sound like even a very good friend.

    Also, a The Voice alumna? So, in other words, this is Blake “The Decider” Shelton’s leadership at work.

    If I am “Male Vocalist of the Year” that must mean that I’m one of those people now that gets to decide if it moves forward and if it moves on.

    Man, this is some moving forward. More like the movement of the intestine, if you know what I mean. Of course, such seems to mirror Shelton’s own music going down the toilet much like the aforementioned bowel movement.

    ===

    More generally…wow. I disconnected from mainstream country some time ago; I haven’t listened to country radio in more than five years now. The only country I listen to, the only country I buy, comes from the classic era of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and the Red Dirt movement from the ’90s up to now, along with folks like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. Pretty much the only exposure I get to to the mainstream anymore is via these single reviews. And for that, I salute you guys. Seriously. Every time I listen to one of these bad songs I just throw my hands up in complete disgust. I couldn’t give this or the other bad singles mentioned here a more in-depth review than “This is crap. Manufactured, processed crap. Next.” Let alone an analysis of, say the poisonous gender politics espoused therein.

    And finally, related to the “manufactured, processed crap” bit…is it just me, or is the mainstream component of the genre more disconnected from its roots than it’s ever been, with the computer-generated drumbeats and all? I mean, I get that the likes of Danielle Bradbury and Haley Georgia didn’t listen to Kitty Wells or Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, but is it really too much to ask for them to at least be familiar with the best of, say, Patty Loveless or Mary-Chapin Carpenter? Or for someone like Luke Bryan to have listened to and been more influenced by George Strait and Alan Jackson? It just seems to get worse and worse, all the time.

  11. I will never understand why country music gives record deals to folks who win singing competitions BECAUSE they can actually SING and then NOT let them sing !!!! To give away your identity and singing aspirations with crap like this is just a shame . Cow-towing to radio and labels will NEVER bring you any spiritual satisfaction when it comes to your talents and passions if you trade them away so cheaply and readily .

  12. I think you’re reading way too much into the lyrics. They’re stupid, but really, it’s a stretch to see something like “step up to the plate with a bat” as anything more than “you better get your head in the game if you want to get anywhere near first base, let alone a home run.”

    As a woman, I actually think it offers perfectly good advice for the 14 year old kids who appear to be the targeted demographic. Honestly, it’s more empowering than “You Belong With Me,” or whatever Taylor was singing about at Danielle’s age.

    My only issue is that it’s clearly a pop song performed by a teenager for other teenagers. Country music fans and actual adults are out of luck with this one.

  13. This is the worst song I’ve heaed this year, which is saying somthing. The song could be a lot better than this one and still be worth an “F”

    She has a fairly decent voice, so why waste it on this ?

  14. FCOL, it’s just a song. It’s a unique little song with baseball/football metaphors, timed for release as baseball heads for postseason and football revs up a new year. It’s got a positive message and suggestion seeking to get a little airplay when the conventional is being ignored. It’s got a hook and a cute performer at the reel. Let her sing.
    I remember when The Washington Post reviewed ‘1989’. They were scathing and dismissive. Ms Swift went on to make multi-millions.

  15. Cora,

    When it comes to country music, the heart involved in the songwriting process far outstrips the abstract notion of “empowerment”. By every metric, “You Belong with Me” was infinitely better written than this garbage song by Danielle Bradbery.

  16. Well I like this tune. I am not a music professional I am a 50 yr old guy & I like it. The lyrics are fun not serious & I find that the song has a catchy beat. There is no way I would ever think the lyrics have anything to do with ” problematic gender politics” & the other garbage the reviewer threw in his “review” get real.
    Danielle has an excellent voice, it may not be very well displayed in this song but the girl can sing & sing very well.
    I believe she needs professional support & proper direction/assistance from thr management of Big Machine. Danielle is an excellent vocalist who is learning as she goes. This song doesn’t suit everyone but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there that do like it. I’m not a rigid country fan like some people, I am flexible enough to get enjoyment from music that may not be just like all the old traditional country same ole stuff.

  17. A very honest review, I love Danielle’s voice but this song doesn’t do it justice. The song is awful and her voice sounds strained. Some of her fans just support her no matter how crappy the song is. I prefer to hear good music and not garbage.

  18. Wow the review of this song is completely out in left field if I’m allowed to use a sports metaphor. Practically every point he makes is completely over the top. The review is too wordy and confused. I give it an F for musical knowledge. It’s so poorly written and structured it doesn’t even rate a failing grade. I give it a Z for cohesion.

  19. Hahaha, Tony G! It’s one thing to vehemently disagree with the review, but you completely lose all credibility if you’re going to try to claim that Jonathan’s review is “poorly written and structured”. It’d be one thing if you said such a thing about one of my reviews, but it’s laughable to try to say it about one of Jonathan’s.

  20. There was a saying by longtime film critic Roger Ebert that no good film is too long, no bad one too short. The same can be said for songs as well, in my opinion. As far as I’m concerned, this one is two minutes and fifty-five seconds too long.

  21. “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.”

    Good to see you have about as much grasp on metaphor as Biblical literalists.

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