Reba McEntire gets a whole lot flack these days. People make fun of her hair. They make fun of her voice. They make fun of her whole silly country-diva persona. She’s become a symbol of modern country music, and when hipsters want to belittle modern country music in order to justify their love of crap like The Decemberists and bad 80s pop, they find it convenient to attack the whole genre through her.
I can’t really judge them for the laziness (though I certainly have no qualms about judging them for listening to the grating, too-in-love-with-itself music of the Decemberists), but the thing about McEntire is that she’s earned the symbolic status the same way artists in most genres do: not by being representative (ironically enough), but by being exemplary. She’s not the mean; she’s two standard deviations greater (or whatever the one that marks the 95th percentile is. She’s like…in the little tail, alright? I’m not a math person.) Her voice is so familiar that it’s easy to forget how moving it is, and how incredibly deft her vocal interpretations are. Her songs have this normative quality to them: a Reba McEntire* song fits perfectly into your ear the first time; you don’t need to break it in over a few listens, like you do with most songs.
What’s especially remarkable about McEntire starting in the 90s is the material she choses to perform. The themes in almost all of her major hits from this period are undeniably feminist (While she’s not a songwriter, I’m assuming that McEntire had a large say in the material she performed in this era; she was, after all, more than a little famous by this point) — not in the popular, bra-burning sense of the word, but rather in a way that women living in Oklahoma and Texas and Kentucky in the 90s could relate to. Songs like “Is there Life out There? (especially the video)” “Why Haven’t I Heard from You?” “She thinks His Name was John,” and even the much-derided “Fancy,” are a handful of examples of her all-encompassing approach to the experience of being a woman. She’s fashioned herself into a sort of spokesperson for middle-class women in the Heartland…who were going through all of the same things middle-class women everywhere were in the 90s, just with different context and perspectives, which McEntire’s songs and videos capture perfectly.
A major subset of this part of her catalog are her infidelity songs, and they are by far some of her best (not to mention some of country music’s best). Their balance of strength and vulnerability, of rage and sorrow is more nuanced than just about all songs in the cheating-bastard canon — even those written by more respected artists. “Does He Love You?” is one of those songs like “Fancy” that’s an easy target for hipsters, but if you actually listen to it, you can’t help but be moved by the inherent tension between wronged spouse and homewrecker, and the realization on both sides that that the other is just as unhappy and insecure as she. (“Shouldn’t I lose my temper?” “And shouldn’t I be ashamed?” “Cause I have everything to lose.” “And I have nothing to gain.”) Unfortunately, the vocals in “Does He” end up suffering a bit from the Diva showdown between challenger Davis and champion McEntire.
That is not the case with our #11 song. The phrasing here is heartbreaking. McEntire has honed her talent for this stop-and-go, voice-breaking delivery that suggests she’s trying to force the words out on the verge of tears, and in this song she’s employing it to the fullest. Listen to lines like “She’s hanging on — and so am I.” I also like how she manages to fit so much complexity (the words are a dispassionate ultimatum, but her delivery is a desperate plea for you to chose her over the paramour) into such a classically corny (and classically country) framework based on a rudimentary double-meaning. There are more layers here than in one of the unflattened photoshop files idiot graphic design majors bring to us at work. And believe me when I tell you: that is saying something.
* I should probably clarify that when I say “Reba McEntire” here, I mean the Reba McEntire team: writers, producers, back-up band, and McEntire herself. Talent attracts talent, and McEntire shrewdly surrounds herself with the best in the biz.