One day back in August, I was driving home from a nearby state park, flipping through my usual sequence of radio stations—country, classic country, fuzzy-too-far-away-from-the-signal country, hip-hop, NPR—when I caught, at the opening chords, a song that almost made me crash my car. A young woman is in a night club, clearly inebriated (“hair a perfect mess / falling out of that dress”), and our narrator has some advice for the men in the crowd: “Take a drunk girl home.” Public-radio producers like to talk about “driveway moments”—stories gripping enough to keep you listening in your car even after you’ve arrived home—but it’s not often that a country song is so jaw-dropping that it makes me pull over to the side of the road.
The song is “Drunk Girl,” by Chris Janson, which came out in December but only began climbing the charts last month, after it received a nomination for Song of the Year by the Country Music Association. The award ceremony isn’t until November, but if the judges are inclined to favor aptness over artistry, “Drunk Girl” will definitely win. That is not an endorsement, although the song is somewhat better than what you’re probably thinking, while also being sort of terrible, very telling, and very strange. “Take a drunk girl home,” begins the chorus:
Let her sleep all alone.
Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone.
Pick up her life she threw on the floor.
Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door.
That’s how you know the difference between a boy and a man.
You take a drunk girl home.
Sitting in my car, I laughed, swore, sputtered. Because, really, where on earth to begin? Seldom has a musical creation been so well-intentioned yet so wrongheaded; leave it to country, I thought, to gussy up in soulful piano chords and self-satisfaction a P.S.A. about not raping women. I filed it away as Nashville’s ham-handed response to the #MeToo movement, drove home, and, for a while, forgot about it. Then came the ongoing debacle of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, and, entirely by accident, “Drunk Girl” became almost too relevant—and, dismayingly, almost too radical—to play on the radio.
Although “Drunk Girl” is unquestionably a product of our era, its specific origins lie in a commencement speech given by the songwriter Tom Douglas when his son graduated from high school. In it, he cautioned the boys in the senior class that they were soon going to find themselves in situations in which their female peers had had too much to drink, and that it was incumbent on them to safely escort those young women home. Some time later, Douglas was teaching a songwriting workshop at the county jail, and the sheriff, who had been in the audience that day, told him that he’d been moved by the speech, and that he suspected some of the inmates around them wouldn’t be in custody if they’d heard and heeded it. (Doubtful, given how rarely sexual assault is prosecuted, but never mind.) Douglas recounted the story to Janson, and, together with another writer, Scooter Carusoe, they began turning it into a song.
Janson is, actually, a pretty solid singer-songwriter, lyrically gifted and full of happy, amiable, kid-brother energy. He moved to Nashville from Missouri right out of high school, started playing local clubs, and earned a living writing songs, including a few hits, for other vocalists. But he only became widely known in 2015, when, after kicking around from label to label, he independently released the single “Buy Me a Boat.” That song went to No. 3 on the country-music charts, for good reason; it’s a satisfying anthem for the common man, well-constructed and fun. (“I know what they say / money can’t buy everything / well, maybe so / but it could buy me a boat.”) After that, Janson was picked up by Warner Bros. Records, which released an uneven but promising album of the same name, in October of 2015, followed by last year’s “Everybody.”
Like rap, country music is extremely boozy, although its taste runs more toward beer and tequila than Hennessy and Cristal. (Even the livestock sometimes get drunk, as in Toby Keith’s catchy but politically regrettable vigilante song, “Beer for My Horses.”) Whatever your feelings about alcohol, you’d have to be a card-carrying member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to begrudge some of the resulting songs, including a long lineage of sodden classics: Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” George Jones’s “White Lightning,” Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” Johnny Cash’s gorgeous, mournful “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and, of course, that barstool-consolation song par excellence, Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places.”
Country’s female musicians spend their fair share of time in the honky tonk, too. Emmylou Harris gave us “Two More Bottles of Wine”; Loretta Lynn teamed up with Jack White, of the White Stripes, for the excellent “Portland, Oregon” (“a sloe gin fizz works mighty fast / when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass”), and Carrie Underwood updated Shelly West’s “Jose Cuervo” with “Last Name,” in which the narrator goes to Vegas and wakes up married to a stranger. Then there is Miranda Lambert, whose generally outstanding and notably sloshy oeuvre runs the entire gamut from trying desperately not to drink (“Hard Staying Sober”) to trying desperately to drink (“Dry Town”).
Given all this, it’s no surprise that Janson has sung about booze before, a lot. His, “Power of Positive Drinking,” belongs, like “Friends in Low Places,” to the extremely crowded sub-sub-genre of songs about using alcohol to dull the pain of a breakup, while his “Fix a Drink” takes a broader view of the palliative powers of liquor: “The world’s in the toilet and the market’s in the tank / I can’t fix that, but I can fix a drink.” (In country music, recall, “drink” actually rhymes with “tank.”) Neither one is especially to my taste—with its spoken-word stretches, “Fix a Drink” is part of the reliably terrible trend in contemporary country known as hick-hop—but two of Janson’s other drinking songs are more interesting, not least because both are partly about not drinking. The first, “Back in My Drinking Days,” places the narrator’s relationship to alcohol squarely in the past; the second, “Better I Don’t,” is a pleasing, comic-country paean to the virtues of staying on the wagon and out of trouble. What with one thing and another, Janson—who, in real life, got married, in 2009, has four children, and says that his songwriting now reflects a parent’s very different perspective on the world—seemed to be edging toward a reckoning with the dangerous side effects of alcohol.
Then came “Drunk Girl.” To its credit, the song gets one thing mostly right, which is the woman at the heart of it. She is an uncomfortable figure, but a real enough one, and Janson does her the rare courtesy of not chastising her for drinking. On the contrary, he makes it the man’s responsibility to behave appropriately, and hazards two plausible and compassionate guesses for why she’s drunk: “she’s either a bachelorette or coming off a breakup.” Both of these are reasons that men drink with impunity, as Janson knows (in “Power of Positive Drinking,” the narrator responds to getting dumped by downing ten consecutive beers), and he implicitly endorses the Drunk Girl’s right to do the same without devastating consequences.
Why, then, is this song so oogie? Some of it has to do with the bluntness of the message. What Eudora Welty observed about the novel is also true of the country song: if it hopes to succeed it cannot crusade. That isn’t to say that it can’t look serious political issues in the eye—only that, if it ceases to animate and starts to sermonize, it will fail. Loretta Lynn’s wildly controversial, wildly successful hit, “The Pill” from 1972, doesn’t admonish women to take control of their bodies and their futures; it tells the story of one woman who, belatedly, does so. (Lynn knew whereof she sang: she had six children, the first when she was sixteen.) Similarly, the Dixie Chicks’ raucous, much-beloved “Goodbye Earl” mines two of country music’s oldest traditions, the saga song and the murder ballad, to turn a potentially tone-deaf song about domestic violence into a vengeful, joyful anthem—“Thelma & Louise” with a happy ending. And in “Different Days,” Jason Isbell—perhaps the greatest country singer working today—implicates the narrator in the impulse to exploit vulnerable women while seriously, beautifully reckoning with it.
“Drunk Girl,” by contrast, is as earnest and message-y as Christian rock. Indeed, so total is its sincerity that it tips over to parody; like Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, “Saturday Night Live” could air it as a skit about country music without altering a single word. Yet even that quality should not be disqualifying, because, as a rule, country music does sincerity exceptionally well. (I have long suspected that the genre’s wonderful comic streak—“All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “Did I Shave My Legs For This?,” and so on—exists chiefly to counterbalance the unadulterated heartfelt-ness of so much of the rest of it.) Moreover, that sincerity often takes the form of doling out wisdom. Country music, more than any other genre, excels at the advice song, from the fun to listen to, difficult to apply guidance of “The Gambler” (“you gotta know when to hold ’em / know when to fold ’em,” etc.) to the tender loveliness of Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.” These songs work for a range of reasons—because they are catchy, because they are beautiful, because they are unafraid of expressing obvious and even clichéd truths—but, at base, they work because they convey something worthwhile. Successfully doling out wisdom involves, after all, being wise.
It is in this respect that “Drunk Girl” categorically fails. Taking a drunk girl home, not to have sex with her but to make sure she gets there safely, is not the difference between a boy and a man; it is the difference between the perpetrator of a violent crime and an averagely decent, law-abiding human being. The song might think it is encouraging men to behave better. For that matter, as Janson clearly hopes, it might even be encouraging men to behave better. But it is also characterizing their worst and most destructive actions as a kind of natural rite of passage, the acceptable follies of youth—exactly the same “boys will be boys” defense of sexual objectification, harassment, and assault that supporters of Kavanaugh are now articulating, without the piano backing, twenty-four hours a day.
Like most country singers, Janson shares little about his politics, beyond espousing a humane concern for all people and describing himself as “the most open redneck you’ll ever meet.” He has, however, openly supported President Trump (including turning his hit song “Truck Yeah” into “Trump Yeah” for a performance at the Republican National Convention, in 2016), which makes “Drunk Girl” even harder to take. You don’t need any courage to urge abstract men to treat abstract women well. What matters is what you say and do in the face of real and powerful men who demean, harass, and violate women—in the case of the President, without drinking any alcohol at all. If Janson wants to help men find their moral compasses, he might try condemning that.
A month ago, when I first heard “Drunk Girl,” I was struck by the contrast between its good intentions and its dazzling cluelessness. Much as the man in the song doesn’t deserve credit for not raping a woman, the man who sings it doesn’t deserve credit for his allegedly bold stand against rape. Now, though, because “Drunk Girl” criticizes exactly the kinds of acts that Kavanaugh stands accused of committing, it has become abruptly, improbably pointed. By articulating the unbelievably low bar to which men are held, it accidentally condemns the specific man who, according to multiple credible allegations, fails to pass even that miserable standard.
In that sense, Janson might actually be right about “Drunk Girl”: apparently, a whole lot of people need to hear it. My reaction to the song, like my reaction to the way that the allegations against Kavanaugh are being handled, has gone from an outraged disbelief that we need to spell this stuff out to the weary realization that yes, in fact, we do. Sadly, that is not a reflection of the culture of country music. It’s a reflection of the culture of our country.