Tailgates & Tanlines
The word meme is cool (and hot) right now. You might even say that the use of it has become a meme unto itself.
Merriam-Webster defines meme as "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture." And so, after reviewing country music for a decade now, I'd suggest that there are two countervailing memes in the genre:
1) Romanticized nods to an idealized vision of traditional "country" living: going to church, getting married, giving thanks and eating big potluck meals in a happy, rural farming community.
2) Romanticized nods to "good ol' boys" who drink lots of beer and cavort with lots of girls in short shorts who are ready to take them off in the back of a truck, on the dock or in the lake. No surprise, those relationships don't always end too well … which means more beer of course.
And now it's time to review rising country star Luke Bryan's third album, one of the Top 10 best-selling albums of 2012. It's aptly named Tailgates & Tanlines—a title that suggests he's gonna evoke both of those memes. Which one dominates will soon become apparent.
On "You Don't Know Jack," a homeless, panhandling alcoholic confesses to a stranger he asks for money just how much his addiction has cost him: "He showed me a picture of two little girls/Wearin' Easter dresses, hair done up in curls/He said, God bless their mama, she said I couldn't stay/Buddy, if you're wonderin', how could I throw it all away?/But you don't know Jack/Double shot, 80 proof, on the rocks/Until you've lost it all." Later, the man exhorts, "So, brother, just be glad/And tonight when you hold your kids, kiss your wife/And when you talk to God/Count up all your blessings/And thank the good Lord that/You don't know Jack."
"Tailgate Blues" briefly suggests that Bryan realizes alcohol won't help heal his broken heart after a breakup ("Ain't no telling what tomorrow might bring/Maybe me and a Dixie cup/But that won't be enough"). "Harvest Time" celebrates the virtues of hard work, accomplishment and community. "Muckalee Creek Water" counsels occasionally disconnecting from the urban rat race.
"I Knew You That Way" recalls a sexual encounter with a woman years before. That's not positive, of course. But it's worth mentioning here because the song is the only place on the album where sex is couched in terms of a relationship and treated as a sacred act instead of an empty, narcissistic one. "I held you closer than I had a right to hold," Bryan sings, "The holy way that love knows it should never end."
"Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" tells us a lot about Bryan's prevailingly leering attitude toward women: "Get up on the hood of my daddy's tractor/Up on the tool box, it don't matter/Down on the tailgate, girl I can't wait/To watch you do your thing/ … Something 'bout a sweet little farmer's child/Got it in her blood to get a little wild/ … Country girl, shake it for me." Later, "All I want to do is get to holding you and get to knowing you."
"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" finds a man asking a woman he's breaking up with to have sex one last time. "Drunk on You" praises the intoxicating effects of a woman's barely clad figure ("You're lookin' so good in what's left of those blue jeans/Drip of honey on the moneymaker's gotta be/The best buzz I'm ever gonna find"). A bit later, Bryan takes God's name in vain as the lyrics get even more suggestive ("Every little kiss is drivin' me wild/Throwin' little cherry bombs into my fire/Good god almighty"). The song ends with an invitation to skinny-dipping and perhaps more.
Sex shenanigans move out of the water and onto a dock in "Too D‑‑n Young," as Bryan reminisces about yet another casual tryst. "She snuck out, scared she might get caught," we hear. "There was no such thing as consequence/With her in my arms." No consequence, it seems, even for consummating their about-to-be-over relationship ("In that moonlight/I saw her tanlines/ … I can't help but think about her lying there/ … Didn't know what we were doing, but we didn't care/That old wooden dock was warm on our backs").
"I Don't Want This Night to End" has Bryan singing, "You're looking so d‑‑n hot." On "I Know You're Gonna Be There," a heartsick man plots how he can make his ex jealous. "Muckalee Creek Water" combines fishin' with sippin' moonshine. And after "Tailgate Blues" momentarily ponders whether getting drunk will really salve a broken heart, Bryan goes on and gets drunk anyway ("I catch my buzz in the black of night/Where nobody ever goes").
Like I said, a whole lot of that meme-spawned romanticizing drives Tailgates & Tanlines, both good and bad. Luke Bryan makes growing up, getting married and working hard in a small farming town sound pretty good. He also makes getting drunk and hooking up with attractive, half-dressed women he's just met sound pretty good.