We can debate whether or not this latest Lady Gaga flashfire is a country song or not. In fact, I had just that debate with the wife on Friday night. She contended that Lady Gaga’s “You and I” was really more of a rock ballad than a country song, and unlike me she is from western Kansas, so she probably knows.
The producer on the track is a guy named Robert “Mutt” Lange, who in addition to being of mixed pedigree has also been a producer for both Def Leppard and Shania Twain. The song samples “We Will Rock You,” by Queen, which is perhaps the least country band of all time.
In any case, the song sounds country to me. Actually, the song sounds so country that I’m pretty sure Lady Gaga is making fun of people from the Midwest. I think the song is partially satirical. How else can you explain the following line:
Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart.
I want to take a step back here and say that I am not offended by this song. I am not complaining about this song. This is not a 500-word eff you to Lady Gaga, whose work I have come to appreciate on some level. But there are two things about that line that stand out:
1) It is nonsensical. It has no literal or metaphorical meaning.
2) But it triggers two iconic heartland images: Muscle cars and trucks.
This alone doesn’t make it a country song, but that kind of imagery is almost always used when someone is trying to appeal to country people. The following two photos are stills from the video for Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” (which we have covered before):
This is the point where a fan of “real” country music will pipe in and remind me that neither Lady Gaga nor Miley Cyrus nor Billy Ray Cyrus nor Taylor Swift has ever made a real country music song. All of this I’m talking about is just crossover country at best or pop music with a country influence at worst. These are people who like artists like George Strait and Hank Williams (Sr.). They are probably right about this in the same way my friend Rob, a native New Yorker, is right when he says Chicago-style pizza isn’t really pizza, “it’s casserole.”
I would note that one of Williams’ most famous lines is “I got a hot rod Ford and a two-dollar bill,’ but to a purist there are some really important distinctions there. To most of us, though, country music is just music that sounds a little twangy and refers to things like daddies and trucks and the Tastee Freeze and lost love. So to most of us that’s exactly what Lady Gaga has done here. First of all, the setting for this little narrative is Nebraska, and the narrative itself is about this woman who is wearing lipstick and high heels and has come back in town after some time and will not be leaving without her lost lover, who owns a little bar somewhere in Nebraska. He has experienced a lot of lonely nights in this little bar and in a town we presume is not, you know, Omaha. But there is something about this place, and something about “you and I.” That this is a grammatical error does nothing to ruin the country feel.
She then belts this non sequitur:
There’s only three men I’ma serve my whole life, it’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.
I, of course, don’t know what was going through her head when she wrote this song. She says it is actually about one of her own relationships, but that’s only possible in a thematic sense. Lady Gaga was born and raised in New York City. The song, however, was recorded in Nebraska (for some reason). But whether she set out to make a pop country hit or set out to make a satirical pop country hit, she made a hit out of a song that feels pretty country.
And that forces us to ask a question: If Lady Gaga can make a successful country record, does that say more about Lady Gaga or country music?