TV queens or farmbot squall?

Who’d have thought that reality TV would be the best thing to happen to country music since Shania Twain traversed the desert in a gaudy, leopard-print frock? Seriously, C&W hasn’t had a year this full of gloriously manufactured fun in, like, ever, and we have none other than the Fox and USA networks to thank for introducing us to bubble-country stars Carrie Underwood and Erika Jo.

As the latest champs of the boob-tube competitions American Idol and Nashville Star, respectively, both ladies offer a refreshing eff-you to country-music’s gatekeepers of authenticity. These young, painfully perky blondes with clarion-bell voices couldn’t give a rat’s ass about adhering to antiquated notions of so-called authenticity. So, please, quit complaining that they’re products of the soulless, money-mongering record industry — of course they are. And with two of the year’s finest country-pop debuts between them, they’re better for it.

That probably won’t shock many American Idol viewers. After all, Underwood may have triumphed on the show by breathing new, lung-busting life into songs by Tiffany and Air Supply, but the 22-year-old Oklahoma native tended to exude about as much charisma as a pet rock. Not for nuthin’ did critics nickname her “farmbot,” a reference to both her barnyard roots and droid-like stage presence. In conversation she proved even more wooden; during an interview with Underwood last summer, she came alive only when I mentioned the killer coifs she sported during her performance of Heart’s “Alone.”

On her Arista debut, Some Hearts, however, Underwood is blessed with one of the brightest new personalities that major-label money can buy. Sure, the red-state-pandering lead single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” is dreadful, but the rest of the album announces the arrival of a steely, surprisingly versatile singer capable of competing with pop-crossover vets such as Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Best of all is “Before He Cheats,” an ode to exacting revenge on a straying boyfriend, which should replace Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as the wronged-woman’s anthem of choice. “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive,” Underwood seethes. “I took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights, slashed a hole in all four tires.”

For the sake of her own souped-up Chevy Silverado pickup — one of the rewards, along with a Universal South recording contract, for winning Nashville Star — Erika Jo might want to steer clear of men with fuses as short as Underwood’s. Because on “I Break Things,” the buoyant first single from her eponymous debut, the Tennessee singer unapologetically professes to have screwed up every one of her relationships. “I make things snap and fall apart, so if you wanna hold me, boy, you better watch your heart,” she advises, essentially remaking Britney Spears’ “Oops ... I Did It Again” for CMT viewers.

Ceaselessly upbeat despite its dreary subject matter, “I Break Things” is the perfect vehicle for Erika Jo. On Nashville Star, she grinned her way through each week’s performance, no matter what the song’s actual emotional tenor. But whereas that tendency gave her covers a one-dimensional quality on TV, it actually works on record thanks to the Music Row pros who’ve channeled her joie de vivre into songs about being a precocious, wide-eyed teenager.

And, really, why should it matter that both Underwood and Erika Jo need Nashville’s hit doctors to help figure out who they are as performers? The music world is full of idealistic country crooners who maintain their independence and artistic control yet never record anything as memorable and emotionally resonant as Some Hearts and Erika Jo. So quit pointing to American Idol and Nashville Star as examples of everything that’s evil about the music world; these ladies prove that the big, bad record industry can have an artist’s — and reality-television viewing audiences’ — best interests at heart.


Carrie Underwood performs Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 4 Championship Dr., Auburn Hills; 248-377-0100. With Martina McBride and LeAnn Rimes.

Eriko Jo performs Saturday, Dec. 10, at Crossroads Concert Club, 12850 Sibley Rd., Riverview; 734-283-3990.

Jimmy Draper is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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