Kira Isabella

Is Country Radio Ready for a Song about Date Rape?

Charles Aaron

By Charles Aaron

Contributor
on 08.01.14 in Features
@Charles_Aaron
‘As the disturbing number of sexual-assault incidents perpetrated by young American athletes grows, Kira Isabella’s “Quarterback” is the right song at the right moment.’

One of the most threatening things that a woman can do these days, it seems, is report a sexual assault, or to assert that there is a pervasive sexual-assault problem, or to push for schools to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, or to start a hashtag where women can tweet about being assaulted. For Washington Post columnist George Will, the victims of sexual assault not only occupy privileged positions on American campuses, they inspire envy (“When [the government makes] victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate,” he wrote). Fellow Post columnist David Bernstein joined in, claiming there is only one type of sexual relationship where consent is absolutely explicit — and that is prostitution.

All of this contributes to the timely gut-punch of “Quarterback,” 20-year-old Canadian country singer Kira Isabella’s debut American single. As the disturbing number of sexual-assault incidents perpetrated by young American athletes grows, it’s the right song at the right moment. It’s also a striking departure from pretty much everything else emerging from Nashville. Though Isabella’s been around for awhile, she’s, frankly, a nobody in the U.S., and to stake her introduction to American audiences on a song about a woman being sexually assaulted is dicey. Yet when she sings the chorus of “Quarterback,” she cuts through the dread and conflict surrounding the subject, rendering a timeless water-color portrait of a girl and a boy in America. And you can’t look away.

The song’s protagonist is a sheepish trumpet player in the band; the boy is the star athlete being recruited by college scouts, and Isabella’s the big sister with the bigger voice who picks up the morning-after pieces. As a sparkly acoustic guitar meets a melancholy violin meets a restless electric guitar, the girl waits after the game for a bus when the quarterback pulls up in his buddy’s truck. The door swings open and before she’s even climbed in, the status war begins. Isabella delivers the chorus with a wry matter-of-factness: “He was the quarterback/ Smiled at her, imagine that/ How do you explain the star of the game and the no-name girl from the freshman class?”

‘Isabella delivers the plot turn in “Quarterback” sans dramatic effect, no surprise at all, and that’s why it weakens your knees.’

It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard that the pinnacle of a high-school quarterback’s life is nothing more than a single fleeting season or a lone November night; or that by the time of his 20th reunion, he’ll be twice divorced and working the floor at FootAction. Or that nowadays nerd culture has transformed the youth social structure being inherited by Generation Z. For millions of kids, the high-school QB remains the kingpin mythmaker of American patriarchal coming-of-age. And anyone who’s ever watched the Bro Boy-King stroll a hallway, cheerleader girlfriend on his arm, charisma crumpling pimply lessers, will instantly understand why so many (girls and boys) swoon when the archetype acknowledges their existence.

Isabella delivers the plot turn in “Quarterback” sans dramatic effect, no surprise at all, and that’s why it weakens your knees. At a post-game bonfire, Red Solo cups are raised and slammed, our freshman girl has her first, second and third drinks (at his urging), then he has his way with her (also a first), and the next morning, he’s posting photos on the Internet, as Isabella’s voice finally begins to roar. As the music pounds and swells, Isabella drops the loaded question that always plagues these situations, no matter the circumstance: “Who you gonna blame?” (Usually followed by: “What did she expect getting into the truck?” “Why didn’t she turn down the drinks?” “Did she ask him to stop?” “Would she have been upset if he hadn’t posted the photos?” “Doesn’t he have more to lose than her, anyway?”)

With the betrayal of the girl by the boy, the song’s bridge becomes almost ceremonially mournful, with Isabella’s oohing backed by a string quartet. But then the backdrop quiets as she returns to school the next Monday, the town and the school powers-that-be aligned against her. (“He had the school and the whole town too/ And she had nothing but the truth inside.”) She’s all alone, it seems. As are so many girls.


‘For decades, songs about the abuse and murder of women were simply presented from the man’s perspective, all the way back to Appalachian murder ballad “The Knoxville Girl,” first recorded in the 1920s.’

Country music’s approach in its songwriting to violence against women has evolved slowly and fitfully. In the essay “Greatest Hits: Domestic Violence in American Country Music,” then-Southern Illinois law prof (and now Illinois Lieutenant Governor) Sheila Simon tracked how the point of view in such songs has shifted as women have been granted greater legal status and protection. For decades, songs about the abuse and murder of women were simply presented from the man’s perspective, all the way back to Appalachian murder ballad “The Knoxville Girl,” first recorded in the 1920s and a hit for the Louvin Brothers in the ’50s (later covered by Nick Cave and the Lemonheads, among others). Then, there’s the outrageous gospel-tweak “It’s a Shame to Whip Your Wife on Sunday” by ’20s country star Fiddlin’ John Carson in addition to the oft-covered folk songs “Pretty Polly” and “Banks of the Ohio,” which both feature psychotic men doing away with women. There was also a refrain of songs in the ’60s and ’70s which testified that women were better off serving their husbands, no matter what the guys did (or what feminists said) — Sandy Posey’s morbidly defeatist “Born a Woman” was a hit in 1966 (“Stand By Your Man” took a more defiant stance in 1968). One could write this off as country’s inherently conservative values, but as Simon points out, we should also consider that the first domestic violence legislation in America wasn’t even enacted until 1976 (by the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania).

The ongoing push for women’s rights (the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment was a form of illegal job discrimination) mirrored the genre’s gradual move into new territory, particularly in terms of subject matter and female artists’ ability to speak up boldly. Gutsy outlier Tanya Tucker addressed rape in her 1974 song “No Man’s Land” (actually written by a man, Don Wayne), which told the story of a Georgia “virgin girl” who was sexually assaulted and left crying after Sunday church service; love never grew afterward in her “no man’s land,” but she went to school, became a nurse, and eventually got to face down her attacker. In 1979, Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” addressed the gang-rape of a woman and went to No. 1, but it was still sung from the point of view of a man, namely the so-called cowardly boyfriend of the woman, who fought her attackers, apparently killing them in a barroom brawl.

‘In the ’90s, stars Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks recorded high-profile songs that portrayed a variety of responses to domestic violence.’

The increased prominence of female songwriters also played a role. In 1987, Reba McEntire’s track “The Stairs” (co-written by Pamela Brown) sympathized with a wife who was being abused by her husband, but was too terrified to leave; instead, she pretended (not for the first time) that she “fell down the stairs” when he beat her up. The same year, Rosanne Cash’s “Rosie Strike Back” (written by Elyza Gilkyson), from Cash’s Top 10 country album King’s Record Shop, urged a woman to leave her abusive relationship, advising that “there’s people out there who can help you,” e.g., women’s shelters and other domestic-violence support groups.

But it was during the 1990s — the decade of Roe v. Wade being reaffirmed by a right-wing Supreme Court (’92), the doubling of the number of women in Congress (’92), and the Violence Against Women Act (’94) — that the genre experienced a startling jolt forward. Stars Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks recorded high-profile songs that portrayed a variety of responses to domestic violence. In the cases of Brooks (“The Thunder Rolls,” “Face to Face”) and McBride (“Independence Day”), women retaliated fiercely and fatally against their assailants; in the case of the Chicks (“Goodbye Earl”), they also had a damn good time to boot. During the 2000s, male and female artists — including Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Big & Rich, Miranda Lambert, Mica Roberts duetting with Toby Keith, and Carrie Underwood — have intermittently voiced the plight of female victims of male violence.

In fact, Underwood was first offered “Quarterback.” Written by Rivers Rutherford, Bobby Hamrick and Marti Dodson in 2013, the song originally was a more lighthearted first-person tale, with the freshman girl caught between the big-ballin’ QB and the more modest, dependable linebacker. But during the songwriting process, the trio ended up discussing the rape scandals that recently had plagued high-school and college-football programs, especially the cases in Steubenville, Ohio (a severely intoxicated girl was raped by two high-school players, then photos and video of the assault were shared on social media); at Florida State (the high-profile rape accusations against Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston); and at Vanderbilt (four football players were dismissed from school after raping an unconscious woman in a dorm room, while taking photos and recording video). Soon, the song took a far more serious turn. “Nobody’s gonna touch something like that unless they know that they can tear it up,” Dodson told Billboard Country. “So we went for broke with it.”

Ultimately, an Underwood associate declined to give her the song, fearing that the first-person perspective (which remained intact from the more somber version) would suggest to fans that she was singing about her ex, Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo (no small concern). Isabella, who had opened for Underwood, worried too that listeners would think she’d been assaulted, so the narrative was switched to third-person. Some industry types also weren’t enthusiastic — Rutherford told Billboard Country he recalled hearing one exec say, “Just what we need, another date-rape song.”

‘Though some women get their own in Nashville, from Taylor Swift to Lambert to Musgraves, there’s hardly been a glut of “date-rape” songs, and chart-topping bro-country’s objectification of women has been unrelenting.’

Not to make too much of a second-hand quote from a nameless creep in a suit, but such a crack again points to the importance of a song like “Quarterback.” Though some women get their own in Nashville, from Taylor Swift to Lambert to Musgraves, there’s hardly been a glut of “date-rape” songs, and chart-topping bro-country’s objectification of women has been unrelenting, reaching its nadir late last year with Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy.” The ridiculous video for the song had a Duck Dynasty-esque posse coming out of the swamps to launch an ATV invasion on the home of Farr’s ex, culminating in a tactical toilet-paper assault with military-grade searchlights. Simply, just in terms of radio and record-company support, women have been badly outnumbered by the bros. It’s gotten so glaring that the promising teen duo Maddie & Tae now carry the burden of a media-fueled bro backlash off the strength of their radio-friendly tune “Girl in a Country Song,” which playfully flips lyrics and titles from songs by Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and others. For instance, “Tell me one more time you gotta get you some of that/ Sure, I’ll slide on over, but you’re gonna get slapped.”

Still, is “Girl in a Country Song” the sign of a shift or just a witty one-off? In the song’s promo video, Maddie & Tae’s label boss Scott Borchetta (who’s had his hand in plenty of bro-country), says, “Females are going to love this record.” But then he adds, “Every guy that we’ve played it for laughs at it.” It’s unlikely that many bros are gonna laugh at “Quarterback.”

And nobody should scoff or laugh at Isabella’s long-term career prospects, despite a scattered 2012 debut album, Love Me Like That, released only in Canada, which featured subject matter that invoked a bucketful of country clichés — truck, church, car radio, mama and daddy, Christmas, Tim McGraw (see T-Swift), a high-school football game. “I still dream about your rebel smile” went one cringe-worthy line. But Isabella’s first single, the album’s title track, was a heart-crushing tale of a young girl palpably breathless after a boy’s “soft kisses”; and with “A Little More Work,” another single, the then-teen showed a heady song-picking instinct, moving toward a refreshing persona as the good girl who brashly goes her own way (much like Swift). In 2013, Isabella won the 2013 Canadian Country Music Association’s Female Artist of the Year.

‘It’d be foolish to say it’s not a tough sell for mainstream country radio, particularly for a relatively new artist, but it shouldn’t be.’

Now, “Quarterback” should be the bust-out, given the appropriate support and platform. When I first heard it in April on a Sirius country station, the song sounded like an obvious, immediate hit: catchy as hell, but with an intensely felt, concisely written, unexpected story that left me intrigued, thinking, “Wait a second, what…?” Then on second listen, chills. Even considering a few of the stunners on Lambert’s latest Platinum (especially “Bathroom Sink”), I still believe that “Quarterback” is the most powerful country song of 2014 — every musical element complements the story masterfully. It’d be foolish to say it’s not a tough sell for mainstream country radio, particularly for a relatively new artist, but it shouldn’t be. Isabella’s effortless, sly quaver is transfixing. Depending on the quality of the rest of her upcoming album (due later this year), she could be a mainstream force, mixing the strutting spunk of Shania Twain, the golden vocal force of Faith Hill, and the love-struck boldness of Swift. She’s got the gift.

Toward the end of the song’s video (directed by Randall “RT!” Thorne, who expertly balances Isabella’s presence with the busy plot), there’s a surprise turn of events, as the freshman girl faces down the quarterback by his locker, and a crowd of students assembles. Suddenly, as more of her classmates learn the whole story, they take her side, looking at the QB accusingly. Isabella repeats the line, “He was the quarterback/ Smiled at her, imagine that,” biting off the end of the phrase with a subtle wink and sneer. It’s a cutting touch.

Unfortunately, such cases of violence by star athletes don’t generally play out so empathetically for the female victims — many sink into depression, drop out of school, even commit suicide (as did a woman who was assaulted by a football player at the University of Missouri). Classmates and teachers and coaches and school administrators and police often extend little compassion or understanding. In fact, the victims are consistently challenged, harshly questioned, or even openly intimidated, while the athletes are too often protected.

No country song’s gonna change any of that. But this one certainly can draw male and female listeners into the conversation. If they ever get a chance to hear it.