In 2005, as Carrie Underwood was making her seemingly untrammeled run to victory on the fourth season of “American Idol,” judge Simon Cowell famously predicted that not only would Underwood go on to win the competition, but she would also outsell all previous “Idol” winners. The next three years made Cowell appear remarkably astute. As Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino fell by the wayside, and Kelly Clarkson grappled with artistic—and perhaps just general—confusion, Underwood’s first two albums established her as Nashville’s leading female star. With a string of country number-ones and an uncontroversial personal life, Underwood’s was verily an unqualified success story.
The past two years have seen that narrative interrupted, not so much by missteps on Underwood’s part but, rather, by the emergence of rivals: Miranda Lambert, whose fiery country-rock made Underwood seem tame by comparison, and, above all, Taylor Swift, a true singer-songwriter whose undeniable hooks, felt lyrics and incandescent enthusiasm have propelled her to a level of national stardom far above Underwood. It is no coincidence, then, that in the same week that Swift has a Springsteen-esque seven singles simultaneously in the Top 50 (pop, not country), Carrie Underwood released an album that from outset to coda is a unified attempt to move from the mainstream of Nashville to the mainstream of global pop. Unfortunately, “Play On” is a stilted, forced effort that will fail to satisfy either her country base or the pop fans she aims to reach.
The first song, “Cowboy Casanova,” despite its title, is a distinct break from Underwood’s earlier work. It affects a Lambert-lite stomp and swagger, but Underwood is no rockstar. She sings in perfect pitch, but there is no feeling; in a market where the pop audience demands sincerity, or at least heart, Underwood can provide neither. Worst of all, the song lacks recognizable hooks or an engaging melody. It’s all bluster, no substance.
The pattern that “Cowboy Casanova” establishes becomes depressingly familiar as the album goes on. This is surely one of the least melodic albums ever released by a conventional candidate for pop superstardom. With the sole exception of “Quitter”—a light, playful track firmly in the traditions of Nashville—the entire record consists of overwrought, impeccably produced, tuneless and indeed lifeless numbers as utterly forgettable as the “coronation songs” that “American Idol” winners sing in each year’s final show.
In fact, the most plausible explanation for this excrescence of an album is that Underwood and her handlers have decided that the best way to crossover from country to pop is to make an album in the tradition of the television show that launched her career. As any follower of “Idol” will know, its judges and producers have always maintained a healthy distaste for melody or, indeed, music in general, preferring to applaud and highlight performances of vocal excess, culminating most often in “glory notes.” It is an aesthetic comprehensively rejected by the record-buying public, if the album sales of most “Idol” winners are any indication. The key to Underwood’s prior success was that she discarded the vocal theatrics prized by Randy Jackson for solid, conventional country music written by hardened Nashville pros like Josh Kear and Hillary Lindsey. “Play On,” by contrast, features the talents of a murderer’s row of pop songwriters: Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Chantal Kreviazuk and—now it all begins to fall into place—”American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi. DioGuardi is partially responsible for “Mama’s Song,” a toe-curling piece of moralizing that, along with “Change” and “Temporary Home” (about homelessness), constitutes the album’s musically and emotionally hollow core.
On one level, focusing on Underwood’s voice might make sense, as she is a technically flawless natural, as effortless a female singer as any in a genre which has a richer tradition of great female vocalists than any other. As her eponymous 2005 debut and 2007’s “Carnival Ride” showed, she can sing country—and ballads in particular—with verve and gusto. But on those albums she sang the songs; here, she overpowers them, such as they are, with pyrotechnics. The result is impressive, perhaps, but certainly not enjoyable. Nor can Underwood be excused for the poor quality of the songs, as she is credited as a co-writer on seven of them. The album is a continuous lyrical train wreck, befouling every subject it touches, from love—“He is good, so good / And he treats your little girl like a real man should” (from “Mama’s Song”)—to changing the world: “The world’s so big it could break your heart / And you just wanna help / But not sure where to start” (from “Change”). The album’s nadir comes when Underwood pledges to “Unapologize.”
It would be unwise to doubt the ability of someone with Carrie Underwood’s telegenic looks, extraordinary vocal gifts, and successful track record to, one day, become a global pop sensation. But if Underwood truly intends to crossover into the pop mainstream—or at least to an audience consisting of someone other than Randy Jackson—she will need to start by hiring a new set of songwriters. Taylor Swift might be a good start.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.