Song Review: Jason Aldean, “They Don’t Know”

What happens when you take a hard-rocking attitude song and suck all the hard rock and attitude out of it? You end up with something like Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know.”

Aldean is one of the biggest stars in country music right now, and much of his success stems from the simple fact that this man rocks harder than anyone else in the genre, and has done so ever since he released his debut single in 2005. While he has the chops to sing more-traditional country songs, such as his last single (and No. 1 hit) “Any Ol’ Barstool,” Aldean is a rock star at heart, and when he’s on, he can bring the heat like no one else. When he’s off, however, his songs are severely weakened, and his latest single “They Don’t Know” is a prime example of this: It aims to be an us-vs.-them glorification of rural life, but lacks the sonic muscle it needs to back up its boasts.

From a production perspective, everything you expect from a Jason Aldean song is here: the rock guitars on the melody, the real (or at least real-sounding) percussion forming the foundation, the heavy dependency on minor chords, and so on. In comparison to past singles like “Lights Come On,” however, the sound feels dialed back and restrained—the guitars aren’t as in-your-face, and the drums don’t seem as hard-hitting. As a result, the song doesn’t come across as powerfully or as compellingly as Aldean’s more-unleashed tracks. It feels like the producers were trying to split the difference between Aldean’s usual sound and the quieter, less-bombastic sonic trends prevailing in country music today, and wound up with something that doesn’t quite fall into either category, and is severely weakened because of it.

Aldean brings his usual unapologetic tone and super-serious demeanor to the song, and to his credit, there is nothing dialed back or restrained about his performance. However, the terrible songwriting (more on that later) takes a major toll on Aldean’s flow and delivery, forcing him to awkwardly stretch out syllables at some points and quickly cram words into a small space at other points. While he still gets a few moments on the choruses to bring the full weight and range of his voice to bear, and he’s still more than believable as a combatively-proud rural evangelist, he is hamstrung by the song itself and unable to make the kind of impact that he is capable of.

Thematically, the song itself is an attempt to dispel the stereotype of rural areas as the “middle of nowhere,” and declare that there’s more to country life (in particular, farming) than meets the eye. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of song, but nearly all of its problems stem from the fact that the songwriting fails on nearly every level:

  • Most of the imagery here depicts the stereotypical scenes that the narrator rails against, and very little is dedicated to the counterpoint (there’s nothing beyond hard work and praying for rain) that the song wants to present. Adding a few vignettes that show the toil and struggle of rural life (similar to Brad Paisley’s “Cloud Of Dust”) would have made the song’s argument a lot more effective.
  • The verse construction is beyond awful, and the majority of lines have either a bunch of awkward pauses and a few rapid-fire sections. This keeps the singer from establishing any sort of flow, and detracts from the power and persuasiveness of the message. The choruses are a little better, but by the time you reach them, the damage is already done.
  • The song’s tone is unnecessarily hostile, and depicts doubters as a faceless “they” that deserves to be scorned instead of informed. Rather than dismissing non-rural folks as clueless idiots, the writers should have focused their efforts on educating them by painting a more-accurate picture of rural reality.

Overall, “They Don’t Know” is a weak, attitude-for-the-sake-of-attitude song that lacks the production and lyrical foundation to have much attitude at all. What could have been an opportunity to teach listeners about rural and agricultural lifestyles ends up being the sort of vacuous posturing that causes people to hold the backwards stereotypes about rural dwellers that they do. The ultimate failure of this song is not that “they don’t know,” it’s that when the song is over, they still don’t.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t waste your time with this one.