Song Review: Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe”

Jennifer Nettles once asked “Who says you can’t go home?” The answer, apparently, is country radio.

Once upon a time, Sugarland and Taylor Swift were some of the hottest artists in country music, racking up hits and awards without breaking a sweat. Sugarland, however, went on hiatus back in 2012, and Swift officially left the genre two years later to conquer the world with her 1989 album. Recently, both have attempted to return to their country roots, but instead of a hero’s welcome, they got a cold shoulder: Despite being okay songs, “Still The Same” limped to a disappointing #26 airplay peak, while “New Year’s Day” didn’t even crack the Top 40. The former country titans are now making a combined play for relevance with “Babe,” but much like with Chris Stapleton’s “Millionaire,” the star power of the singers can’t make up for their underwhelming, uninteresting material.

The production is your standard pop-country mix: An acoustic guitar carrying the melody, some spacious electric guitars adding some choral intensity, some steel guitar stabs added in a failed attempt to establish some country street cred, and a mixture of real and synthetic percussion keeping time. (A random mandolin-like riff after the second chorus makes me picture a random musician sneaking into the studio and adding some notes on the guitar track before security could drag them away.) I’m really struck by how boring and generic this mix sounds: There’s no groove, there’s barely any energy, and the bright instrument tones and minor chords are an awkward fit, as if the producer was trying the song sound both mournful and empowering (and ending up with a track that’s neither). It’s the sonic equivalent of a stock photo you found on Google Images, and it leaves the listener feeling nothing but unimpressed.

Of the three vocalists present on this track, only Nettles really gets a chance to shine here: Swift is limited to repeating Nettles’s lines and filling space with an annoying “babe-abe-abe-abe” line (like Kenny Chesney in “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” Swift is only included to tap into her fan base and generate radio momentum), and Kristian Bush is so invisible that even Brian Kelley feels sorry for him. Nettles performance is a bit of a disappointing: She handles her business on a technical level (decent range, passable flow), but when she tries to inject some sass into the narrator (and whether or not this is a good decision is another argument entirely), if comes off feeling forced and unconvincing, making the narrator come off like they’re being forced into a decision and are just halfheartedly trying to justify it. It’s far from Nettles’s best work, and Swift and Bush are left wasting away in the background instead of providing some decent backup.

The writing here tells the tale of a someone whose partner has cheated on them, leaving the narrator no choice but to walk away from the relationship. It’s that “no choice” idea that really bothers me: Cheating on somebody is a grave and serious breach of trust, but there are more ways to address the problem than by simply walking away. Here, however, even though the narrator makes several references to the fact that they really don’t want to leave (“What a shame/Didn’t want to be the one that got away”), they feel that the unwritten rules of romance dictate that infidelity is irredeemable and thou must dissolve the partnership if this occurs. (I detest the unwritten rules of baseball for much the same reason.) If your heart isn’t really into breaking up, why not try the Mary approach (as demonstrated by “Mary” in Marty Robbins’s “Devil Woman”) and forgive the offender and see if you can save the relationship? While it’s really Nettles’s unconvincing performance that make me ask this question (if she had gone all-in on attitude like, say, Miranda Lambert in “Kerosene,” I would have said “You go girl!” instead of “This isn’t the only option, you know”), the lyrics have a lot of reluctance baked in, and could have done a better job making the case for the narrator’s actions.

“Babe” is a poorly-executed, unsatisfying song, and feels like a mailed-in attempt to exploit a formula that’s at least seven years out of date. Neither Sugarland nor Taylor Swift are the country music power players they used to be, and just tossing them together on a boring, generic track like this isn’t a recipe for success in 2018. I still think both acts still have some shelf life in this genre, but not if they release material like this.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.