This isn’t just a song—it’s a shot across the bow of country music.
At this point, the genre’s allergy to female artists is well-known and well-documented, as radio only seems to make room for one or two of them at a time. As Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert started to get cycled off the airwaves, Kelsea Ballerini seemed to be the heir to their throne, scoring three No. 1 hits off of her debut album and reaching the top of the heap again with “Legends” from her follow-up album Unapologetically. However, after “I Hate Love Songs” hit a wall and had its plug pulled at #25, I started wondering if country music had already moved on from Ballerini to make room for another artist (Maren Morris? Carly Pearce?). The response from Ballerini’s camp, however, was striking: Not only does she have a fresh new collaboration with the Chainsmokers (“This Feeling,” with is surprisingly listenable for a Chainsmokers song), but her official single “Miss Me More”feels like a declaration that country music needs her a lot than she needs it. It’s an angry kiss-off/empowerment anthem with more than a little meta-commentary between the lines, and while you may call the effort “pop” or “misguided,” I’d call it one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
The tone change is apparent from the start: This is a very synthetic arrangement, and nothing like the light, bubblegum pop-country mixes Ballerini has become known for. There are a few real instruments here (a cello on the bridge, a mandolin-like instrument near the end, and an amplified acoustic guitar helping to carry the melody), but the most prominent sounds here are the spacious synths and methodical drum machine that form the mix’s foundation and give it an unexpectedly good groove. (It’s the sort of sound that wouldn’t feel out-of-place on pop radio, which might have been the point…) With the darker instrument tones and an almost exclusive reliance on minor chords, the song has a serious vibe with some barely-controlled anger behind it, complementing the tone of the writing perfectly. I haven’t heard negative energy deployed this effectively since Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” but while that song features dangerous love, “Miss Me More” just feels dangerous period (think “XO” from Ballerini’s debut album times fifty), driving’s the narrator message home with an aural sledgehammer.
Those of you who only know Ballerini for lightweight fare like “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” are in for a surprise: She is not happy on “Miss Me More,” delivering her lines in a cold-yet-calm tone with just enough of an edge to let you know she’s boiling underneath the surface. The song keeps her stuck in the lower end of her range, but she shrugs off the constraint and does a great job maintaining her vocal tone and power throughout the entire track. It’s the attitude and conviction of the narrator that sells this track, however, and Ballerini plays the role of the I’m-better-off-without-you protagonist with Lambert-esque aplomb. (In fact, she’s so believable that I’m wondering if we should be concerned about her real-life relationship with Morgan Evans.) While Ballerini has already demonstrated this sort of versatility and skill on her album cuts, it’s nice to see Black River let her do it on an actual single release for a change.
It’s also time to give Ballerini credit for being an strong songwriter, because she seems to be improving with every single. The narrator here is reflecting on how a failed relationship had changed her in way she did not entirely enjoy, and reveling in the fact that she’s better off without the other person (hence the hook “I thought I’d miss you/But I miss me more”). While the clever turns of phrase are a less numerous here than on “I Hate Love Songs” (outside of the above-average hook), both the level and novelty of detail remain, as the narrator brings up even small changes that I never would have thought of (lipstick shades, music tastes, and my personal favorite: Not wearing high heels “’cause I couldn’t be taller than you”). There’s a real “I am woman, hear me roar” feel to the lyrics, as the narrator reasserts her independence and allows themselves to enjoy who they are for what they are, regardless of what anyone else says.
The more interesting question: Who exactly does she mean by “anyone else”? The song is theoretically targeted at a controlling ex-lover, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see that this could be a firebomb aimed at the kingmakers of country radio. Nashville is famous for pushing acts to sing and act a certain way (especially female acts), but Ballerini’s crossover appeal gives her a lot more leverage than other artists, and this song suggests that she’s willing to use it. Pop radio has substantially fewer misgivings about putting women on the airwaves, and after “I Hate Love Songs” faltered, Ballerini is sending a pointed message to country radio: She can jump genres anytime she wants, and it’ll be country music that will “miss her more.” Don’t be surprised if this song picks up considerable pop airplay and makes a strong impression on the Hot 100.
“Miss Me More” is a statement of power from Kelsea Ballerini, declaring that no man (and potentially no genre) is going to keep her from being her true self. With suitably-serious production, dual-purpose writing, and a attitude-filled vocal performance, this is (hopefully) the song that dispels Ballerini’s pop princess image and earns her the top-tier performer credit she deserves. Country radio may well turn up their collective nose at it, but they do so at their own peril: Ballerini is working from the Taylor Swift playbook now, and won’t hesitate to find greener pastures if the genre denies her the opportunity for success.
Rating: 9/10. Enjoy her work now, because she may not hang around this backwater genre for much longer.