I’m confused: Which “Ladies In The 90s” are Lauren Alaina actually paying tribute to?
I recently called out Brothers Osborne for being a one-hit wonder, but this particular glass slipper fits Alaina as well: Outside of her 2016 #1 “Road Less Traveled,” her highest-charting hit since her debut seven years ago was 2017’s “Doin’ Fine,” which peaked outside the top twenty-five. Her mainstream career is on life support at this point, and as we’ve seen in the past, desperation can make artists do some crazy things. That’s about the only explanation I have for the existence of “Ladies In The 90s,” which is ostensibly the leadoff single for Alaina’s third album. Spoiler alert: The ladies Alaina lionizes here probably aren’t the ones you’re thinking of, and and the result is a synthetic mess of a song that ranges from awkward to downright cringeworthy as it goes along.
If the phrase “ladies in the nineties” brings to mind women like Martina McBride and Patty Loveless, you’re going to be really confused when this “pop-disco banger” gets going. However, if the first names that come to mind are Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the production choices start to make more sense, because these artists have a heavy influence on this song’s sound. The track opens with a sitar-esque banjo stolen from Luke Bryan and a chorus of “nah-nahs,” but quickly turns into a slick, percussion-driven tune, with its mixture of real and synthetic drums ripped straight from a mid-90s pop track. Outside of the occasional piano riff and some omnipresent spacious strings providing background atmosphere, that’s basically all you get here, with absolutely nothing carrying the melody save for Alaina herself. While the track has a bright, energetic feel and a decent groove, they’re mostly wasted due to the confusion the track inspires: Not even Shania Twain or Faith Hill went this far with their sound back in the day, so the reaction from a 90s country fan like myself ends up being “These aren’t the ladies I remember.” This track is less a nostalgic remembrance of the 1990s and more a blatant attempt to generate some faux-nostalgia for 2010s country fans, and any good Pam Tillis fan will recognize this track as the snake oil it is.
It’s a crying shame to see what Alaina has been reduced to, because I still consider her one of the stronger vocalists in the genre. Her range and power remain as good as ever despite the , and she makes the story of the young, starstruck narrator feel both believable and heartfelt. In light of “Doin’ Fine” and this track, Alaina seems to have a special knack for autobiographical songs, and she makes the song part of her own story regardless of whether it’s actually true or not. That said, she has trouble overcoming the clumsiness of the writing, and despite her charisma, she isn’t able to dispel the dissonance that the lyrics and production bring to the table (that beat makes the Deana Carter and Dixie Chicks references feel token and insincere). I understand she’s staring at a 3rd-and-long on the field of country music, but a metaphorically well-thrown ball doesn’t change the fact that she’s throwing into triple coverage.
Much of the awkwardness I cited earlier can be traced to the lyrics, which tries to take broad-brush approach to celebrating…well, the “ladies of the nineties.” We’ve already discussed the production’s bizarre choice to celebrate the pop starlets of the era, but the truth is the producer’s hands were tied when the writers started quoting Madonna, Spears, and the Spice Girls in their choruses—are you really going to set “hit me just one more time” to a steel guitar? The effort to include influences from outside the country genre feels completely unnecessary, as there are plenty of successful women from that decade who could have been referenced (Martina McBride’s omission is the most glaring). While I appreciate the coming-of-age stories told on the verses, the title feels like a really awkward choice for a hook, the attempt to give the song a weightier message falls flat (the one line about not being “afraid to make a statement” flies by so quickly you barely notice it), and the chained-together lyrics from 90s hits both smacks of laziness and makes my skin crawl.
“Ladies In The 90s” tries to pull a fast one on us with its title, but it’s not the song I expected to hear, and it’s not a song I’m interested in hearing again. The writing’s reliance on pop stars feels like a complete misreading of the song’s audience, and Lauren Alaina and her producer are forced to take a deep breath and make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. While I’m sure everyone involved with this song truly wanted to celebrate the women that came before them, in my book, a nineties-ladies tribute that doesn’t mention Suzy Bogguss is no tribute at all.
Rating: 4/10. No thank you.