Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?”

I like that Kelsea Ballerini is getting more chances to be real, but I wish I felt this track more than I do.

After “I Hate Love Songs” sputtered out as #25, “Miss Me More” was a solid rebound for Ballerini, as it scored a Mediabase #1/Billboard #2 and earned a prominent place on my best-song list for 2018. The song’s lengthy chart run, however, exceeded the expiration date for Ballerini’s sophomore album Unapologetically, moving her and Black River to close the door on the disc and start working on the only-slightly-mysterious “KB3” project. The first piece of the secret was revealed last week with the release of the debut single “Homecoming Queen?” and…honestly, I wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually do. It’s a suitably-serious song reminding us that there are cracks in the facade of “perfect” people (and telling said people that life doesn’t end when that mask comes off), but it lacks the raw power of “Miss Me More” and doesn’t hit the listener nearly as hard as it hoped to.

The production starts out promising, leaning mostly on an acoustic guitar and eventually a synthetic percussion line that’s so basic and minimal that they might as well have just left it out entirely. It’s about as restrained and organic as we’ve ever heard a Ballerini single, but eventually some spacious electric guitars jump in (and then some watery effects get smeared across them on the second chorus), and then some choral “ooh-oohs” get tossed in for the bridge solo, and the mix loses its magic and starts to feel overproduced. The gradual increase in the complexity and noise level was a really bad decision: It does nothing to add energy or provide a groove for the song (not that either one was warranted anyway), and it detracts from (and even partially obscures) the message that the lyrics are trying to convey. Had the producer stuck with the minimalist acoustic approach, I think this would have been a lot more powerful; instead, it’s just kind of there, and doesn’t entice the listener to pay attention.

The subject matter may fit well with Ballerini’s experience, but this song is an awkward fit for her as an artist. For one thing, the key is a bit too low, putting her dangerously close to the bottom of her range and sapping some of her power and tone (luckily, the song is deliberately low-powered to signal vulnerability and anxiety). The bigger issue, however, is the use of the “homecoming queen” to signal that it’s okay to not be perfect and to let people see the real you. Your stereotypical popular, pompous young lady isn’t the most sympathetic character in pop culture (in fact, they’re usually the villain: see Maddie & Tae’s “Sierra” or the existence of Diamond Tiara), and while Ballerini can get us halfway there and at least keep the character from being unlikeable, she can’t quite move the audience to feel for her plight. Topics like this are usually approached from a lower rung on the social ladder, and for as charismatic and as good a performer as Ballerini is, this song asks a bit too much of her power, and she can’t quite stick the landing.

The lyrics here have the narrator probing the life of a nameless “homecoming queen,” wondering if life is as rosy as it seems from the outside and letting them know that showing their real self wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s an admirable sentiment, and I appreciate the attempt to change things up by approaching the subject from a top-down perspective instead of from the bottom up (even if, as I mentioned before, I don’t think it really works). Unfortunately, the song feels artificially short to me (another verse or even a bridge could have fleshed out the story a bit), and there aren’t enough details here to set the scene (granted, I’m not really the target demographic here). The questions asked and advice offered feel more generic than insightful (“just be yourself!”), and the exchange doesn’t carry the weight that it’s aiming for. Ultimately, there’s little here to make the listener remember the conversation beyond the next song.

I just don’t feel “Homecoming Queen?” the way I did “Miss Me More,” and while it’s not a bad track by any means, it still feels like a significant downgrade following its predecessor. The production oversells the story, the writing undersells it, and Kelsea Ballerini doesn’t sell it much at all. I’ll still take this over the majority of songs currently at radio, but I feel like there’s a really good song buried here, and I’m sad that Ballerini and her team weren’t able to find it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s still worth a spin or two to see what you think.