Currents events giveth, and current events taketh away.
When Tim McGraw released his last single “I Called Mama,” it felt like an accidentally perfect fit for the moment, capturing the individual response to the collective grief we were facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While he had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (it peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart), the song scored a lofty position on my best-of-2020 list, and further cemented McGraw’s positive legacy in the genre (he’ll always have to own “Truck Yeah,” though).
Now, McGraw is back with another socially-conscious single geared for the moment, teaming up with Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard to release “Undivided,” a song that feels a bit more calculated and purposeful in the wake of President-Elect Joe Biden’s call “to reunite America — to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The song itself, however, is surprisingly clumsy in its messaging, and in the wake of far-right domestic terrorists storming the Capitol and the hollow, disingenuous calls for unity from Republican politicians as a means of saving face and avoiding consequences, the song comes across as naive and even a little out of touch. If we’re going to laud McGraw for meeting the last moment, we have to acknowledge that he and Hubbard failed to meet this one.
The production here is a bit tricky to unpack, as it’s a light and breezy arrangement that creates a hopeful and optimistic atmosphere that accentuates the song’s message, but it doesn’t really give the topic the weight it deserves. The primary melody drivers here are an acoustic guitar and mandolin, and while Grady Smith’s favorite clap track helps open the track, it’s quickly replaced by a full drum set by the first chorus. (Some electric guitars are here too, but outside of the bridge solo, they’re generally minimized and left in the background.) On one hand, the bright instrument tones and kinda-sorta-brisk tempo gives the tune a surprising amount of energy, the slow buildup of the arrangement over time helps the track gain momentum as it goes along, and the positive atmosphere it creates helps encourage the listener to go along with the message. However, this emphasis on creating good vibes makes it feel like the song is trying to gloss over the serious issues that are dividing us (the lyrics do the song no favors in this regard either). Rather than trying to strike a balance between reckoning with these difficult issues and expressing faith that they can be resolved, the sound is all about the latter and mostly ignores the former. In short, what we get here is necessary, but it’s not really sufficient for a topic like this.
For their part, neither McGraw nor Hubbard are terribly effective at pushing their message of unity across. Neither artist encounters any techincal issues with the track (the song’s range is fairly constrained, and the flow is actually relaxed despite the kinda-sorta-brisk tempo), but this is a song that requires a lot of charm and salesmanship from the performers to make the wong work (after all, you’re trying to convince divided groups to come together, and there’s a reason or four that they’re divided). We’ll talk about how the lyrics and context work against this in a second, but McGraw’s surprisingly even-keel delivery feels too sterile and lacks the passion or urgency to really move skeptical listeners to action. (Hubbard’s performance is even worse, featuring casual “yep” and “that’s right” shoutouts and generally coming across as too laid-back to be taken seriously.) With the different camps so far apart and deeply entrenched in their positions, an artist really needs to bring their A game if they want to move the audience, and neither singer hits the mark here.
And then we get to the lyrics, which try to convince the listener that it’s finally time to come together in peace and brotherhood “’til this country that we love’s undivided.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I have several problems with the writing itself:
- The song is way too scattershot, and doesn’t have a coherent message beyond “love everyone.” It starts with an entire verse dedicated to middle-school bullying, then devolves into a rapid-fire round of topics that are barely mentioned before being tossed aside (religion! race! politics! …job vs. jail?). The listener never gets a sense of the importance of these topics because they’re never expanded upon (which becomes a bigger issue when the statements themselves are confusing: When Hubbard says “why’s it gotta be all white or all black,” is he decrying the “with us or against us” mentality, or is he trying to make a statement about race?). The listener may be left with a “we can do it!” message, but they may not be sure what they’re trying to do.
- Don’t go looking for any detail or nuance here, because there’s none to be found—the song is fully reliant on the listener filling in the blanks with their own experience. Even in the middle-school anecdote, so many details are left out that it’s hard to make sense of the story: What was Billy picked on for? What happened to him as a result of the abuse? What the narrator’s role in the tale besides being a not-so-innocent bystander? There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting listeners bring their own experiences to a song (although I wish fewer songs forced them to do so), but one of the main problems we have right now is that so many of us simply don’t have the necessary experience to properly fill in the blanks. A straight white male like myself, for example, has no idea what it’s like to be Black, gay, or female in America, and thus will struggle to imagine what it’s like to live under the constant threat of discrimination or abuse. Inviting us to “try on someone’s shoes” is fine, but the song needs to do more to fill in its likely-clueless audience about what those shoes feel like, and give us all a sense of what it’s like to be someone else.
- The only explicit nod to politics is when McGraw says “I’m tired of looking left or right,” but make no mistake: Politics is perhaps the chief divider of the nation right now, and if the country is going to come together, we’re going to have to address the political angle. This is where the song really falls flat: It takes two to tango, and after seeing a mob storm the Capitol to overthrow the results of a democratic election, nobody on either side is in the mood to compromise and come together. Even worse, the people that inflamed and enabled this movement with their lies and misinformation are now the ones whimpering for unity to avoid paying the price, making this song (fair or not) ring a bit hollow by association. Bridging this gap is going to take a lot of work, and all this song has to offer is a little cheerleading.
- But wait, doesn’t this track offer some solutions for getting out of this mess? Sure, but all we get is the typical “love conquers all” and “God will fix it” cop-outs, as well as a brief call to try to see someone else’s perspective that is never expanded upon and quickly forgotten. Only the greatest of singers can make this schtick stick (see: Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton), and as we’ve already discussed, McGraw and Hubbard failed to stick the landing this time around.
Put it all together, and you’re left with a platitude-filled word salad that fails to sell its message to its audience.
I was conflicted on “Undivided” before I started this review, and I remain conflicted over 1200 words later. Calling for people to put aside their differences and come together is a decent core message and a workable starting point, but neither the production nor the writers nor Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard seem to treat the differences we’re confronting with the seriousness they deserve. Coming together after years of anger, injustice, and bitter partisanship is not going to be a walk in the park, and this song just papers over the problems we’re facing instead of actually confronting them. We do need to come together, but instead of offering empty words calling for love and understanding, let’s identify the problems behind the divide and take concrete steps to address them. Talk is cheap—let’s put our money where our mouth is, and show the world (and each other) that at long last, we mean business.
Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen or two to try to convince yourself you can make a difference, and then put it aside and go actually make a difference.