Can you call a song “Minimum Wage” if it isn’t even worth that?
I’m on record calling Shelton “the safest artist in country music,” but over the last year he’s also become the most predictable artist in the genre as well, releasing back-to-back kinda-sorta romantic duets with Gwen Stefani (“Nobody But You” and “Happy Anywhere”). However, both songs ended up topping the charts in 2020, so it’s no surprise that he’s going to this well for the third consecutive single (albeit minus Stefani this time) with his latest release “Minimum Wage.” The song has already caught some flak on Twitter for coming across as “tone deaf” in the middle of an economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, but I would argue that the song’s real problem is that it’s about as poorly-constructed as a love song could possibly be, and sends a lot of conflicting signals to the listener. For a guy who’s been giving us nothing but love songs lately, you would think he would know better than to drop something like this.
Let’s start with the production, which comes across as far too serious and pointed for the subject matter. The song is primarily piano-driven and backed by an overly-busy percussion line (electric guitars are used mostly in a background/supporting role, which the exception of a tolerable bridge solo), but what really stands out about the mix is its tone and tempo: The piano is dark and dour, and the complex kitchen-sink approach to the percussion makes what is really a midtempo track feel a lot faster than it is. As a result, this song doesn’t have the happy, sentimental feel you would expect from a love song (in truth, the sound seems too clean and sterile for the job). Instead, the mix has an aggressive edge to it, making it feel inexplicably argumentative and attitude-laden, as if it’s daring the listener to question the narrator’s life choices. It makes the song feel like it’s trying to send a message to the doubters in the audience rather than to the narrator’s partner, despite the fact that it directly addresses the narrator’s partner in the lyrics. It drains all of the love out of what is ostensibly a love song, which is the worst-case scenario for such a track.
Speaking of aggressive: Can we all agree that ‘Angry Blake Shelton’ is not a good luck for this guy, and to leave those sorts to songs to artists who can actually handle them, like Jason Aldean or Eric Church? Shelton handles the range and flow demands of the track well, but he loses his vocal tone when he tries to talk-sing (case in point: the “dive bar stage” ending of the song’s second line). The bigger issue, however, is that instead of infusing his delivery with heartfelt emotion and passion, Shelton’s tone is forceful and almost without feeling, emphasizing emphasis over feeling. He doesn’t sound like someone in love, he sounds like someone trying to make a point and win an argument, and much like the production he sounds like he’s trying to convince a skeptical listener of his happiness rather than expressing his affection for his partner. (It also doesn’t help that while Shelton’s first marriage to Kaynette Williams was between “high school sweethearts” and thus likely began pre-fame, he is best known today for his high-profile, power-couple relationships with Miranda Lambert and Stefani, which makes such a rags-to-“riches” song feel a little awkward coming from him, and is probably why it struck some people as tone-deaf.) Shelton has proved on songs like “I’ll Name The Dogs” that he can absolutely sell a love song, which makes his refusal to do so here a surprise, and the track suffers because of it.
And then we get to the writing, in which the narrator declares that despite not have any material wealth, their partner’s love “can make a man feel rich on minimum wage.” The whole “love > money” trope is nothing new in country music, but it’s rarely done this poorly. For one thing, the imagery used to make a point ranges from the blandly generic (apartment feels like a mansion, truck feels like a Cadillac, etc.) to the inexplicably bizarre (what exactly does a million-dollar bill taste like? And why does it matter that the six-pack is on a carpet?). The first verse sets up the story well and even has some decent lines, but the second verse ends up contradicting itself: The narrator claims that “keeping up with the Jones’, it just ain’t my style”…right after they wish for an endless tab and a giant yacht. So which is it: Money or love? Finally, the chorus is not only generic as mentioned earlier, but the ending gets super repetitive and wears out its welcome quickly. These aren’t dealbreakers by themselves, but given that the song gets no support from Shleton or the producer, they simply aren’t able to stand by themselves.
“Minimum Wage” isn’t that far off from a decent song: A couple more drafts in the writers’ room and a better gameplan in the vocal booth and producer’s chair could have made this at least slightly tolerable. It got none of this treatment, however, and what we’re left with is an awkward, off-putting mess that targets the wrong audience and fails to draw in listeners. It’s easily the weakest of Blake Shelton’s current love-song triumvirate, and simply doesn’t justify its existence in a world that already has his previous two songs (not to mention John Anderson’s “Money In The Bank”). Shelton remains a major star and isn’t in danger of irrelevance just yet, but when stuff like this, he isn’t getting back in my good graces just yet.
Rating: 5/10. Time is money, and this song isn’t worth either.