Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now”

Songs like this are why mainstream country music frustrates me so much.

I consider Tenille Arts to be the better of the two Tenilles on country radio, and I was really on the first two singles of hers that I reviewed, “Call You Names” and “Somebody Like That.” Unfortunately, country radio didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Call You Names” never ended up charting, and “Somebody Like That” took fifteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1. (Yes, there were some behind-the-scenes issues regarding who was promoting the song, but your song is on the chart so long that you end putting two songs in the Top 15 on the Canadian charts in the meantime, the song didn’t have the impact you wanted.) The message came through loud and clear that Arts’s work had to stick closer to the script to have a chance of gaining airplay traction, so that’s exactly what they did: Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between was set aside, and “Back Then, Right Now” was released as the U.S. market’s leadoff single for Arts’s upcoming Girl To Girl album. In two words, the song is painfully formulaic, relying on generic buzzwords and a confusing nostalgic wish to ingratiate itself with the American audience, and it’s a significant step down from her earlier work.

It’s sad to see that after Arts’s last producer Alex Kline became the first solo female producer to get a country #1, this time the reins were handed to industry veteran Dave Pittenger instead, and the change doesn’t seem to be for the better. The production here takes the basic guitar-and-drum formula and swaps in a mandolin to lighten the sound, and while it certainly provides a more-positive vibe for the track, it feels a little bit over-the-top in the end (especially when combined with the random synth notes the fill the gaps between the lyrics), The steel guitar is used just enough to satisfy Billboard’s ‘country’ algorithms and doesn’t add much to the song overall, and what sounds like an electrified dobro add a single riff and then heads for the exit. The bright, overly-sweet feel of the mix is an awkward fit for the lyrics: The narrator wishes for a return to a simpler, more-fun time, but there’s no hint of this longing in the sound; instead, it seems like everything’s just fine “right now,” so what’s the point of bringing back “back then”? (The lyrics have an even bigger problem in this regard, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.) In other words, this is a saccharine summer mix on a song that isn’t a good fit for it, and it leaves the listener confused as to what the point of the track actually is.

Arts is a capable vocalist, but she runs into the same problem as the production—in fact, I’d say she’s more responsible for the song’s ill-fitting vibe than the mandolin is. There are no technical issues with the performance, as Arts’s clear, effortless delivery lets her breeze through the track’s moderate range and flow demands without breaking a sweat. The problem, however, is that her tone and demeanor is so positive and upbeat that it makes her call to return to another era ring hollow. Honestly, she’s in a no-win position here: She could bring a bit more seriousness to the table and draw a sharper contrast between the present and the past, but then she’s stuck in the same spot that Blake Shelton was on “I Lived It,” forcefully encouraging a return to the past that isn’t the nirvana they think it is. (Additionally, as a relatively-unknown artist who’s under 30, she doesn’t really have the experience or gravitas to make a case like this, and it makes the listener question if she really knows what she’s asking for.) Arts is simply the wrong singer for this kind of song, and despite the talent and charisma she’s displayed in the past, she just can’t sell this sort of story.

The lyrics, in which the narrator advocates for bringing back the good old days and reveling in the things they enjoyed when they were younger, are where this track completely falls apart. Longtime readers will recall that I personally can’t stand tracks like this, but I’ve got some particular bones to pick with this drivel:

  • The song spends all its time hyping up the past, but it doesn’t talk about the present at all, relying on the listener to fill in the gaps and compare it to their personal situation. If you don’t already think the past is superior to the present, this song won’t sway you with its non-existent argument.
  • The language here relies primarily on overused country clichés (you’ve got your “tailgate sippin’,” “Friday night lights,” “slow ridin’ down a throwback road,” and even jams together random buzzwords like “cold can full moon” and “map-dot hallelujah”), and is mostly just a laundry list of these phrases. Despite a brand-name drops (DQ, Kodak), the scenes themselves are so stock that they probably violate Getty Image copyrights, and they do nothing to hold the audience’s interest.
  • My biggest issue with this song is this: The song uses all the same scenes and turns of phrase that everyone else uses presently, but they use them to describe the past, so the past sounds the exact same as the present…so what’s the point of the song again? Why are we calling for a return to a different time when there’s no apparent difference between then and now? Substitute “Chevrolet” for “Pontiac” and “smartphone cameras” for “Kodak,” and you’ve pretty much got 2021 (or at least pre-pandemic 2020). In other words, this song has absolutely no point and thus fails to even justify its existence.

“Back Then, Right Now” is a poor attempt to salvage a weak attempt at a nostalgia trip and turn it into a lightweight summery track that’s already missed its seasonal window (although after “Somebody Like That,” maybe 19th & Grand is targeting next summer as its peak). Tenille Arts and the producer try a little too hard to sell a vibe that the song doesn’t really justify, and the lyrics are just a grab bag of “country” phrases whose only value is that they might win someone a Buzzword Bingo game. The whole mess feels like a calculated-but-lame effort to crack the commercial algorithm that is country radio and finally get Arts some radio momentum, and that’s probably what irritates me the most about this track. I’m still high on Arts as a performer, but this is another example of a lesser-known artists having to bend to Nashville’s will and play the same old game, and we’re all worse off for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.