Technically this is a revival of an old feature rather than the introduction of a new one, but either way it begs the same question: Why?
It’s no secret that I haven’t been terribly happy with the state of country music over the last two years, but I also have a longstanding theory that no era of music is truly bad: No matter what year it is, you get some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a ton of stuff in the mushy middle. Thus we find ourselves with a conflict: Is today’s music truly as bad as it seems, or am I merely being too harsh on an era of music that isn’t “my” era?
This feature is an attempt to answer that question: Given some songs from the recent past, let’s put them under the same level of scrutiny as current releases, and see if they hold up. Will they still be good, or will they wilt when the light of nostalgia has dimmed? There’s only one way to find out.
The first song going under the microscope is “There is No Arizona,” the 2000 debut single for Jamie O’Neal, an Australian-born artist whose career started hot and quickly cooled off (only three of her tracks made the top 15: The numbers ones “Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” and the #3 “Somebody’s Hero” several years later). After almost 23 years, does the song hold up despite being exposed at blatant misinformation (the last few elections have proved that Arizona does, in fact, exist)?
Let’s start with the production, and despite being from 2000, I think this song reveals some fundamental truths about the late neotraditional period:
- Despite being lauded as the fiddle-and-steel era, there were plenty of standard guitar-and-drum mixes that I’ve been griping about lately.
- I’ve tend to use the ‘guitar-and-drum’ label as a derogatory, but such a mix doesn’t automatically doom a song to meritless mediocrity.
The production here is a great example of how the foundation of so many bland, boring 2020s songs can be leveraged to make a bigger impact. Let’s start with the unorthodox vi-III7 chord structure of the verses and the plethora of minor chords on the chorus, giving the song an ominous and unsettled feel that suits the uncertain promises contained in the lyrics. There may not be a fiddle or steel guitar around, but instead we get a mandolin that helps supports the acoustic guitar in carrying the melody, a classically-toned piano to fill in the space between the lines, and the most mournful harmonica you’ll ever hear opening the song and closing the choruses. (Heck, there are even hints of a cello floating around in the background!) There’s no bridge solo here, but there’s still a lot going on with this arrangement, with its hints of disharmony inviting listeners to hear the whole story and its individual pieces bringing enough energy to drive the message home without getting in its way. It’s a solid mix all the way around, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to.
So what about this story? Well, for one thing there actually is a story here, and while at its core it’s another story of love gone wrong, it’s got a few key twists that you don’t see in tracks today. Tales of love and loss nowadays are very straightforward—some sort of clean break has happened, and while certain parties aren’t happy about it, at least everyone knows where they stand. In contrast, “There Is No Arizona” is a story full of gray areas: One member of a couple has left for Arizona to prepare a life for the pair, but outside of a lone post card, they essentially ghost their no-longer-significant other and are never heard from again. The title is straight-up clickbait, to be sure, but it represents the idea that whatever grand utopia awaited the pair never actually existed in the first place. (Note that I can’t talk much about the narrator here because the story is in the third-person, another difference from the I/me songs of today.) The realization that this promise isn’t worth the paper it was never printed is teased early on and dawns on both the waiting partner and the audience over time (a tactic that has since been crushed by streaming), and it causes the listener to ask a lot of questions: Was this outcome a product of malice or incompetence? Was there ever truly love here in the first place? Will Arizona actually exist at some point? This lack of a clear resolution (even though there’s a heavily-implied one) gets the listener to ruminate a bit more (and a bit deeper) on this track than the more cut-and-dried songs of today. (There’s also a decent level of detail on the choruses here, although finding a town with a bit more name recognition than Sedona would have been better; I still don’t know where that is.) There’s just enough here to make this feel like more than just a lost-love song, and I think that’s what draws people to the track even today.
As for O’Neal, I think she caught in the boom-and-bust cycle of Nashville: The late 90s/early 00s was the era of Shania, Faith, and Martina, and when the trend fizzled, Nashville did to her what Elon Musk did to most of Twitter’s workforce and sent her packing. While O’Neal may not have had the most distinct voice (you hear a lot of Faith Hill in her delivery), she was still a capable vocalist who could effortlessly sell a story like this one. She may technically be a bystander here, but she does a really good job channeling the waiting partner’s feelings of sorrow and abandonment, allowing the audience to share in them and making the waiter a sympathetic character. (While I never would have called O’Neal a power vocalist back in the day, the ease with which she ramps up her performance on the choruses also indicates that she could have really brought the heat if needed.) She’s the kind of artist that probably deserved a few more years in Music City to become more established, but the road the Nashville is littered with cases like hers, and it’s kind of a shame.
So where does our judgement fall in the case of “There Is No Arizona”? Honestly, I think this one still stands up: The production is fantastic, the story is intriguing, and Jamie O’Neal does a nice job in the narrator’s role. No, this song wouldn’t go anywhere in 2023 (its four-minute runtime and slow rollout of the punch line would make it dead on arrival), but it’s still better than much of what’s on the airwaves today. One song is way too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions from, but we can at least draw some meaningful contrasts between then and now, and can take the first steps towards determining what (if anything) has gone wrong in the decades since.
Rating: 7/10. If you’re not familiar with O’Neal’s work, now’s a perfect time to change that.
One thought on “Retro Review: Jamie O’Neal, “There Is No Arizona””
Every time someone refers to Arizona, I legit tell them there is no Arizona. When they don’t understand the reference, I want to strangle them and then throw them in the Grand Canyon. Do people forget everything?