Has country music lost Kelsea Ballerini?
Back when “Miss Me More” came out, I called the track “a shot across the bow of country music,” declaring that Ballerini “won’t hesitate to find greener pastures if the genre denies her the opportunity for success.” Country radio kingmakers don’t listen to me, however, and they may be paying the price: After “Homecoming Queen?”, the leadoff single for Ballerini’s third album Kelsea, stalled in the high teens and wound up with a disappointing #17 airplay peak, Ballerini and Black River responded by teaming up with Halsey (another young female singer who seems to be on the rise in the pop world) and dropping “The Other Girl,” a song whose pop sensibilities may be even stronger than “Miss Me More.” Ballerini’s pop pivot plot seems to have been set in motion, but there’s a flaw in her escape plan: This song isn’t very well-constructed, it frames the conversation as more of a competition than a commiseration, and generally leaves me wishing they’d have stuck it out with “Homecoming Queen?” a bit longer.
The most striking feature of the production here is how brazenly synthetic it is: There are almost no actual instruments here to speak of, and the producer doesn’t care who knows. The song opens with some unsettling sound effects and an underwater drum machine, and these combine with some darker synth tones to make up the bulk of the arrangement. (Some guitars add a few strums and whole notes in the background, and a piano tosses in a simple riff here and there, but that’s about it for real instruments.) There’s an overarching darkness and an incredibly cold and calculated feel to the mix (more stemming from the instrument tones than the chord structure), and the tone sits in an awkward place between a banger and a ballad, giving the track a real sense of tension at the two women size each other up. I don’t find it to be a great fit for the subject, as it casts the narrators in a darker light and makes them feel less sympathetic than in songs like Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You” or even Cam’s “Diane.” Finding yourself in such a scenario may drive you to some dark places (Side note: I did not expect Reba to blow up the freaking boat in that linked video), but taking such a tack leaves the audience with a conflicted feeling when it’s over, and no one seems to walk away clean, especially the producer.
Ballerini is an exceptional performer who really drove her point home when the anger was flowing freely on “Miss Me More,” but she struggles a bit with the understated annoyance of the narrator here. She sounds a lot better in her lower range than she did in “Homecoming Queen?” and neither her flow nor her power are really tested here, but instead of the side-eyed snark I would expect from the narrator in this situation, she comes across as passive-aggressive, pulling her punches rather than taking big swings. (There are some hints of insecurity in the writing, but you don’t feel it in the vocals—Ballerini’s delivery feels a little too matter-of-fact at times.) As for Halsey, she projects a bit more of a sultry temptress with her voice, but even that feels more muted than it should be, and the two artists mostly just stare each other down from across the room rather than confront each other. The performances are caught somewhere between the camaraderie of “Diane” and the animosity of “Fist City,” and don’t wind up am impactful as either one in the end.
The lyrics seem to be caught as a crossroads, unsure of which fork in the road to take. For example, the narrators spend most of the time imagining the other person in their mind, but their tone alternates between being complementary (“everything you wear fits you just right,” “I bet you’re smart,” “I bet you’re cool”) to taking shots at one another (“I bet you’re more promiscuous than I”). The whole premise of the song is try to differentiate themselves and decide who “the other girl” is, but at the same time the occasionally find common ground (“Are you mad? Me too!”) The two speakers here honestly don’t know what to make of each other, and while their complements to the other person perhaps represent some insecurity in the speaker, the writing doesn’t really explore this, and instead leaves the pair in this awkward situation. Beyond the “scarlet letter” line, I wouldn’t call anything terribly novel or clever here—the statements are fairly boilerplate (and they honestly veer a bit too close to laundry-list territory for my liking). It’s the sort of inconclusive track that leaves the listener mostly confused when it’s finished, but doesn’t interest them enough to stay engaged and solve whatever mystery is present.
“The Other Girl” feels like a song that was constructed to make a big splash, but only generates a few ripples on the surface in the end. There just doesn’t seem to be a coherent plan for what to do with the track: The production frames it as a confrontation, the vocals try to keep things chill, and the lyrics can’t make up their mind just where to go with this whole thing. Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey bring some decent star power to the table, but this isn’t the break-glass single that Ballerini needs to launch herself out of the country orbit and into the pop galaxy. For now, it appears the reluctant standoff/partnership between her and country radio will continue, with neither side especially happy with the arrangement. In truth, with newer artists like Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett suddenly surging, Ballerini is at risk of becoming “The Other Girl” herself.
Rating: 5/10. I wouldn’t go out of your way for this one.