Song Review: Tyler Hubbard, “5 Foot 9”

“Jack makes good whiskey,” but Nashville makes the clichéd stuff.

I spent much of my last review harping on the Music City meta, but Tyler Hubbard’s latest single makes for a pretty good case study as well. A decade ago, Hubbard was the man defining this meta, as he and the mostly-invisible Brian Kelley helped usher in the Bro-Country era and played a major role in spreading the sound and subject matter that dominated the 2010s. While Florida Georgia Line was both controversial and cutting-edge back in the day, today Hubbard seems to be more of a conformist, crafting his solo career within the confines of Nashville’s rules rather than thumbing his nose at them. The results have been mediocre at best: “Undivided” was a forced can’t-we-all-just-get-along track that nobody wanted or listened to, and his latest effort “5 Foot 9” is even less interesting: It’s a paint-by-numbers buzzword salad dumped into a gelatin mold and formed into a love song that is neither interesting nor romantic. In other words, the song is exactly what the powers that be in this genre want their songs to be: Checklist-compliant and easily forgotten.

I bemoaned the sick, soulless sound of “Catching Up With An Old Memory,” and while “5 Foot 9” is a sign of the progress Nashville has made since the height of the Metro-Bro era, is also a sign that the genre still has a long way to go. The song opens with a bright, lively acoustic guitar and a bass-drum-only percussion line, includes a few steel guitar rides for flavor, and turns the bridge solo over to a dobro-esque instrument, eschewing the synthetic instruments that dominated for a decade and rediscovering the power of acoustic instruments. All of this is good…but once the chorus hits, more guitars and percussion jump in (not the mention the echoey audio effects), and the whole arrangement gets squashed together into in indistinguishable wall of noise, a phrase I’ve been leaning on more and more over the last few years. A mess like this draws the listener’s attention away from the writing and makes it really hard to re-engage with the song until the unnecessary sensory overload subsides. Another issue is that the short bridge solo is the song’s only distinct-sounding feature—otherwise, this sounds like every other song on the radio right now, even without the snap tracks. I’d really like to see Nashville do more to distinguish artists with they’re sounds, because otherwise neither the song nor the artist can really justify their place in the genre.

Speaking of artists: Hubbard right now is a man that’s running from his past, and he hasn’t yet put quite enough distance himself and FGL to sound credible in the narrator’s role here. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of, and at this point he’s now the one that newer artists are trying to mimic (*cough* Morgan Wallen *cough*), but as the primary lead singer of Florida Georgia Line, his voice is the one associated with Bro-Country anthems like “Cruise,” “Sun Daze,” and “Smooth,” which makes it hard to picture them as a responsible individual committed to a longstanding relationship. (If that sounds familiar, I said the exact same thing in my “Talk You Out Of It” review four years ago.) To his credit, it’s not for lack of trying on Hubbard’s part; he just doesn’t have the charisma or charm to make a clean break from his history here. (The lyrics do him no favors either, but we’ll get to that later.) At best, this is a run-of-the-mill performance that fails to let the audience share in Hubbard’s good vibes (or even convince them that he’s sincere), and probably wouldn’t sound any different with anyone else from Nashville’s young male assembly line behind the mic.

And then *sigh* we get to the lyrics:

Jack makes good whiskey
Red dirt makes good riding roads
Country makes good music
For kickin’ up dust in a taillight glow
Dry wood makes good fires
Good years make good swings…

I thought we had finally moved past those annoying laundry lists of the last decade, but it seems I was mistaken.

Supposedly this is a love song towards the narrator’s partner, but in reality it’s a thinly-disguised checklist song that makes sure to use all the buzzwords: Whiskey, red dirt roads, taillights, trucks, fires, a “small-town accent,” God, Tim McGraw (I guess at least it’s not George Strait this time?), and a bizarrely-specific reference to gravel driveways that felt especially forced. Oh, and just as I noted in “Talk You Out Of It,” the narrator’s praise of the woman is limited to their physical attributes (“5 foot 9, brown eyes in a sundress”), save for a “dancing with the raindrops” moment that feels surprisingly dated (only Gene Kelly and Pokémon dance in the rain). Throw in the worst title/hook mismatch that I’ve heard in a long time (seriously, if you heard this song you’d never guess the title, and “5 Foot 9” isn’t exactly a catchy name), and you’re left with an track that feels rote and lazy, one that will disappear from your mind thirty seconds after the music stops.

“5 Foot 9” is a weak effort that simply doesn’t measure up, even in the bland, generic meta we’re living through right now. It might check all the required boxes to get onto the airwaves, but it tries to expend the least possible effort while doing so, and as a result we get boring soundalike production, atrocious writing, and Tyler Hubbard trying to wave his hands and make you forget every Florida Georgia Line track he fronted over the last ten years. Hubbard can’t change the past, but he could take more interesting steps towards the future: As much as the Bro-Country era drove me up a wall, at least it was a bold, fresh step for its time—now all we get are reheated leftovers that all taste the same. Instead, he’s stuck in the same bland morass of sameness that everyone else is, and we’ve got better things to do with our time than stand for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided”

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.