About Life as a Highway

I heard this song briefly on the radio the other day.  I say briefly because I had to turn it pretty much right away.

The problem for me with this song isn’t the sentiment, or the lyrics, it’s that it is such a bad cover version.  Rascal Flatts seems to lack any soul – they seem to be the epitome of corporate country in all of its very worst manifestations: bleached, Californian rather than Southern, overly electric, lacking any allegiance to the blues or bluegrass.  It’s brutal to listen to.

Compare it to the version done by Tom Cochrane, who actually wrote the song.

Cochrane’s original has so much more bite to it.  He’s got the sense of having actually travelled to these places, not just the ability to pronounce the names of the locales.  His guitar is sharper, and meaner.  And his song actually has the sex element still in it, while Rascal Flatts has made theirs pure vanilla.

That’s the main problem.  Here’s the chorus: “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long.  If you’re going my way, I’m gonna drive it all night long.”  Yes, these lines connote living to driving – to engaging with life in the fullest.  Rascal Flatts seems to have recognized that.  But that only gets you a low “C” in English class.  Nowhere in their version do they seem to recognize the baser allusion going on in the metaphor and the overall lyrics: the sexual attraction between the “you” and the “I” and the implicit sexual congress taking place “all night long.”

Cochrane wrote it.  He gets it – he still has sex in his version, in his growl and in his great “gimme gimme gimme” ad libs as the song progresses.  What’s most stunning to me is that Rascal Flatts’ cover is so bland and so lacking in imagination that the lead singer copies Cochrane’s “gimme gimme gimme” line.  But he does so as if he’s enacting a six-year-old in a lego store – “I want this, and that, and one of those.”

In the Racal Flatts version, that “gimme” is a pure expression of greed, of wanton desire for more stuff, of commodity fetishization.  For Cochrane, that “gimme” is about more loving, pure and simple.  There’s something wanton there, but it’s more primal – lust and plenty of it.

For Cochrane, it’s song about urgency, about engaging with everything that life offers – and that includes great sex (and why not?)!  The video gets at it a bit with the couple and the camera’s focus on the woman.  It’s not heavy in its visual representation, but it’s there, it seems to me.  (It’s totally vanilla in the other one.  Sex won’t get a PG-13 rating!)

That seems about as good a summary of the two bands, and perhaps even provides a fundamental way of thinking about corporate country, with Rascal Flatts as the prime example of it: a band constructed with the purpose in mind not so much to make interesting music but to make loads of money, which in turn sings about commodity fetishization and making loads of money.  And has success doing just that.

It’s depressing to think about really.  But here’s a surprise.  Rascal Flatts’ cover version went to #7 in the Billboard Top 200.  Cochrane’s?  #6.  Maybe there’s still hope out there!

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