Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘King of Tears’ Podcast

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve read most of his books and I now follow his Revisionist History Podcast closely, typically listening to the newest episodes the day of their release. That was the case last week. On my way into work, I listened to the wonderful King of Tears episode, which centers around the difference between Rock N Roll and country music and country music songwriter extraordinaire, Bobby Braddock, who wrote for George Jones and Tammy Wynette among others. Like all of Gladwell’s work, the podcast was expertly written and researched and completely captivating. Few writers have ever been better at examining the nuances of our culture and their wide ranging impact on our lives. Gladwell makes me think as much as any I read regularly and I love him for that.

King of Tears certainly got me thinking. More accurately, it started me debating Gladwell’s premise. This is a fantastic bit of radio and well worth a listen, but the elevator pitch version of his theory here is that the specificity of the lyrics in country music- music made and embraced primarily by rural Southern white people- is more cathartic than the more vague lyric expressions of rock n roll- music made and embraced by Urbanites from the Coasts. He then reads into this, ideas about this phenomenon’s impact on the cultural divide in contemporary America. It is fascinating and beautifully rendered, but it is also a hopelessly flawed argument.

To make his case, Gladwell snarks about the lyrics of songs from Rolling Stones list of the 50 Greatest Rock N Roll songs of all-time. He calls out the weak lyrical content of Hotel California at #49 (which would be better suited for a list the 50 worst rock n roll songs) #27 Layla and several others, but spends the most time mocking the nonsense lyrics of Little Richard’s Tutti-fruity at #43, lyrics which the articles notes for being made trite after having to be changed from the sexually-charged original version. He concludes by pointing out that the number-one song, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is essentially about a girl who drops out of Harvard. It’s entertaining sarcasm but it is a bit disingenuous.  Anyone making this kind of culture-close-reading style of argument is going to cherry pick the examples to some degree, but Gladwell is doing that in the extreme here and while Rolling Stone is certainly a worthy source to cite for the list, there are terrible choices here that can and should be questioned, especially Like a Rolling Stone as the number-one song of all time. I am a huge Dylan fan and wouldn’t even count that song among his five best. The song happens to share a name with the magazine making the list, so maybe it isn’t the definitive choice.

I’ll address the problem with Like a Rolling Stone as the torch-bearer for rock n roll and Gladwell’s interpretation of it another time because that was a large part of my reaction, but haggling over his examples doesn’t really matter much in terms of confronting the biggest misconceptions in his analysis. He isn’t wrong in his central premise that country music’s lyrics are more specific and that that stylistic choice makes them more cathartic in certain ways. Sure, George Jones singing He Stopped Loving Her Today can get a tear to my eye and the version at this memorial service is a good reason to invest in Kleenex stock, but that isn’t the whole story.

Country and Rock N Roll are very different musical styles despite sharing many of the same roots. What generally defines the difference between the two is which of their influences they lean into. The man who wrote Like a Rolling Stone began his career as a folk singer. Folk music from many sources influences both rock and country, but country music is the child of folk music in a way that even Bob Dylan’s rock music is not. Folk music is about story songs, songs like Woody Guthrie’s Buffalo Skinners or The Green Fields of France, begot the songs of Bob Braddock that Gladwell admires for their specificity.

Rock is the bastard son of the blues. The blues does not accommodate such long, detailed storytelling well at all. In fact, it is built in opposition to it. The traditional blues form is that of a single line, repeated once or twice followed by a “turn,” a line that completes or confounds the repeated phrase that came before. Blues has been incorporated into every form of American music in some way, even country, but rock n roll is the style that most closely resembles its father.

Consider the following blues lines from the blues standard Little Red Rooster, song covered by countless rock bands, including The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead*.

I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day

I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the barnyard, upset in every way

Specificity is made almost impossible by the form itself, but it would wildly inaccurate to say that blues music lacks the ability to bring you to tears. It just doesn’t try to accomplish that feat lyrically.

Listening to George Jones’s He Stopped Loving Her That Day, it isn’t hard to be moved by the lyrics and by Jones’s beautiful delivery of them. But how emotionally effective would the music itself be? Listen again and the answer is obvious. This song is nothing without its story; apart from some beautiful harmonica early on and the female backing vocal,  it is musically simplistic to the point of country cliché- a strumming guitar playing basic chords, a dull pedal-steel line and some swelling saccharine strings. If not for the lyric and Jones’s perfect performance as the man in that lyric, the song is nothing.

Contrast that with the song Gladwell sets in opposition to He Stopped Loving her…in his podcast, the Rolling Stones’ White Horses. It isn’t the perfect counterpoint, actually because, like the George Jones song, it is musically simplistic. Yet, even being a fairly typical, easy -strumming guitar driven song, the production is as musically superior in its specificity as He Stopped Loving Her… is in its lyrical specificity. Both songs are primarily in the key of G, with Wild Horses shifting toward the key of C and He Stopped… moving up a half step to G#. Both get their primary harmonic foundation from strumming basic chord voicings. And that is where the similarities end.

He Stopped Loving Her…’s rhythm guitar is metronomic. It’s simple bass-chord-1-2 pattern performed with robotic precision. The pedal steel is controlled and predictable, a cliché, really. On Wild Horses, Keith Richards’s 12-string guitar strumming drags heavily on a dirge-like beat, stretching the beat out in an agonizing way. Mick Taylor follows suit, tiny little lead lines high up on his acoustic guitar like a man who had been woken up, hung-over and dragged into the studio to play against his will and is trying not vomit mid-take. This all perfectly mirrors Jagger’s vocal style, defines the idea of worn out. By the times the chorus arrives and Mick sings “wild horses could not drag me away,” we have listened to over a minute of music that feels like it is holding on by a thread. The drums enter at the chorus to provide not only the rhythmic propulsion but also the backbone badly needed to sell the lyrics convictions. When the chorus ends, the music basically falls apart before reconstituting itself.  The song is musically specific in a way that He Stopped Loving Her is not. It isn’t really telling a sad story, it is embodying the sadness of its story.

And that is what blues music does.

The lyrics to Little Red Rooster are not the point. It is not the story of a roguish, cheating man leaving his wife and who misses him. It is the feeling of that longing. The specificity is in the performance and not the words. The song is a popular cover because it is a platform not for a storyteller but for a singer or a lead guitar player or harp player to pour the pain of missing someone. The last line is not a conclusion to a story but a plea.

If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home

If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home

Ain’t had no peace in my barnyard, since my little red rooster been gone.

Vocalists like Howlin Wolf might bend and twist these lines to the point of near obscurity. Guitarist wail on this tune. The point is not to make people cry. The point of the blues is that you are already crying and you need to get it out, not by telling the story but just by crying it out.

You can’t do that with He Stopped Loving Her… If you wail your way through the lyrics, the story won’t come through. The pedal steel needs to be restrained, the harmonica has to be subtle and brief. Anything that the music does that pulls attention away from the tale being told detracts from it. Gladwell is right that country has lyrics of greater specificity, but that often demands that the music submits to being more generic. Rock can succeed with lyrical clichés because it delivers through musical specificity. If Jones and Jagger both had to scat their vocal lines, which is the sadder song. It is Wild Horses and it is no contest.

There are always exceptions to these “rules”, of course, and while I like both country and rock, Jones and the Stones, I will admit my full-force preference for rock music here. My point here is not to hold up one style over the other, which is my biggest issue with what Gladwell does. I don’t think country musicians play inferior music to rock musicians. I am arguing that they play music that must be more constrained to a certain vocabulary that lets the lyrics rise up to the surface. Lyrical specificity demands that. Strip away that lyrical imposition and the music is free to go more places. Bob Dylan wrote many long, lyrically complex folk songs in his early career and many could be expanded into great rock songs. Check out the Hard Rain is Gonna Fall from Live in 75: Rolling Thunder Review if you need proof. But there is no translating the heartbreaking and lyrically specific Boots of Spanish Leather into rock n roll. Anything more than the simple fingerpicking accompaniment is too much for that lyric to bear. Conversely, there is a reason that when Nirvana stripped down for Unplugged to highlight the songwriting of Kurt Cobain, they didn’t play their biggest hit, the lyrically incomprehensible ode to teenage reckless desire Smells Like Teen Spirit. It just won’t work. It isn’t a story, it’s a feeling.

What does this all mean for the ultimate conclusion that Gladwell draws- that we are so divided as a country because while one side (conservatives) embrace music that brings them to tears, leaving them looking at the side that listens to the more lyrically generic much and seeing them as icy and cold, while the other side (liberals) hear these tales of small broken people and look down on them as unsophisticated and unthinking? I think it means that it can’t be that simple. I don’t think the divide that Gladwell describes is imagined, but there is a sense of a false dichotomy here. At the extremes, a certain type of lyric can’t co-exist with an expansive musical vocabulary and wild, musical experimentation won’t fit next to a detailed, personal narrative lyric, but there are as many shades of gray in between as the eye can see.

There is an important difference that exists between the lyrically-specific and the musically-specific that does say something about the division in our culture, but it is not what Gladwell says it is. Malcolm Gladwell is a writer and his bias toward stories, and therefore story-songs, should probably be understood in light of his profession. Listen a classical piano player talk about which pieces of music brings tears to his/her eyes and it won’t be George Jones or the Rolling Stones or anything else that fits into the pop music analysis above.  The difference is not a willingness to expose ourselves to emotions, but the level of comfort the two sides have with abstraction. Music with the kind of highly specific lyrics that Gladwell is praising is less abstract that music that relies more heavily on the musical performance of the lyric than words and the images they provide. Music is a greater abstraction than words. The word “tree” is not the thing of a tree itself, but it is only abstract to the degree that it means roughly one thing: tree. The musical note “C” has no meaning but the sound that exists at a certain frequency.  The more concrete the images the words create- the letters, the picture on the wall- the less the effect requires the listener to be ok with abstraction.

And I don’t think anything divides America today more how the two sides feel about abstraction. On the left, the comfort level is high to a fault. On the right, it is almost non-existent. Look at the extremes. Let’s take atheists vs. creationists. On one side, people believe in incredibly complicated hypotheses about the collision and expansion of atomic sub-units, theories they hardly even comprehend, but trust as reasonable because the people who do understand something about these great mysteries tell us they are reasonable. If that is not a high tolerance for abstraction, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, you have people who believe the world is just 6,000 years old and it was created when a fatherly spirit called God spoke it into existence over the course of seven, twenty-four hour days and they believe this because a very old book, written by that father-figure says so. That is avoiding abstraction to a fault. This is just an example. You can find hundred more. Liberals have unyielding faith in statistical analysis, while conservatives brandish antidotal evidence like rhetorical daggers.

And yes, the end result can be conservatives thinking that liberals are cold and detached and liberals thinking that conservatives are unsophisticated, but that is not because one side is more at home with their pain. After all, we call people “bleeding heart liberals,” right? The gap that needs to be bridged is not a gap in empathy- both sides can feel the pain. The gap is a one between people who feel empathy for the person before them, for their neighbors, for their friends and family and those who feel empathy for distant strangers. Half the country needs to stop looking away in disgust from the people in pain riding the subway next to them and weeping for the children in Aleppo and half the country needs to be as willing to sacrifice a little of their paycheck so a person they will never meet won’t die from lack of medical care while they are out volunteering at the local hospital with their church group. It is much bigger gap than the one between George Jones and the Rolling Stones, who are both pretty awesome.