Carrie Underwood – Before He Cheats
In the U.S. country has been the most popular radio format for the last ten years. Country radio is everywhere, and its corresponding hits regularly feature on the Billboard Top 40. While one often hears kvetching about how much better “trad” or traditional country is than the current stuff (the cliché hipster phrase being “I don’t like today’s country but I LOVE Johnny Cash”), the hits on country radio today are quite diverse and represent some of the best songwriting in the business. For example, the current top US country smash, Girl Crush by Little Big Town (no.2 on U.S. iTunes as I write this) is one of the loveliest and smartest hits of the year in any genre. It’s not just about trucks and hats and baby geese and Jesus anymore, folks.
In the UK, however, country hits rarely make a dent on the charts. This is quite sad, because British music fans are losing out on some of the best music being released today.
Case in point: Carrie Underwood. The blond haired, big piped winner of season 4 of American Idol, Carrie is in a dead heat with Kelly Clarkson for the title of most successful Idol champion ever. While Kelly may have had more top ten hits and worldwide chart success, Carrie has actually sold more records globally. She is now the undisputed queen of US country radio, with 20 top ten country hits (of which 15 hit no.1.) On the pop chart, she took her Idol coronation song Inside Your Heaven to no.1, and she has made the US top 40 with almost all of her country hits and a variety of interesting cover choices.
When her post-idol career began, however, there was some reason to be nervous. The first three singles from her debut album were not exactly classics, and Carrie was shaping up to be another generic country chanteuse and perhaps roadkill on the post-Idol career highway.
Luckily, fourth single Before He Cheats was a masterpiece and became her career-defining anthem. Funny and scary at the same time, with a powerful minor key melody that is more arena rock than honkytonk, it tells the tale of a woman who is wise to her cheating man, a man who’s slow dancing with a bleach blonde tramp (said tramp of course being the kind who drinks a “fruity little drink because she can’t shoot whiskey,” and who is “probably up singing some white trash version of Shania karaoke.”) Carrie ain’t taking her man’s b.s., however, and in the chorus she outlines the following acts of revenge she has committed against her two-timing boyfriend:
1. Dug her keys into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive
2. Carved her name into his leather seats
3. Took a Louisville slugger (a baseball bat) to both his headlights
4. Slashed a hole in all four of his tires.
All of these actions in real life, of course, would result in criminal prosecution, but here Carrie uses it guilt-free to remind her man that “maybe next time he’ll THINK before he cheats!” As revenge fantasy pop songs go, this one takes the cake.
The accompanying video brings all of this to vivid life. Carrie, looking gangster glam in a tight leather jacket and aviator glasses, wreaks havoc on what appears to be all of New Orleans (or at least a Hollywood soundstage) with the world’s most powerful wind machine egging her on to scorned woman heaven. The song and the video together were together responsible for changing Underwood’s pop persona from sweet country lass to the bad-ass take-no-prisoners diva that has become her signature style.
Before He Cheats was a straight-out smash, hitting no.8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying on the charts for over a year. It won Carrie the Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Peformance and the song’s writers (Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear) for Best Country Song. In the UK, however, it failed to chart. In fact, despite her huge US success, Carrie has only notched a single week for ANY song on the UK charts, and that for a mediocre album track, I Know You Won’t. In my mind this is a tragedy. Whether it’s due to the UK bias against country hits is unclear, since Carrie is a superstar who crosses genres. Frankly, if the UK pop chart were a car, Carrie would have pushed it off a cliff by now, with its X-Factor loving headlights punched out and the initials “C.U.U.K” carved into the dashboard.
Entered chart: did not chart
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Kelly Clarkson. Her cover would initiate the great Idol diva battle to end all Idol diva battles.