It’s important, when postulating about songs that may deserve placement on the Jukebox From Hell, to generally avoid easy targets. Let’s take my personal favorite whipping boys, Nickelback, for example: everybody knows that Nickelback is a blight on the musical landscape, the product of a horrid curse that a gypsy woman placed on rock n’ roll years ago, that their lead singer is an insufferable tool, and that encountering one of their songs on the radio is something akin to slowly peeling your cheek off with a dull cheese grater. That said, it’s simply too easy to sic the hounds on Nickelback – it’s been done, and done by everybody, so what’s the point in weighing in?
No, someone has to actually like the songs on the Jukebox From Hell for it to truly work; nothing really sours you on a song more than inexplicable popularity. In fact, my Popblerd colleagues have nominated Meat Loaf and Michael Franti songs that I actively like for this column, and since variety is the spice of life and all that, I protest only in the name of good-natured debate. There’s something about a song that fosters active likability – I once again refer you to Blerd’s take on “Say Hey (I Love You)” – that can get right under your skin.
But it’s important not to confuse an overplayed song with a terrible one. I think of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”, a song that I’d be perfectly happy never hearing again, and recall that I liked it a good deal when I first heard it. We sour on songs sometimes; those of us who love pop music, that’s just our way.
Enter Kid Rock protege Uncle Kracker and his white-bread 2001 smash “Follow Me”. Its immense popularity certainly isn’t inexplicable – it opens on a simple, repeating guitar figure, it boasts a breezy, low-maintenance earworm of a chorus, and on the surface, it doesn’t challenge on any level. This very formula has led to a number of perfectly mediocre Jason Mraz hits, so why does it deserve inclusion on the Jukebox From Hell?
Let’s disregard, for a spell, the notion that mediocrity is a bad thing, even though mediocre art can be far more infuriating than downright bad art. (Horror movie fans, I know you’re with me – watch the aggressively mediocre “Darkness Falls” and then the gloriously bad “Troll 2”, and tell me which one you had more fun with.) Uncle Kracker’s mediocrity as an artist has never been in question – check out his note-for-note cover of “Drift Away” for proof – but what makes “Follow Me” such an egregious example of how indifference gives way to spite is this: a glance at the lyric sheet proves that Uncle Kracker is, well, kind of a douche.
“Follow me, everything is all right; I’ll be the one to tuck you in at night,” goes the chorus, all laconic romanticism and fourth-grade poetry. “And if you want to leave, I can guarantee, you won’t find nobody else like me.” All is well in Kracker-land, a magical place where anyone with a melody and an insultingly low IQ can have a hit pop song. Kracker lays out his seduction technique early on: white women the world over who are easily swayed by pick-up lines have finally found their Prince Charming. Yes, single ladies, it is Kracker season, and that gentleman across the tiki bar wearing Ed Hardy just bought you this mojito – wait, what was that last line? Rewind that, please.
“I’m not worried ’bout the ring you wear, ’cause as long as no one knows then nobody can care.” Well, strike that “single ladies” thing – Kracker is gunning for the married women. This ode to cheerful summer love just took a dark left turn: with this one line, Uncle Kracker transforms from a genial-but-dumb barfly to a mustache-twirling villain who preys on the betrothed. “You’re feeling guilty, and I’m well aware, but you don’t look ashamed and baby, I’m not scared.” Wait – WHAT? First of all, I’m not sure what universe Uncle Kracker lives in where feeling guilty and unashamed are the same thing, but even between the syntactical faux pas, Kracker both demonstrates a willingness to push through the guilt in favor of temporal pleasure AND a passive-aggressive desire for this torrid affair to come to blows – “I’m not scared,” he tosses off, essentially throwing down the gauntlet for his lady’s significant other to come punch him in the head.
In the song’s vile bridge, Kracker sings the following: “Won’t give you money, I can’t give you the sky; you’re better off if you don’t ask why.” This air of deception is unsettling; of course it’s obvious that he can’t give her the sky, but in the grander sense of the sky as metaphor for “everything” (in the grand tradition of cheesy love songs), it becomes a little weird that he dismisses his fling with “let’s just not talk about it” flippance. Of course, he can’t bestow lavish gifts upon her because it may arouse her husband’s suspicions, but surely she doesn’t need to ask about that, as she’s also a complicit party; what is Uncle Kracker hiding? Is he some sort of criminal, who gets his money from ill-gotten means? Or, perhaps more likely, is there a Mrs. Kracker at home? The idea of doubling the number of ruined marriages so casually makes the song even more troubling. “I’m not the reason that you go astray; we’ll be all right if you don’t ask me to stay.” First Kracker rationalizes his involvement in the affair by absolving himself of accountability – problematic on its own, since such affairs go both ways – but why wouldn’t he stay if she asked? Clearly, Uncle Kracker is hiding something; it becomes increasingly more likely with the inclusion of this bridge that the subject of the song isn’t the only unfaithful party here. Either that, or he’s simply interested in the physical nature of the relationship – they’ll be all right if she doesn’t ask him to stay because, well, he doesn’t want to ruin the perfectly good purely sexual relationship they’ve got going on. Any woman who’s ever wept to her girlfriends about how “men are dogs” and “only interested in one thing” now have their validation due to Uncle Kracker and this ode to his roving penis.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Uncle Kracker is single, and the woman in question is the only unfaithful party. Kracker could have made this all better simply by including a line about how the woman’s husband is awful. I mean, if she were in a destructive, abusive relationship, Uncle Kracker would look positively saintly by wooing her away from the bad man; Kracker has ample opportunity to weave this loose end into his dark tale of infidelity. “I don’t care about the ring you wear, because sometimes your drunk husband grabs you up by your hair.” “I don’t care about the ring you wear, because your husband bangs bar skanks when you’re not there.” It would be so easy to cast himself in a favorable light, but he doesn’t bother to. As it stands, the song is about a woman who is stuck in a rut in her marriage, and the man who exploits her emotional weaknesses for sex.
As a song, “Follow Me” is fatally boring – it boasts literally the single least challenging lead vocal of all time (and yet Kracker still requires AutoTune – perhaps he’s not a passable singer on his own?), spends most of its runtime running its chorus into the ground, and never once escalates in pure song dynamics, which would go a long way for a song this monotone. But as a morality tale, “Follow Me” is downright slimy – Uncle Kracker veils his true intentions in sunny romanticism, effectively selling a weak-willed wife (and, by extension, his listening audience) on his folksy disposition and harmless nature. Peel back the Sugar Ray-esque veneer, and “Follow Me” is positively sinister.