As much-needed and long-awaited conversations about consent and sexual assault swelled during 2018, a song emerged that seemed like a qualified antidote to some of the distress: Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” written by Janson with renowned songwriters Tom Douglas and Scooter Carusoe.
“We wrote this song long before anything happened in the news,” Janson told Billboard. He continues, in an annotation of the lyrics on Genius, “The inspiration for this song came from our daughters. We wanted to put a song out there with subject matter that could be used as a template for young men, or any man, on how to actually treat a woman. Not preachy, just the truth.”
As the song was poised for a “Song of the Year” win at tonight’s CMA Awards, that template still looms large as a beckoning lighthouse of sorts for parents unsure of how to guide their sons. But what is it actually telling our daughters (and, for that matter, our sons)? While the intentions behind “Drunk Girl” are evident and admirable, the song itself lands concerningly –and perhaps damagingly – off the mark.
“Drunk Girl”‘s protagonist is presented with a woman at the bar – “either a bachelorette, or coming off a breakup” – who is drunk. He proceeds to take her home, not to hook up with her but to leave her keys (and his number) on the counter and let her sleep it off as he heads to a dive and then home. There are some beautiful one-liners characteristic of the talents of Douglas and Carusoe: “She’s bouncing like a pinball / Singing every word she never knew.”
Logistically, it’s a bit confusing:
If she’s a bachelorette or heartbroken, presumably she’s not out by herself, and he’d do better to ask for the location of her friends, not her house key. Rather than call her an Uber to take alone, he’s sober enough to drive, and is going to invite himself in, just to make sure that no one else does? She’s not presented as so drunk she’s sick, or in danger of needing a hospital, so it’s worth asking, who is he and why is he offering to save her?
“Take a drunk girl home
Let her sleep all alone
Leave her keys on the counter your number by the phone
Pick up her life she threw on the floor
Leave the hall lights on walk out and lock the door
That’s how she knows the difference between a boy and man
Take a drunk girl home.”
Is this really “the difference between a boy and a man”?
It seems off-base to automatically suggest that a man would do the gentlemanly thing, whereas a boy would take advantage of her intoxication. This isn’t a case where both characters are drunk, but rather one in which he’s sober enough to drive and she’s “[thrown her life] on the floor.” (It’s worth nothing that in the video, it does seem that they have been out drinking together, which is a scenario separate from the song itself and a different dynamic entirely.) While that line in particular may be a poetic attempt at describing the spilled contents of her purse, it’s a metaphor that plays too neatly into his designation as her unsolicited “white knight.”
The lyrics themselves present several troubling dynamics. First, the man described also leaves his number, which suggests he may just be helping her out in the hope that there will be some sort of reward down the line, sexual or otherwise, instead of an intrinsic act of goodwill towards her. In addition, if he does take her home to hook up, he’s just being a boy, and therefore not accountable for his actions.
The lyrics make assumptions that sell men short:
It’s unfair to suggest that all boys need to be explicitly told not to have sex with someone who’s drunk or might not seem interested, because this is something many boys, and men, already know. It’s unfair to suggest that boys don’t know that telling a girl to get in your car is much scarier than, say, sitting with her outside the bar while she drinks water and waits for her Uber. It’s unfair to suggest a boy wouldn’t want to wait until she’s sober or as sober as he is, even if she is interested. It’s also unfair to suggest boys automatically want to hook up with the drunk girl, as if they’re inherently insecure and only think they could get action while she’s intoxicated.
It’s unfair to suggest that all boys might make a mistake in this scenario were it not for a reminder in a country song.
It’s also unfair to women:
It discredits the women taking shots on Broadway, just steps from the arena, as the CMA nominations for Song of the Year are announced. Women know that what makes someone a man isn’t whether they’d take advantage of her or not. It portrays women as helpless by suggesting that getting drunk could make them victims of unwanted sexual advances or other dangers if a sober man didn’t come along and drive them to their houses.
Atrocities certainly do happen much, much too frequently. But by making the assumptions laid out in “Drunk Girl,” we instead take credit away from the men and women we seek to support. By suggesting that boys inherit a lack of judgment and sinful intentions that they must be taught to overcome in order to refrain from assaulting a woman, it deprives them of credit that’s due, and creates an artificial low point that doesn’t actually reflect current culture.
There are plenty of decent, wonderful, normal men who don’t fall into the narrowly-defined category above. Nashville is mostly past the wake of the “bro-country” wave, in which women were often looking good in painted-on jeans and little else. As bro-country faded, artists like Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett made it cool to be committed, with songs like “H.O.L.Y.” and “Die A Happy Man.”
Brett Young, for instance, has risen to success while, without much fanfare, serving as an example of how to write about women. On his upcoming album, “Reason To Stay” finds him wishing his woman could spend the day home with him, even though she’s “got a million things to do,” subtly flipping the housewife narrative on its head. In “Ticket to L.A.,” the woman of his interest “started law school in the spring,” something that’s unremarkable until compared to other descriptions of women in country songs, which usually describe them based solely on their appearance or the way they make a man feel (and almost never on their intellect or ambitions). In the past, it’s taken an egregious turn, as well documented and rebuked in Maddie & Tae’s breakout, “Girl in a Country Song.”
At the #1 party for “Sleep Without You,” co-writer Kelly Archer remarked repeatedly that typically her job in the co-write is to be the voice saying, “Hey, a girl doesn’t want to hear that,” something she’s never had to voice to Young.
Having writers like Archer in the room is a positive start – Keith Urban’s attempt to address double standards, “Female,” was co-written by Nicolle Galyon. Perhaps in art, as in life in general, we stop assuming what a woman needs and give them a voice to make that decision – or write that next chorus line – instead.