Country superstar Carrie Underwood has 13 songs on her sixth studio album, “Cry Pretty,” released Friday. But two tracks in particular have been receiving a lot of attention.
“Love Wins” is a soaring ballad about people coming together in a divisive culture. “The Bullet” is a devastating account of the aftermath of gun violence. Although this inspired publications such as USA Today to deem the album “vaguely political,” neither song directly addresses politics. Many news stories about the album highlight those two as standouts, but in interviews, Underwood is careful to emphasize that her music is simply about hoping for a better world.
“Honestly, when we were writing it, it was a little scary, because I was like, whatever we say, I just want to make sure people see this for what it is and what we’re trying to say,” she told journalist Hunter Kelly about “Love Wins.” “Because it’s so easy, I feel like, these days to, like, skim the surface of something, draw some crazy conclusion that’s not correct, and then make a thing out of it. Above all, we want people to feel hopeful. We weren’t trying to speak negatively about our world, because we live in an amazing world, too.”
“The Bullet,” she explained to the Daily Telegraph, was partly motivated by the horrific aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre: “It’s a beautiful and powerful song, and I thought for a long time whether or not I was the one to deliver its message. Unfortunately, too many events have happened and not just on a grand scale . . . Any word I say right now is gonna be wrong [laughs].”
We can practically hear Underwood’s nervous laughter. Because as history has shown, contemporary country singers are often loath to express any sort of opinion. With a few exceptions, the biggest stars in the genre — known for having a large conservative fan base — have been noticeably quiet as pop culture and politics collided over the past two years.
So even though Underwood is apolitical on this record, the fact that she actually broaches such topics (inclusiveness, gun violence) at all, even lightly, becomes a statement in itself — especially as some Nashville singers prefer their music to be pure escapism, which is how they explain their reluctance to address the polarizing climate. As one of the most successful artists in the genre, one who has built a hugely loyal fan base since she won “American Idol” in 2005, Underwood is making it clear: She has some things she wants to say, and she’s going to say them however and whenever she wants.
Underwood first made a splash with “Love Wins” (which she co-wrote with David Garcia and Brett James) as one of the early songs released from the record. While “Cry Pretty” was the first official single, about the struggle to deal with emotions when life gets tough, she released an elaborate music video for “Love Wins.” Lots of listeners first assumed it was about support for same-sex marriage, a stance Underwood already took years ago when she told a British newspaper, “I definitely think we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love.” While the title still seems like a nod to the common phrase for marriage equality, the lyrics talk about healing “the pain and the hate” of a broken world.
“Politics and prejudice, how the hell it’d ever come to this? When everybody’s got to pick a side, it don’t matter if you’re wrong or right,” she sings, going into the chorus: “I believe you and me are sisters and brothers, and I believe we’re made to be here for each other. And we’ll never fall if we walk hand in hand, put a world that seems broken together again. Yeah, I believe in the end love wins.”
And while there’s no topic more hot-button in the country music world than guns, lyrics to “The Bullet” (written by Marc Beeson, Andy Albert and Allen Shamblin) started floating around before the album came out. Many have highlighted this pointed line, about a family mourning the death of a gunshot victim and the domino effect of such a tragic death: “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns, but mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons. Left a hole in her heart and it still ain’t done, the bullet keeps on goin.’ ”
“The first time I heard it I was like, ‘Well, this is important,’ ” she told Entertainment Weekly, calling the song, “timely but not political.”
In the weeks leading up to the album launch, Underwood proved she can also make waves unrelated to her songs, thanks to an outspoken interview on Nashville podcast “Women Want to Hear Women.” The lack of women on the country radio charts is much discussed in the industry; on the top 50 country radio chart, there are a mere five songs by solo female artists. Underwood didn’t hold back. (Her recent single, “Cry Pretty,” cracked the top 10.) Noting the well-trodden excuse that female radio listeners don’t want to hear songs by female artists, Underwood proclaimed it “B.S.”
“I see so many girls out there busting their rear ends,” she said, noting the rotation of male artists that appear to easily hit the top of the charts. “And so many guys out there, that it’s some new guy has a number one and I’m like, ‘Good for you, that’s great, but who are you?’ . . . Then these women, strong women, who are super-talented that totally deserve it, not getting the same opportunities.”
Underwood is backing up her words: When she goes on tour next year, she’s bringing along female opening acts: Maddie & Tae and Runaway June. And when it comes to speaking out about anything more sensitive, she’ll say what she needs to, but she’s savvy — and she won’t walk into a trap of saying anything that she regrets.
“I know I have a couple of songs on this record that people try to make about something — it’s already happened,” she said to Entertainment Weekly. And although she went on to describe the message behind “Love Wins,” she may as well have been talking about her music in general: “It’s bigger than any one political party or issue or any one thing.”