Note: Today’s review comes to you by request of a close friend who actually hates me. I could have gone my entire life without listening to “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” or even knowing it existed. But this is an objective critique, not a roast.* So with teeth clenched and a bottle of wine freshly uncorked, let’s get to work.
Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” (or as I’m going to call it herein, “John Cubed”), is the strangest self-aggrandizing and groupthinky piece of music I have heard since the North Korean national anthem. But while it is clearly intended as a celebration of the culture that accompanies country music, it falls short emotionally, instead exposing a commercial titan of the industry who still doesn’t fully understand the genre he attempts to dominate, much less the nation with which he wants to assimilate.
The first verse rockets us into a stream-of-consciousness question of identity and individuality. Here are just of a few things that Keith Urban, apparently, is: “a 45 spinning on an old Victrola,” a Pepsi Cola, John Wayne, Superman, AND California, Mark Twain, Hemingway (to which I take personal offense – neither Twain nor Hemingway would ever write something this pandering), a Gibson guitar, a teenager, and a neglected jukebox.
Urban’s continual insistence to claim he is something he is not (namely, an American)** is offset by some Photoshop-happy intern’s decision to replace his silhouette with shots of other things: cables on the studio floor, a time-lapse of a sprawling city, and bubbles floating through someone’s back yard, to name a few. It is only about a minute into the music video that the footage switches focus away from Urban and turns to classic images of Americana: old trucks, old grocery stores, and young blond boys in flannel.
But it is already too late. While the videography of “John Cubed” attempts to convince you of Keith Urban’s down-to-earth rural persona, it remains clear that he probably hasn’t touched any actual earth since he went walkabout. The verses are riddled with references to products and trends that have nothing to do with anything but commerce, and have even less to do with each other.
If there is any cohesion or theme to the references Urban makes throughout, it centers on the glorification of midcentury American pop culture. From the first line, where he invokes an “old Victrola,” Urban clearly means to cast us in a nostalgic spell. The chorus is especially reminiscent of the American 50s: “I’m a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock ‘n roll / Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old / Just another rebel in the great wide open, on the boulevard of broken dreams…” Apparently this last one is in reference to a painting that features James Dean and Elvis Presley, but I defy you not to think of the Green Day song.
These images are meant to evoke a friction between the rampant sexuality and rebelliousness of youth, and a good country boy’s religious convictions (according to one of the co-writers, anyway). But the last line of the chorus destroys this illusion of thematic relevance: “And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” None of these Johns belong in the decade that Urban has been living in for the last three lines. John Cougar Mellencamp was popular in the 80s, John Deere was founded in the 1800s, and the Bible is, as far as I know, much older than that.
Any honest longing for times past is discredited immediately by Urban’s temporal inconsistency. What is revealed instead is a consistent worship of commerce and pop culture. Whether in his shoutouts to predictable and profitable A-list Hollywood stars from 50 years ago, or his adulation of equally American motorized vehicles, Keith Urban is not so much celebrating American culture as he is sprinkling it like mineral water on the ground beneath a sprawling Money Tree.
Far be it from me to defend the authenticity of country music – in fact, far be me from anything having to do with country music – but this work is so contrived, so obvious, and so intentional in its design to elicit a positive response from its target audience, that I’m actually confounded that it hasn’t been written already.
*I lied. This is a roast. Because if Keith Urban learned everything he needs to know from the three aforementioned Johns, who taught him that haircut was a good decision?
**Do not let this conniving Aussie or his emotionally manipulative music video fool you. He grew up on grilled kangaroo and Foster’s. He is technically a subject of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. It doesn’t matter if he drives a Chevy because he drives it on the left side of the road.