My first post for Country Perspective was my opinion on who could replace the gaping hole left by Taylor Swift after her official move to pop music. Included on my list were names like Kellie Pickler, Brandy Clark, and Sunny Sweeney as I was hoping, and still am hoping, to hear more classic sounding country coming out of the female side of the spectrum. However, Music Row seems to have an answer for that void in the name of Kelsea Ballerini. This newcomer is already off to a strong start in mainstream country, and wouldn’t you believe it, she has Taylor Swift on her side as well.
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) March 9, 2015
That tweet by Taylor Swift only helped Kelsea Ballerini gain some momentum in her country career. Country Perspective has been calling Kelsea Ballerini the female equivalent to Sam Hunt. Kelsea’s debut single is just in the top ten, and now she has a debut album called The First Time ready with more pop garbage to infect country radio.
Why do we call her Sam Hunt’s female equivalent? Well allow me to present Exhibit A: the lead track on The First Time called “Xo.” Before you get your hopes up, this isn’t some cute pop country ode to a Trisha Yearwood hit. This is 100% pop/rap/dance crap that has no business being anywhere near country music. This song is about how Kelsea’s out with her man, but his ex girlfriend is at the same place, and Kelsea can tell there’s still sparks there. “You’re still in love with your ex, oh, and I ain’t one to be nobody’s second best, no” she sings in the chorus. Kelsea also makes it very clear that while she’s blonde, she’s not dumb. But she’s only smart enough to notice where her man’s attention is, not take the next step to kick the guy to the curb.
“Peter Pan” is a bit friendlier with a more natural pop country production. Here she compares her boyfriend to Peter Pan as he won’t grow up and be a man. The fairy tale references work well here and aren’t overdone. I have no problems with this song. Following this is another song where Ballerini doesn’t want to put up with boys. The lead single, “Love Me Like You Mean It” shows Ballerini wanting to get with the bros, but she’s annoyed they can’t commit. As Josh wrote in his great review of the song, “These lyrics are confusing and quite frankly shallow in terms of depth. This is bubblegum pop meant to appeal to radio and casual listeners. In a world with common sense this is on pop radio. But we live in a world where pop music being passed off as country music is the norm.” I couldn’t have said that any better.
Kelsea Ballerini continues to prove she belongs in pop more than country with “Square Pegs.” This is pop song where Ballerini does a sort of pseudo-rap encouraging people to be themselves regardless of whoever may criticize you. It’s a good message, but delivered poorly with fluff like “Everybody gotta be themselves, everybody gotta dream out loud, everybody gotta be themselves, square pegs make the world go ’round.” This is not a country song by any stretch of the imagination. “First Time” is a ballad about how Kelsea was stood up, again, by an ex-boyfriend. She sings, “goodbye should mean goodbye the first time” while she believes he’s out with some other blonde saying the same things to the new girl that he said to her. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. She at least realizes that old adage is true and vows to stick to her guns next time. And as if this pop album couldn’t get worse, Kelsea Ballerini records a song that’s just like a bro-country love song in the field, only from the female point of view. Here’s how the chorus to “Looking at Stars” begins:
So baby pick me up, I’ll be in the drive
Take me where the moon’s hanging in the sky
We can park it by the river, get out and throw the tailgate down down down
Really? I guess it’s no surprise seeing as in “Love Me Like You Mean It” Kelsea sings about wanting the boy with the hat back. But this overdone, clichéd story is now being sung by females. Seriously, how is no one in Nashville sick of writing these songs yet?
Remember that time in “First Time” where Kelsea Ballerini thought Mr. Stood-Me-Up might be different and she was proven wrong? Well in “Sirens” she hears warnings about some douche guy coming to town. You know, the guy who’s reputation for being trouble is so big that it crosses county lines. And does she listen to those warnings? Hell no, he’ll be different for her. WRONG! This little pop rock song finds Ballerini cleaning herself up again after yet another failed fling. However, Kelsea Ballerini has one song on The First Time that is actually pretty good. “Secondhand Smoke” is a ballad about how a girl who grew up in an angry home. The parents fought all the time and implanted the idea in her head that fights end in goodbye. But Ballerini doesn’t want to be the same way; she wants to get over those demons so she can have healthier relationships. The story is quite similar to Taylor Swift’s “Mine,” but the delivery of the song couldn’t be more different. I hope this gets released as a single over the rest of the pop garbage on this supposed country album.
The pop production continues with “Dibs.” Here’s Kelsea Ballerini calling “dibs” on some hot guy she sees at a bar. And she makes it very clear in an annoying spoken word breakdown about what she’s calling dibs on:
I’ll calling dibs
On your lips
On your kiss
On your time
Boy, I’m calling dibs
On your hand
On your heart
Kelsea Ballerini tries to prove herself as a girl power icon with “Stilettos.” Hearts are broken, she’s feeling sad, but she won’t let her confidence be shaken. She will walk tall in her stilettos and hold herself high. This is great, but, again, it’s another pop song that very much isn’t country music. The production of this song, from the music to Balerinni’s vocals, sounds a lot like Taylor Swift to me. With that said, I’m not sure if Taylor would ever sing, “so you can take your new blonde out to get your drink on.” This is at least the third different song to call out blonde girls as the other girl. I can’t imagine its a slight against blonde girls in general seeing as Kelsea is blonde herself, but it’s interesting that she makes that detail quite clear.
I listen to her song “Yeah Boy” and think of Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl.” In fact, if Currington walked up to Ballerini and just said “hey girl” she’d probably respond with “yeah boy” and off they’d go to some pick-up truck in a field. This song is yet another song where Kelsea Ballerini simply sings a bro-country song from the female perspective. I’m done. There’s no originality in this one. The album ends with Ballerini’s ode to youthful rebels in “Underage.” It’s about teenage girls acting out: fake IDs, drinking wine, racing cars, etc. It’s a list song about ways teens act immaturely and rebel against the rules. It’s curious, though, that a song called “Underage” would reference R. Kelly as their go-to jam in the car. I can’t imagine this is a coincidence considering the sex crimes R. Kelly has committed. That alone takes all credibility and decency away from this song. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?
Just like Sam Hunt’s Montevallo and just like Lady Antebellum’s 747, this is pop music. It’s rap and electronic noise try to pass itself as an “evolution” of the country sound. Don’t let yourselves be fooled. Sure you’ll hear various country sounds like banjos shoved in the mix, but that serves no purpose other than to make you think it’s country music. This is a pop album, not a country music album. Kelsea Ballerini can sing well, but she is a pop singer who would be laughed out of the country genre if we lived in a just world. If you ever wondered what it would sound like when you cross Sam Hunt with Taylor Swift, just listen to Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time. I’m all for getting more female voices on the radio, but not like this. I can think of dozens of female country singers who all deserve a single charting near the top ten before the wannabe pop princess, Kelsea Ballerini.