In the way that mushroom clouds are a thing and gaping head injuries are a thing, Garth Brooks was once a thing in Ireland. For a period in the mid-nineties, he was probably the biggest thing of all the things: bigger than Dustin, bigger than Bishop Eamon Casey, bigger than Barry O’Hanlon’s bald spot. He swooped onto the world stage in a dusty haze of snappy, singalong country music, branded with innocuous moral code and sensitive cowboy shtick. Ould wans spoiled by Philomena Begley seized his coattails and hung on for dear life. Married couples took to their fringed boots and started spending every Saturday night clicking their heels in formation with their thumbs hooked into their belt loops. Teenagers – teenagers! – learned the words to Brooks’ ditties and belted them out of car windows and school auditoriums and youth disco dancefloors. No one was safe from Garth Brooks. No one.
And because no one was safe, I was no different. Like all inexplicable crazes, Garth Brooks ended as suddenly as he’d begun, but a couple of notes from ‘Friends In Low Places’ or ‘Standing Outside The Fire’ and still I burst into involuntary playback like a subject chewed up and spat out by Derren Brown.
In the mid-nineties, I was far too cool to ever go line dancing – I even refused to learn the Macarena – and I certainly eschewed such trappings as cowboy boots and tasselled blouses, but even an aesthetic forged in army navy surplus stores and by a weird attraction to Jarvis Cocker couldn’t save me from the magnetic wrench of Brooks’ melodies. It may be partly down to south county Galway society and the heady scent of silage in the air, but Garth Brooks felt like communal madness. I had a copy of his album The Hits – didn’t everyone? – and it nestled beside Pablo Honey and Music For The Jilted Generation on my dressing table. I have no idea where it is now. I can only assume I burnt it during my repatriation ceremony to the land of the living.
It kind of makes sense when you examine the phenomenon with a forced level of detachment. Ireland has long been a slave to folk music and country is like folk music as understood by a Teletubby who fell out of a pickup truck straight onto his head. It’s folk music you don’t need a social conscience or patriotic pride to get in on. You just need to like easy little stories about rodeos and whiskey chasers and patriarchy, all told in metre-perfect rhymes.
What doesn’t make sense is that it wasn’t just Ireland that was enslaved by the honeyed twang of Mr. Brooks, but countries of varied cultures and levels of cop-on. Brazil loved him, as did Australia. The British media were sniffy, but the people were smitten. Garth Brooks was a one-man religion.
And we were, briefly but totally, disciples. What set the Garth Brooks craze apart from all of the other childhood crazes I’ve weathered was that unlike pogs, Saved By The Bell, and those stupid oversized beanies that East 17 used to wear, Garth Brooks was one you could get in on with your parents. Generations were united by a common adoration for the stetsoned one and his warbling tributes to unanswered prayers and sleeping loved ones and cougars he plumbed when he was a teenager. Which may have seemed all facets of creepy, but it is a credit to Mr. Brooks that every passion he ever sang about was declawed as soon as it left his throat. Never before has a singer turned so much everyday mundanity into so much anthemic yodelling into so much lyrical docility. It’s so straightforward it’s genius.
Like Mother Goose, Garth Brooks had universal appeal because there were no stipulations attached to enjoying his work, like the need to have a working brain or a basic understanding of metaphor. Mid-nineties Garth Brooks was as simple and as appealing and as bad for you as apple pie. Why, even Garth Brooks himself has taken great pains to limit the damage done by his perfect universal appeal, by making his music unavailable on most of the social media giants and burying – BURYING – the master for The Hits underneath his star on Hollywood boulevard.
It is my solemn conclusion – the only logical conclusion, really – that Garth Brooks took root because everyone has… a weak spot for country music.
Oh, you may think such aural failings don’t apply to you, pouting there in your biker jacket or skinny jeans, but it happened once, and it will happen again. Keep your eyes out, kids. And your ears closed.
(by Lisa McInerney)