Equal parts used car salesman and revival tent preacher, John Rich reminds me of a miracle man. A showman by definition, Rich loves to open his coat in a flourish, showing off his latest and greatest gimmick. He’s only selling snake oil, but he is charismatic and convincing enough to make quite a few of us believe that his product is the perfect tonic to cure what ails us.
With “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” Rich is attempting to provide an anthem for these troubled economic times, in doing so embracing a familiar narrative arc which vilifies “bankers” and “the boss man” while glorifying the “regular guy” that makes the real America go around.
It’s a song designed to be embraced by the red-state crowd which views bankers, lawyers, and politicians as the root of evil in America, with Rich even managing to slip in a coy knock against liberalism with the line, “You work hard for your dollar and you never pass the blame/When it don’t go your way.”
Of course, the position being put forth here is one more in line with a liberal ideology. After all, a true market-centric conservative would show little sympathy for a dying industry, probably encouraging that the government let that industry fail if it can no longer be efficient and competitive in the marketplace. Rich is right that, when it comes to bailouts, there has been a significant difference in the treatment of the financial sector and the auto industry, although it is somewhat unexpected to hear that confessed by someone as starkly conservative as this former Fred Thompson-for-President supporter.
Like snake oil, however, what sounds good on the surface is often found to contain little of substance. Aside from the fact that there’s something unsettling about a celebrity-obsessed multi-millionaire preaching about the plight of the everyman, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is a topical attempt at discussing a very complicated problem. It doesn’t consider any of the reasons why the economy is in such a bad position in the first place, nor does is discuss why the Detroit auto industry is teetering between life and death.
Instead, Rich boils the problem to its most jingle-like form, bringing a hook that rings hollow. Who, after all, is shutting Detroit down? The song spends most of its time attacking bankers, but it would be a hard sell to say that bankers are responsible for the downturn of the auto industry, which was struggling well before the broader financial crisis. Is Rich implying that the government is shutting Detroit down? We don’t know, because Rich doesn’t find it necessary to develop the thought behind the title.
That’s a problem the plagues every area of this song. Born and raised in Michigan, I have to make a disclaimer: I understand the character of the Detroiter. And I don’t think Rich does, because he doesn’t talk about that character at all in this song. Detroiters are some of the hardest-working, most loyal individuals on the face of the planet. They’re as tough as the neighborhoods they grew up in and as sharp as the sub-zero wind chills that sometimes blanket the city. And for a song that is supposedly about the plight of a city and the industry that defines it, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” doesn’t seem especially concerned with Detroit.
Rich paints what is possibly the most stereotypical portrait of the Detroit auto worker in today’s society—that of the aging GM veteran who has had his pension “cut in half,” and who now “can’t afford to die.” True enough, it’s a real struggle for many as they watch their jobs downsized or shipped away for cheaper labor.
But this song gets lost in the plot. Great stories are not about the what, they’re about the who. Great writing is about characters and place, plot being only those events that drive the story forward. “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” is only concerned with what we already know—that bankers are taking advantage of the bailout, that the auto industry has been treated differently in its quest for assistance, and that the state of the economy is hard on the Detroit worker. It never gets to the heart of what it’s like to live in that society. Rich never makes us feel like we should care about what happens to the average Detroiter. Instead of making the Detroiter human, he reaffirms the stereotype.
This is why John Rich will never be a great songwriter—he seldom (if ever) seems interested in writing a story for the sake of the story. His narrative voice is always filtered through a lens of commercialism, always crafted in a way that places its saleability ahead of its character.
And that’s what’s happened here. Rich’s voice is serviceable on a song that makes refreshing use of definably country instrumentation and embraces a throwback melody that is honestly a joy to hear. From a musical construction standpoint, it’s a surprisingly engaging track that implies Rich might be capable of more than some of us have been giving him credit for.
But when it comes to Rich’s lyrics, there’s nothing refreshing or engaging, only more of the same stale shtick we’ve come to expect. Detroiters deserve better.
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