Here’s to the Good Times, and an Open Mind
This essay was originally published by The New York Times.
“Learn from your mistakes,” my 11-year-old son remarked matter-of-factly as we walked past a wildly inebriated young woman throwing up in the bushes. We were heading to our seats at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, southeast of Los Angeles, where the country duo Florida Georgia Line was about to take the stage.
“That’s good advice,” I replied, proud of my son but questioning my own parental judgment in taking him to the concert. There were more whiskey bars than Porta-Potties spread across the concert grounds; even so, the lines for whiskey dwarfed those for the bathroom. We hadn’t even gotten through the gate from the parking lot when the first of many obscenities was dropped by the supercharged revelers whom my son and I book-ended in age by several years in both directions. I had never seen so many women wearing skimpy denim cutoff shorts and cowboy boots; fortunately, the eroticism of the scene was lost on my son, who simply observed: “There are a lot more girls here than boys.”
My son and I had flown down to Irvine from the Bay Area to catch the show. I don’t know how or exactly when it happened, but sometime in the past year Florida Georgia Line replaced Bruce Springsteen as my son’s favorite musical act. Although I’m a die-hard classic rock fan, I can’t say I’m completely horrified by my son’s dalliance with country music. In fact, I introduced him to the music of Florida Georgia Line a couple of years ago.
The duo’s first studio album, “Here’s To the Good Times,” penetrated my rock ’n’ roll soul with its catchy riffs and power chords. But the lyrics closed the deal. The album is filled with practical advice (“When you don’t get paid ’til next week but you need some drinkin’ cash / Find that coffee can stash and tip it back”); heartfelt appreciations of life’s necessities (“Here’s to the ice you float your beer in”); and dreams (“I’m gassin’ up the Chevy / I’m gonna pick her up at 6 / I hope she’s gonna wear them jeans with the tear / That her mama never fixed”).
I had never liked country music — just couldn’t get my head around its twangy goodness, finely buffed edges and overt religiosity — but Florida Georgia Line brought me over to the dark side. And I, in turn, brought my son; his favorite lyric these days, sung full-throated every time, is from that first Florida Georgia Line record: “This brand new Chevy with a lift kit/Would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it.” He loved that line from the very first even though he had no idea what a “lift kit” was and had to ask me. Now every time we happen upon a truck with a lift kit, we give each other knowing smiles and nod like idiots. “These guys are real poets,” he told me recently as we listened to the record start to finish yet again. “Bob Dylan has nothing on them,” he added in all seriousness. He continued to maintain that position even after Dylan was named a Nobel laureate this winter. I have only myself to blame.
We were pumped for the concert, but a few weeks before the show, the band released a new album. As I listened to it on my commute to work, my heart sank. It was terrible. Gone were the power chords, catchy riffs and cheesy lyrics. Well, that last one isn’t quite right; the lyrics were still cheesy, just not in the usual amusing, down-home way. They were now dripping with saccharine-sweet earnestness: “You’re holy, holy, holy, holy / I’m high on loving you, high on loving you” go the lyrics to the first single, “H.O.L.Y.” (an acronym for “high on loving you,” in case you, like me, were initially baffled).
The distance between Florida Georgia Line and the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm seemed to have widened significantly.
I suspected the band would be promoting the new album hard at the concert, so I warned my son to temper his expectations. We were imagining a night filled with songs from “Here’s To the Good Times,” and I seriously doubted we would get it. My son took my blistering record review in stride and said he was still excited for the show. And because he was, so was I.
During the show I saw my son bobbing along, head swaying, getting into it. But every so often he would look over at me somewhat sheepishly to see how I was reacting to the music, no doubt because I had mocked the new record. I could tell he felt he needed my permission to enjoy the music.
About halfway through the concert the lights went down and a white grand piano was wheeled onstage for “H.O.L.Y.,” which the lead singer dedicated to his wife.
“It doesn’t sound like Florida Georgia Line, but it’s pretty good stuff,” my son said to me almost apologetically. I thought for a moment, then found myself saying, to my great surprise, “You know what, that is exactly right.”
It struck me that while the new record wasn’t what I had been expecting, divorced from those expectations and judged simply on its merits (sappy lyrics aside), it was for the most part, as my son said, pretty good stuff. I love my wife, too; I could relate to the message. And I happen to like piano-centric music (some of Springsteen’s best is piano-based). So what is wrong with Florida Georgia Line losing the twangy guitars and reverb and trying to express adult emotions? Absolutely nothing, I concluded.
With his simple observation, my son made it possible for me to experience the music in a different way and enjoy it for what it was rather than dislike it for what it was not. His lesson — to dispense with preconceived notions and judge something on its merits — transcends Florida Georgia Line and music itself. The importance of refraining from snap judgments is a basic civil concept, but my son made me realize I struggle with it mightily. I have him to thank for reversing our roles and modeling a healthier, more life-affirming perspective for me.
So here’s to divorcing expectations from experience. And to the ice you float your beer in.