It’s one thing to be a “woman in country,” and another to be a female artist writing powerfully and emotionally about women in the country… the whole country. That’s what Mickey Guyton does in “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” a stark but soaring ballad that is country music’s song of the year, whether any awards ever acknowledge it as such or not.
Guyton’s song was released too recently to be eligible for this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards. The ACMs’ producers were determined to find a slot on the telecast anyway for what has up till this point in the year been a cult or niche song at best, figuring that it would provide a compelling television moment regardless of the song’s unfamiliarity, and maybe even Guyton’s, to the vast majority of viewers. As much as showcasing a gut-punch song, the goal was surely just as much to make belated history by spotlighting a Black woman singing her own music for the first time in the 55-year tenure of the show. To that end, they also could have asked Guyton to sing another anthem she released this year, “Black Like Me.” But “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is, of her songs, the one that lays you out flat the quickest on first listen. It’s bold enough to suggest that in what is still James Brown’s man’s world, women and girls are still in for a lot of unhappy endings, and beginnings and middles.
But in being able to deliver this unsweetened of a message to a mass audience on a CBS telecast, Guyton got a happy ending of her own, and so did everyone who now knows about her talent.
Of all the two dozen performances that were being broadcast either live or recently pre-recorded on Wednesday’s telecast, Guyton’s was the only one that was definitely going out in real time from the Grand Ole Opry House, with show host Keith Urban joining her on piano, serving as a sort of reassuringly curatorial presence as well as accompanist for anyone not quite immediately sure who or what they were seeing. This was actually Guyton’s second time bringing down the house with the song this year at one of Nashville’s most iconic locations, although in this case, with no audience on-site, it was an empty house. It would have been rewarding to see the song be greeted with a standing ovation, as it was when she premiered it at the Ryman Auditorium last winter, but a stunned quiet works, too, so this is a case where pandemic production conditions might’ve worked to a hardboiled tune’s advantage.
When she first sang the newly written song at the Ryman, it was for a private audience of Country Radio Seminar attendees who knew they were hearing something important — but whose ovation didn’t mean they would or could play it when a studio version was quickly rushed out as a single. It was never destined to be a radio hit, no matter how much DJs and programmers signaled their personal approval. But that’s okay, maybe; it would seem that Guyton might be one of those rare country artists, like Kacey Musgraves, who is destined to be “big on TV”… a place that’s not bad to be big on.
Since that Ryman unveiling, the song has gotten a bump — not on the charts, but in the form of the baby bump that first-time mom-to-be Guyton was rocking during Wednesday’s performance. As a visual bell-and-whistle, Guyton’s pregnancy could hardly have been better planned, as the once theoretical thoughts about what to tell a daughter about what darknesses await in the real world now are headed to something she too will face, if it does turn out to be a girl on the way. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is not just a mom song, though; it’s easy to imagine its sentiments as being those of a progressive version of the proverbial father waiting with the shotgun for a young man, or a worrisome world, to bring his daughter home after curfew. Probably anyone whose current status is not “bro” can find something to relate to in the number, which, while unabashedly feminist, speaks to anyone who wants to cherish and protect young women.
Or does it? Amid all the tear-stained tweets saying viewers were knocked out by Guyton’s song, there were pockets of resistance from the occasional tweeter who found it too dour or depressing, too victimized, or maybe just too liberal in its leaning somehow. “Wow, I’m out on her music,” tweeted one man. “Learn something from Kane Brown… be positive. That’s all,” he helpfully mansplained. (Brown, another Black performer on the program, sang “Worldwide Beautiful,” an optimistic song about racial harmony that says, “You’re missing every color if you’re only seeing black and white.”) And then, also on Twitter, there was a proudly Trump-supporting woman who responded to Guyton’s performance by writing: “I refuse to believe that I am oppressed and not provided the same opportunities as other genders and ethnicities.” In response to the song’s title question, the woman wrote, “I will tell her that she is equal.”
Country music is not a medium that easily makes room in the modern era for the world-weary cynicism about hurdles on the road to racial and sexual equality and just general human nature that pops up in “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” It’s bracing stuff for any genre, really, and not made any less so by being so proficiently belted by someone who is now on her eighth or ninth year of being called the new Carrie Underwood. But what are we gonna tell her — Guyton’s daughter, if she has one? We’re gonna tell her that on Sept. 16, 2020, mom delivered a large portion of TV-watching America a harsh message with all the beauty she had at her disposal, and that, by and large, they got it.
The lyrics to “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” (co-written by Guyton with Emma Lee, Karen Kosowski and Victoria Banks):
She thinks life is fair
God hears every prayer
And everyone gets their ever after
She thinks love is love
And if you work hard, that’s enough
Skin’s just skin and it doesn’t matter
And that her friend’s older brother’s gonna keep his hands to himself
And that somebody’s gonna believe her when she tells
But what are you gonna tell her
When she’s wrong
Will you just shrug and say it’s been that way all along
What are you gonna tell her
When she figures out
That all this time you built her up just so the world could let her down
Yeah what do you tell her
What are you gonna tell her
Do you just let her pretend
That she could be the president
Would it help us get there any faster
Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked
And gay or straight or white or black
You just dream and anything can happen
Do you tell her not to fight
Is it worth the sacrifice
Can you look her in the face
And promise her that things’ll change
What are you gonna tell her
Maybe you can’t
Cause there ain’t no way
You can’t explain
What you don’t understand
Yeah what the hell do you tell her