Thursday, September 30, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties, #7 - Martina McBride

In recent years, Martina seems to have slid into a safe and comfortable mode with regard to her musical style.  Her recent output has consisted largely of sometimes overwrought power ballads, as well as "I am woman - hear me roar" girl power anthems.  But back in her heyday, she provided nineties country radio with some of its most striking and memorable singles.

Martina first emerged on country radio in 1992 with a neotraditional honky tonk sound.  Her debut album The Time Has Come was met with positive critical reception, but it did not yield any major hits (though the title track reached #23, and the video for "Cheap Whiskey" received moderate screen time on CMT and TNN).

Martina's second album The Way That I Am gave her the breakthrough she was waiting for.  She scored her first major hit in 1993 with "My Baby Loves Me" - a women's bold and proud declaration of the unconditional and accepting love that she had found.  The single charted at #2, but Martina later found out three more radio spins would have propelled it to the top spot.

The album's third single barely missed the Top 10, as its dark subject matter made radio hesitant to play it.  "Independence Day" was the harrowing tale of a wife who, in order to free herself from her husband's abuse, burns the family home to the ground, perishing in the fire along with her husband.  The story was told from the perspective of the couple's eight-year-old daughter who goes down to the Independence Day fair, and returns to find her house engulfed in flames.  The lyrics cast light on the dark reality of domestic violence, while wisely refraining from rendering judgment on the situation.  "Independence Day" pushed the boundaries of what an artist could sing about on country radio, and paved the way for further artists who were willing to take similar risks.

The tragic story was vividly brought to life in the "Independence Day" music video, which was controversial due to its portrayal of domestic abuse, and its depiction of the burning house.  But Martina was rewarded for her taking such a career risk when the clip was named the 1994 CMA Music Video of the Year.  In addition, the song's writer, Gretchen Peters, received the award for Song of the Year.  In the years since its release, "Independence Day" has been remembered as one of Martina's signature hits.  It ranks as an era-defining classic, and it receives substantial radio airplay even today.

The title track to Martina's third album, 1995's Wild Angels, became her first-ever number-one hit.  It was at this point that she began adopting a more contemporary pop-friendly sound.  In "Wild Angels," the narrator gratefully looks back on a romance that has endured many difficulties only to come out stronger than ever.  They may "break each others' hearts sometimes, and "spend some nights on the jagged side," but somehow they always "wake up in each others' arms."  The woman does not dole out any superficial advice, nor does she offer any supposed secret to success.  Rather, she concludes that her relationship has survived only by blessing from above.  The songs raggedly honest lyrics combined with Martina's joyful and exuberant performance made it another one of the finest singles of her career.

After three less-successful singles, Martina returned to the top of the charts in 1997 with "A Broken Wing" - the first single from her 1997 album Evolution.  The song visited lyrical territory that was similar to "Independence Day," but delivered a different variation on a similar theme.  In "A Broken Wing," a woman escapes from an emotionally abusive relationship with a man who at times seems to love her, but continues shooting her dreams down.  The lyrics hint at the possibility that the woman committed suicide, but ultimately leave the question unanswered.  The song's heavy gospel flavoring made it stand out among Martina's late nineties releases.

In addition to her strong lyrical material, Martina also became known for a vocal style that was very new and distinctive in the nineties.  She developed a style of singing song verses in a hushed tone, and then letting her voice rise as she belted out the chorus.  Though the concept has since been beaten into the ground, it was fresh and new at the time.  The style was exemplified in her 1999 #2 hit "Whatever You Say."

Martina closed out the decade with the longest-running number-one single of her career - "I Love You," an ultra-catchy pop ditty of infatuation.  The five-week number-one smash appeared on the soundtrack to the 1999 film Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.  The promotion it received from its use in the film helped spur its massive success.  It also served as the lead-off single to Martina's fifth studio album Emotion.

Since the turn of the millennium, Martina has released four more studio albums, all but one of which have topped the Billboard Country Albums chart.  Her more recent singles have not been at the high artistic standard she was previously known for.  She remains a relevant figure in country music today, and her singles have continued to receive moderate radio spins.  Still, her artistic legacy rests primarily on her classic nineties hits that will not soon be forgotten.