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The Story Behind ‘Quarterback,’ The Country Song About Date Rape

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"The Story Behind ‘Quarterback,’ The Country Song About Date Rape"

The first time Canadian country artist Kira Isabella heard a demo for “Quarterback,” she said, “my brain did not automatically go to ‘date rape.’”

The song, written by Marti Dodson (of Saving Jane fame), Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Hamrick, tells the story of “a no-name girl from the freshman class” who gets an out-of-the-blue invite from the quarterback to a bonfire party. He gives her one drink, then two, then three; the next day she sees photos of her “first time” all over the internet. In school on Monday, “he had the school and the whole town” on his side, “and she had nothing but the truth inside.” One would not need to take a huge leap of imagination to visualize that as a rape narrative.

That’s certainly what Dodson, Rutherford and Hamrick had in mind. The three songwriters came up with “Quarterback” on their first day working together. They’d already cranked out two songs when Hamrick pitched an idea of the same name, but “it was a girl saying she didn’t need the quarterback,” said Dodson when she spoke with me by phone. “It was more of a funny, silly song.” But they ended up in a conversation about the spate of high-profile rape cases across the country—at the time, in September of last year, the Vanderbilt and Steubenville assaults had just been in the news—and wound up riffing on reality. “We talked about how we evolved to that point in society where kids are doing this stuff, and videotaping it and sharing it, and they think it’s funny,” said Dodson. “It’s mindboggling.”

“We started talking about taking a song there,” she said. “And we were saying, is anybody ever going to do this, if we go this route? But we didn’t care. We felt that we had to write it.”

As Isabella thought about the lyrics in “Quarterback,” she heard in the song became about something broader than date rape. To her, this was a story of a power imbalance, one that could be seen through the lens of sexual assault, or bullying, or beyond. While listening to “Quarterback,” Isabella told me by phone, “I automatically thought about somebody that has power taking advantage of somebody that’s vulnerable… Just the fact that he takes all of her power away in this song. That’s bullying, making someone else feel small.”

Dodson and her co-writers shopped the song around to a bunch of female artists—“Quarterback” was originally written in the first-person, and “we all kind of assumed” that a woman would be singing it. Some were publishing houses and recording labels that wouldn’t touch the song at all. “There was just some general, ‘You can’t say this, we can’t talk about this, who wants to hear about it?’” said Dodson. In an interview with Billboard Country, Rutherford remembered one publishing executive’s reaction to the song: “Just what we need, another date rape song.” That right there tells you so much about misogyny in the industry; as Charles Aaron pointed out on Wondering Sound, “there’s hardly been a glut of ‘date-rape’ songs, and chart-topping bro-country’s objectification of women has been unrelenting.” The knee-jerk response to the fear that “date rape songs” are somehow taking over the (still totally male-dominated) country airwaves echoes Two and a Half Men creator Lee Aronsohn’s comments in 2012 about how “we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,” in response to two—really, only two—then-new shows with female showrunners.

Even labels and artists who liked “Quarterback” could still be squeamish about the subject matter, and how the first-person narrative would be interpreted by fans. Carrie Underwood’s team felt the artist had to pass out of concern that listeners would think she was singing about Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, because of their romantic history. And some, said Dodson, just didn’t want to go to those low places. “It is a fairly dark topic, and I think there is some fear around that, because of the atmosphere we’re in now around in country music.”

Carrie Underwood and her then-boyfriend, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, at the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards.

Carrie Underwood and her then-boyfriend, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, at the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae. C. Hong

“My team and I were a little apprehensive about it because of the subject matter,” said Isabella. “But it was a story that was far too important to not tell right now.” Isabella heard the first-person version of the song as well. “I sat down with management and we were thinking, I thankfully haven’t had to go through anything this awful or horrible, that so many girls unfortunately had to go through… And we put it in the third person [because] I thought people would be able to project themselves into it.” Isabella added the song to her album “Caffeine and Big Dreams” which had already been in process for months, and released it in the U.S. on April 1.

“Quarterback” is a powerful song not for what is said but what’s left out: there’s no actual description of sex or assault. Dodson said that lack of specificity was intentional. “It is a scenario that we all can imagine ourselves in, whether or not you went to high school parties with bonfires,” she said. “We’ve all experienced being sort of insecure in our surroundings, trying to figure out who we are and where we’re headed… So we didn’t want to limit it, specifically, to this girl. We can all be in a position of powerlessness. So that’s one of the reasons we never got very specific in terms of saying, hey, this was exactly what happened. And it leaves a little room for interpretation for the listener, too. There’s a question in the song: ‘who you gonna blame?’ And I think, what will people’s interpretation of that be? Will they blame the girl for drinking, or blame him for his choices?”

There’s no scene of “what happened” in the song, Dodson said, because in real life, we don’t really get a “scene,” either. “I think that’s always the question that we have. We don’t know, because only the people that were there know.”

Country music has double-strands of blues and folk twisting through its DNA, so it should be the obvious home for a song with themes like the ones “Quarterback” explores: loneliness, desperation, violence, heartache. This is a tradition that brought us Johnny Cash shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die,” that’s produced song after song about alcoholism, depression, and poverty. The fact that country has room in it for bottomless wells of sorrow, that it “allows you to also talk about hard times and sad times,” is a huge part of what drew Dodson to this music in the first place. “It’s still true stories that matter to people.”

But lately the genre has been experiencing a much-documented “bro country” wave, full of party anthems about boozing, pick-up trucks and barely-dressed women (who are always referred to as “girls”).

“There’s a lot of songs these days about partying and drinking, and about getting carried away – ‘I can drink to that all night’ – and a lot of people don’t talk about what can happen after the party, and the repercussions of these decisions that you make,” said Isabella. “But I really think that country is ready to take a turn. I think that people are ready to hear story-songs again. There’s a lot of really incredible writers down in Nashville right now. I’ll use Brandi Clark as an example, Kasey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe: they’re really not afraid. They’re really taking country back to where it came from, what it truly is, where it’s not afraid to talk about these things that other people are afraid to touch on… I think country is ready to take a turn back to [that], where you’re singing about real problems.”

“I think some of the things that have been dark in the past, like the Johnny Cash song, it’s sort of fantasy and we know it’s fantasy,” said Dodson. “But a song like this is reality, and I think that’s the fear. There are other great songs that take a darker tone, but we also know that they didn’t really happen… And this is a song that could easily be happening right now, wherever you are.”

Combine the too-real idea of a rape gone internet viral, the odds stacked against a new female artist breaking into country radio at all, and the fact that the villain in the song is an all-American athlete, the kind typically worshipped by the demographic that loves country music the most, and you wind up with, as Dodson describes it, “a very polarizing song.”

Isabella doesn’t think that listeners have “reached this breaking point of, oh my God, we’ve can’t have any more bro country… Because there’s always going to be those amazing party anthems in country, or the stuff you want to listen to with the tailgates out at the bonfire.” But she does believe that there’s a vacuum to be filled, and artists like Musgraves, Monroe and Clark are filling it: music for the country fan who listens to the lyrics, who is intellectually curious and thoughtful.

“To be honest with you, I think country fans are just a lot more intelligent than that,” she said. The rise of songs like “Quarterback,” alongside other rougher, grittier, eloquent looks at modern life—take Musgraves’s “Merry Go Round,” or Monroe’s “Like a Rose,”—“was bound to happen. It was just a [matter of] when.”

Even though some of the smartest voices in today’s country music scene belong to women, it’s still tough going for ladies who want to break through on the almighty country radio. With the exception of a triad of superstars—Taylor Swift who, with her pop-ified sound, hasn’t really been a “country” singer in years; Underwood, launched to fame on the American Idol rocket ship; Miranda Lambert, half of country’s reigning prom king and queen—it’s a challenge for female voices to be heard through the rowdy guy din of mainstream country music.

“Quarterback” is Isabella’s first single off her second album in Canada, but it’s essentially her musical introduction to the States. “We were definitely a bit apprehensive, making it my debut to the United States,” said Isabella. “We knew they’re either going to really love it or they’re going to say no, and not want to play it. And that’s something we’ll have to deal with: it’s going to be huge or it’s going to bomb.”

Dodson said she and her co-writers did think about “the difficulty that women are having in country radio: getting airplay, getting singles to stick.” She agreed that the song would incite passion on both sides, but felt that was the key to getting attention on the crowded and sometimes-sexist airwaves. “And I think [as Kira is] a new artist, what she’s going to have to do is say something that, you may hate it, you may love it, but either way, you can’t ignore it. And that’s what felt right about ‘Quarterback.’”

Isabella says the response has been “more positive than I initially was expecting… Most of the negative comments that I’ve heard have been from people who are truly not understanding what the song is about. I think the people that have understood it, and let it be what it is, they’ve been a lot more open to it.”

Isabella’s take is “pretty different than the demo that we cut originally,” said Dodson. The track Dodson, Hamrick and Rutherford cut “was a little bit more aggressive in tone: heavier guitars, heavier drums.” Isabella’s “is a little more detached, so it’s just a story.”

“It’s more subtle,” Isabella said of her interpretation. The change in tone came at the same time as the change in perspective, from first to third person. “We kind of wanted to strip it all down and make it basic and bring it really, really low… We wanted to make it bare bones, the bare minimum. And I even tried to not emote too much. Because I could honestly cry every time I sing ‘Quarterback.’ It actually takes me to that place every time. Even when I was in the studio doing it, I tried not to be too emotional, so that people could really, really put their own story and their own thoughts onto it.”

“I love the approach they took,” Dodson said. “Because a lot of the point of the song is, we don’t ask you, ever, to feel sorry for this girl. The girl in the song is not portraying herself as a victim, And in Kira’s third-person take on it, she doesn’t do that either. Nobody ever says, ‘This is awful, we should all feel terrible for her.’ It’s up to the listener to decide whether or not it’s awful.”

“This song is very, very special,” said Isabella. “And I’m very glad that it came to me, and I think that it came to me for a reason. It was meant to be this way. ‘Quarterback’ was supposed to be out now. It had to happen right now.”

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