I’ve been listening to a lot of good/bad music recently for my blog, Good Songs Bad Lyrics. On GSBL, I comment on songs from the last 50 years that are lyrically sloppy or weak, or videos that are notably ridiculous. I’m always hunting for “Worst Lyrics of All Time!” lists, and seeing what people have to say. I frequently disagree with some people’s assertions about what constitutes “bad lyrics,” which is fine. My blog is very much a taste issue, and what’s more, it’s ultimately just to make people laugh and have a sense of humor about music. I try and make it clear I think most of the songs on the blog are good songs: I greatly prefer these songs with their imperfections over their destruction. But sometimes, I run across songs where the lyrics or videos are so misguided that ceases to be my stance. Such is the case with Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” seems an innocent enough confection: ostensibly a country song with an urban veneer (but really a Southern-fried disco number) about a woman with a fetching rear end – the “badonkadonk” in question. In case you are dead, or for some other reason weren’t aware, badonkadonk is urban slang for a large and shapely buttocks. I urge you to explore the wide variety of definitions available on Urban Dictionary for the word. There’s a chance that some of Adkins’ audience didn’t know the meaning of the word prior to the release of this song, but I’d be curious as to the numbers on that. It’s a pretty well-worn slang term at this point, and even rural areas would likely have been familiar with it and its decidedly non-country origin in 2005, when the song was released.
This begs the question, then, why Adkins (or more accurately, writers Jamey Johnson, Dallas Davidson and Randy Houser) felt the need to use badonkadonk, other than the obvious grade-school rhyme with honky tonk. The song itself is just barely a honky tonk song, dipping into disco and straight pop rhythms most of the time, and badonkadonk is slang that is completely removed from the setting in question. It would seem like pandering to write a song called “Zydeco Hos,” wouldn’t it? (I just gave someone a great idea for a song – my apologies if it’s popular.) These three writers took an already established term from black street slang and put a country coat of paint on it to make it sell, and indeed it did. In that sense, it’s hard for me to see “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” as anything other than straight-up cultural appropriation.
The video reinforces this idea in what may be the worst way possible. The whole production looks like some sort of nightmarish mash-up entitled Hip-Hop Goes Country!. All throughout, it shamelessly apes the signature fish-eye lens shots of hip-hop video director Hype Williams to extend Adkins’ hands, which are constantly in search of “the badonkadonk,” into grotesque tentacles. Somewhat ironic, considering the overwhelming majority of the women featured in the video don’t possess anything close to what a black audience would label as a badonkadonk. The dance moves are straight out of rap videos circa 1998, emphasizing the video’s seemingly unspoken motto of “rap the whole family can enjoy.” And then, of course, there’s the fact that despite using an obviously black slang term in the title of the song, there’s not a single black person in the entire video.
At three minutes in, the tone changes and the video shifts into what I can only assume is parody. Adkins talks over the song about being only in it for “the badonkadonk,” despite not actually having seen one in the video yet. Then, with a light disco-funk groove leftover from 1975, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” plods on as the dancing girls from before don glittering hot pants and roller skates. This smacks of the director desperately throwing everything in pop culture against the wall hoping something will stick. What’s more, this shotgun technique seems to have worked, propelling the song to #2 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and #30 and #33 on the Hot 100 and Hot Pop charts respectively.
The country music market has long been built on the success of appealing stars like Adkins singing tunes written by other people, much like the pop music industry. There are exceptions to the rules in both genres, of course, but “exceptions” is an accurate term here. Rock music seems to have its own rules about authenticity, even though many popular rock bands collaborate with songwriters or buy songs outright. From what I know of the country music world, it’s very difficult to get a song picked up by a star or producer if you’re not already part of the system. Jamey Johnson and his crew were already inside, and according to this interview, wrote this song based on a night in a dance club. Adkins apparently loved it and picked it up as soon as he heard it. Heard what though, exactly? A heartfelt story? A fun song? Or a chance to score on a silly rhyme with a silly word with a white audience by taking all the black out of it?
Full disclosure: I’m a white guy from the Northeast. Country’s not in my blood or part of my history, nor is hip-hop or rap. That said, I do know what a cash-in looks like when I see it. Usually they’re well done, so as to distract you from the hatchet job that’s being done on someone else’s work – for examples, I refer you to the majority of white rockers in the 50s. But “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” makes my skin crawl a little bit; an obvious rip from urban culture that does the most insulting kind of lip service to its own origin. That makes it a bad song with bad lyrics, and that’s why it’s here instead of Good Songs Bad Lyrics.