To date, all six of Cole Swindell’s radio singles, beginning with 2013’s “Chillin’ It,” have reached Number One on either of the two leading country airplay charts. And with his latest, “Flatliner,” now in the Top 10, he’s in the hunt for a seventh.
But even if the song peaks shy of the top spot – it dropped back a position this week, but still shows positive audience growth – it’s still one heck of an accomplishment for a hit that employs the laziest clichés of contemporary country music. After years of exponentially moronic “bro country” lyrics and indistinguishable production, we’ve finally reached the nadir with “Flatliner.”
In a sizzle reel promoting the track, which the Georgia native wrote in 2013 with Jaron Boyer and Matt Bronleewe, Swindell says, “It’s about a hot girl in the club, dancing on the dance floor, making your heart stop, killing all the guys out there who are watching.”
To be fair, country music has a long history with goofy party songs, especially ones that pine over the fairer sex. From Hank Williams’ twangy come-on “Hey Good Lookin'” to Mickey Gilley’s proudly chauvinistic “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” and even Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” these types of tunes are nothing new.
But not since Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” – one of modern country’s most virulent strains of bro inanity – has a string of gibberish this weightless been passed off as lyricism:
Popular on Rolling Stone
Sipping on this seven & seven
never been this close to heaven
Got her pretty turned up to 11
Droppin’ em dead on the dance floor
Somebody better call a doctor
She’s a little heart stopper
I’m talking breaker breaker one-niner
She’s a flatliner
But it didn’t have to be this way. The affable Swindell is a capable songwriter, penning hits like Bryan’s crisply nostalgic “Roller Coaster” and the guilty pleasure Chris Young deep cut “Nothin’ But the Cooler Left,” both with partner in crime Michael Carter, and collaborating with Bryan and FGL on “This Is How We Roll.” After Swindell’s own string of thin-yet-catchy Number Ones – “Let Me See Ya Girl,” “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” among them – he found a more mature footing with “You Should Be Here,” a contemplative, heartfelt song that served as a personal tribute to his late father. Boldly, it was both the first single from and the title track to his second album. And the follow-up single, “Middle of a Memory,” while not as poignant as “You Should Be Here,” further reinforced Swindell’s emotional side.
Which is what makes “Flatliner” so tragic. Not only is it a step back for Swindell as a serious artist, its success highlights the dross on which country radio is so hung up: derivative, watered-down background music that often echoes hits that came before. In this case, it’s hard not to draw a line back to Dierks Bentley’s 2012 Number One “5-1-5-0,” a song that’s equally as rapid-fire – and silly – as “Flatliner,” but succeeds because of actual lyrical imagery and some inspired wordplay.
Of course, Bentley duets with Swindell on “Flatliner,” which the younger artist has said he wrote with Bentley in mind. But even country’s most lovable bro can’t save lines like “I’m talking breaker-breaker one-niner” – a lyric that is so out of place it’d barely make sense in a CW McCall trucker song. (Curiously, Bentley’s name doesn’t appear in the song’s listing on the Billboard charts, while other “featuring” songs, like Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris’ “Craving You” highlight the guest artist’s name.)
Sonic diversity – not to mention gender diversity – should be a goal of country radio. There’s no reason why Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” and Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” can’t exist alongside Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” or Kelsea Ballerini’s “Yeah Boy.” But instead, radio continues to take the lowest common denominator approach, where homogenized nonsense rules over thought. Or even over actual words: “What’s a country boy to do / but say uh huh,” goes “Flatliner.” “That shake in your giddy up / Got my eyes going what what.”
“I had that title ‘flatliner,'” Swindell says in that same sizzle reel, “and I don’t know if we made that word up or what.” What what?
In the end, “Flatliner” may only be a blip on the EKG of Swindell’s career. Despite a boost from Bryan, for whom he once sold merch on tour, the guy has cut his teeth in the business, working tirelessly as an anonymous demo vocalist before he ever scored his deal with Warner Music Nashville. It’s just a shame – for Swindell, Bentley, country radio and the genre itself – that “Flatliner” ever made it out of its own demo phase. The song should have died on the table.