The name of the title song from Martina McBride’s album “Reckless” (released April 29, 2016) matches that of another favorite of mine, Alabama’s “Reckless” (1993). What strikes me most is the difference in what the songs say.
I’ll refer to the songs by their performers, but since I’m talking about the words, it’s really the lyricists at work (though the music, as in any good song, reinforces the lyric—and vice versa). For McBride’s song, the writers are Sarah Buxton, Zach Crowell, and Heather Morgan; for Alabama’s, Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens.
Alabama’s song is an ode to spontaneity, with its overtones of rebelliousness and adventure. The singer and his girlfriend are dissatisfied with life in their Texas small town. He wants them to take off somewhere else, anywhere else.
The refrain begins with “Let’s roll the windows down…” Since this song came out, I can’t count the number of country singers I’ve heard rolling their windows down for exactly the same reason. It works, too. “[L]et the wind blow through our hair” – what suggests excitement more than air streaming past our faces? The refrain ends with the inevitably suggestive line, “Let’s get reckless tonight.”
But the overall message is clear in the bridge: “When you’re crazy in love you gotta take a chance, / Burn the bridge and don’t look back.” Love, in other words, requires recklessness. (Despite being burned, however, the bridge remains intact in the song.)
This trope is firmly rooted in classic American tradition. It lines up with a long tradition of such anthems. Wilson Phillips’ “Impulsive” comes to mind, where “reckless” is the second adjective the singer applies to herself (to her own surprise) in the refrain.
Love of spontaneity has a much broader reach than love songs alone. Our fascination with the impulsive, boundary-breaking individual includes, for example, the recurrent trope of the “loose-cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules” (TV Tropes calls it Cowboy Cop). The attitude is canonized in the “chaotic good” alignment featured as one of the options in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (you can find descriptions on Wikipedia, TV Tropes, or elsewhere).
Twenty-three years later, McBride’s take doesn’t quite follow the trope—or does it? Clearly, we are supposed to be attracted by the singer’s portrait of a wild and impulsive woman. But the narrator’s actual description of herself isn’t favorable. The song opens:
For stumbling through a mess of dances
For squandering my second chances
For wrecking every dream
And breaking everything I ever had . . .
The singer seems to be sorry about her ungoverned behavior, or ashamed of it. She even calls it “criminal” in the refrain. She feels her beloved cares for her despite this chaotic quality, not because of it.
Originally I wondered whether this new song represented a change in attitudes over time. We are highly sensitive today to unintended consequences, including “collateral damage”—in everything from environmentalism to superhero movies (the damage caused by epic battles is a major plot driver in this year’s Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). One might suspect we’re becoming less enthusiastic about recklessness than we used to be.
On the other hand, we’re still getting just as many images in which operating outside the law is seen as a good thing. The screenwriters’ sympathies seem to lie more with the “chaotic” side in both those films. It would be rash to imagine a reversal of so pervasive an attitude based on one song.
But there’s more to it: McBride’s song has another layer. Her lover’s willingness to cope with her erratic nature also represents daring or courage. The last lines of the refrain are: “For loving me the way you do—I know I’m reckless—but you must be reckless too.” Loving someone who is so uncontrolled is its own form of recklessness.
This kind of risk-taking appears in the song as a good thing. She—and we, the listeners—want him to take that chance. Only when he does so can he prize who she really is, and see her lovableness: “For looking in my eyes and seeing the soul inside . . .” It’s the difference between acting unthinkingly or destructively, and taking a desperate risk in a good cause.
McBride’s “Reckless,” in other words, draws our attention to the fact that there is a certain kinship between the kind of recklessness that represents pure spontaneity (and can go drastically wrong), and the kind that dares to take the necessary risks to love someone. And, yes, can also go drastically wrong.
This truth holds to some extent for everybody. None of us is ideal and unexceptionable. We’ve all squandered opportunities and stumbled through life. Committing ourselves to any of us flawed human beings means taking chances. Love always requires courage.
What McBride’s song tells us, then, is that there are some risks that must be taken; and love is one of them. On this, the two songs come back together—Alabama also told us we had to take chances to be “crazy in love.”
It’s one reason we might say, with that well-known sage Rich Burlew, “Love is an Epic-level challenge.”