Garth Brooks (as Chris Gaines): Greatest Hits
Released: September 28, 1999
An alter ego can be a useful tool for an artist. Beyoncé claims she invented her aggressive, sexy Sasha Fierce persona to increase her confidence onstage. Eminem used the Slim Shady character as an outlet for his more juvenile and absurd tendencies, and to excuse some controversial rhymes. And of course, most famously there’s David Bowie, whose constant aesthetic transformations and alternate identities seemed to fuel his creativity and define him for so many years. It’s a very hard thing to pull off, particularly when the world already knows you so well by another name, and committing too fully to it can make you into a laughing stock, a spoiled, indulgent star playing dress up. There is no more infamous example than Garth Brooks’ transformation into Chris Gaines.
Brooks was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he learned guitar and banjo at a young age. After graduating from college in 1984, he struggled for several years in and out of Nashville to break into the country music world, eventually releasing his debut on Capital Records in 1989. Brooks’ rise to fame over the next several years was swift, shocking and unprecedented. While his first album was a modest success, the follow-up dominated country charts, and his third album Ropin’ the Wind became the first country record to debut at #1 on the pop charts. His crossover success was no accident: Brooks’ was a versatile songwriter who pried apart and rearranged the conservative sound of country. From the honky tonk pop of “Friends in Low Places” and the nostalgic singer-songwriter schmaltz of “The Dance” to the gooey balladry of “Shameless” and the country-rock domestic abuse drama “The Thunder Rolls”, no one had ever fine-tuned and reimagined country music for mass audiences to the extent Garth Brooks did. His concerts were massive, stadium-sized affairs featuring pyrotechnics, laser lights, stunts and Brooks himself romping around the stage in a cowboy hat and tight jeans, a headset microphone hanging from one ear. Needless to say, Brooks was criticized heavily by fans of traditional country, who saw the handsome superstar’s mainstream success as an affront to the values and history of the genre. But America loved Garth; it may be hard to believe now but Garth Brooks has sold almost 70 million records, making him the third most successful music act in US history, behind only Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
Garth’s success continued throughout the decade as he dominated the charts with each new album and redefined country music’s sound and it’s relationship with the mainstream. Still, he was restless. He tried and failed to join a Major League Baseball team (he’d played in high school) but soon switched his interests to film. The movie-–produced by and starring Brooks–-was called The Lamb, the story of a dark and tortured rock star named Chris Gaines. Though the film was not slated to begin filming for months, Brooks decided to jump into the character immediately, living and appearing as Chris Gaines and confounding millions of fans as he turned up on Saturday Night Live, filmed a fictional episode of Behind the Music and aired a primetime NBC special in order to introduce the character to the public. Throughout the special, Brooks describes the career of the brooding, sex-addicted, Australia-born “rock legend” who’s recorded such albums as Fornucopia and the R&B-tinged Triangle. His stage banter references to Chris’s illustrious discography and complex backstory suggest just how excruciatingly plotted the whole thing was. It’s embarrassing to watch now, knowing how quickly the indulgent project would collapse later.
The album was dubbed Greatest Hits because it was supposed to be a survey of Gaines’ best songs, but if this is the very best work of his career then I’m not sure why we should be so fascinated by his story. He’s presented as a “rocker”, and his mop of jet black hair and steely stares would suggest a character vaguely reminiscent of Trent Reznor, but in truth little of the album “rocks” at all. “Lost in You”, the album’s sole charting single, is a breezy ballad, sung in falsetto over lazily strummed guitar and the kind of stale claps-and-clicks percussion you can produce automatically these days in GarageBand. It’s pure adult contemporary schlock, flatly produced and predictable, and there’s plenty of it to be found on Greatest Hits, particularly at the album’s front end, immediately countering the proposed backstory.
Brooks does branch out as Gaines, avoiding serious twang for most of the album’s hour runtime, but his takes on various genres sound more like the work of great craftsmen far, far past their time. The manufactured funk and falsetto hook of “Way of the Girl” sounds like Prince or Michael Jackson at their very laziest. Songs like “Snow in July” and “Digging for Gold” sound like the generic blues riffage of an exhausted 70s rock band on their umpteenth reunion album. “Maybe” is a carefully constructed Beatles homage featuring all the classic signifiers-–piano and strings, wistful chords, mellotron flutes, grand climaxes–-but lacking the depth, dripping with saccharine sentiments about lost love and flying birds and opening with the embarrassingly hackey line, “Yesterday the odds were stacked in favor of my expectations.”
Elsewhere, Brooks seems to strive for relevance. The breathy vocals and moody power chord riffs of “Unsigned Letter” sound like The Wallflowers, or (shiver) early Train. Chris Gaines’ most laughable “hit” is “Right Now”, which interpolates the chorus of "Get Together" between asininely “topical” faux-rap verses cribbed sloppily from Billy Joel’s catalog: “Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the parents / Maybe it’s the gangs or the colors that they’re wearin’ / Maybe it’s the high schools, maybe it’s the teachers / Tattoos, pipe bombs, underneath the bleachers / Maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the crack / Maybe it’s the Bible, or could it be the lack.”
Ironically (though maybe predictably) the album’s finest moment is it’s most purely country, the sleepy, folky “It Don’t Matter to the Sun”. Brooks knows his way around an acoustic guitar and when not straining or mimicking, his deep, rich voice has a pleasing sound. Brooks seems to shine brightest when stripped of pretense and production, but Greatest Hits is encrusted in thick layers of it.
This misunderstanding of his own talents is ultimately why Garth Brooks’ project fails creatively, but its commercial failure was an issue of severe miscommunication. The Lamb was still in its early development stages when Chris Gaines arrived: Brooks was publicizing a film that barely anyone had heard of yet. The public simply perceived Chris Gaines as a bizarre and undesirable manifestation of some inner looniness Garth Brooks had been hiding away his whole career. Though Greatest Hits would not have changed the face of music or earned any critical accolades, it surely would have sold (perhaps even massively) to a pop audience that was already blissfully awash in similarly sensitive and catchy adult contemporary music, if only the face presenting it to them was a familiar one and not the fictional, soul-patched rocker. Greatest Hits was the start of Garth’s downfall. After its blundering failure, the film project was quickly halted and Brooks scrambled to course correct, releasing a cash-in Christmas album two months later. The next year, citing the difficulties of juggling career and family, Brooks retired and released his final album in 2001. He began a faltering but modestly successful comeback just a few years later and has been performing in Vegas since 2009, but the chart-topping highs of his 90s career seem far past him now.
No matter how artful, pop music is always a product as well, and brand recognition is as important in the record store as it is in the grocery store. The most successful alter egos are peripheral and the most successful creative transformations are surprising but well telegraphed. As art, Chris Gaines was simply boring. As a product he was something like New Coke, or Crystal Pepsi: a colossally bungled venture, destined for spectacular failure. Gaines was a strange character shoved abruptly at the public in ridiculous costume, and no amount of careful explanation on Brooks’ part was ever going to make things any less confounding. He took his image and his audience for granted and lost hold of both.