Sheryl Crow: Pop-Country Star & Qohelutian Bard
“All I Wanna Do” — with its unbelievably danceable backbeat, defiantly hedonistic chorus, and earworm of an ascending pentatonic run through the title lyric — singlehandedly turned Sheryl Crow into a star in 1994, catapulting her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club to the top of the charts and winning her Grammys for Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal, and Best New Artist. Tuesday Night Music Club interwove country elements like the lap and pedal steel guitars and the twang of both her voice and spanky single-coil bridge pickups with blues rock’s overdriven amplifiers and swinging drums on songs like “Run, Baby Run,” with contrapuntal chorused acoustics for the ballad “Strong Enough,” and with punchy drum machines on “Leaving Las Vegas,” all perfectly compressed into radio-ready pop. Sheryl Crow (and her collaborators) proved on TNMC that they were able to weigh, study, and arrange the traditions of twentieth-century American popular music. However, it was through the more uniform southern rock sound of her superior, eponymous second album of 1996 that she secured herself a place in the musical canon — and two more Grammys, for good measure.
For Crow, achieving mainstream success in the mid-90’s did not require singing only banalities. Instead, her lyrics are marked by a winsome epistemological humility. She consistently undermines the superficial meanings that the grocery-store listener might assume on the basis of her instantly memorable choruses. In doing so, she provokes her listeners to be open to the possibility that whatever answers she might seem to offer them and even to claim for herself are only provisional and calls into question thereby the certainties onto which they cling.
This approach is most pronounced in “If It Makes You Happy” which, besides being a kick-ass rock song, employs direct antinomy in the chorus. The first time she utters the titular protasis, its apodosis — “it can’t be that bad” — repeats the most conventional sort of wisdom, the stuff of motivational posters, Joseph Campbell (“Follow Your Bliss!”), and people who quote Parker Palmer too much (“Let your life speak!”). Happiness in fact is attainable and worthy of pursuit, she has set this pseudo-proverb up to mean. Whatever makes you happy can’t really be that bad, can it?
Though she repeats the protasis, the interrogative second apodosis “then why the hell are you so sad?” undermines the prior claim. Happiness and sadness are thus established as an antagonistic dualism throughout the song. Her use of the second-person pronoun leaves open many possibilities: is the narrator asking herself why her pursuit of her dreams to which she was so dedicated that “a long, long way from here” both in time (before she was famous) and space (growing up in Missouri) she was willing “play for mosquitos” cannot seem to bring her the happiness, the satisfaction that she expects? Is it a plural “you” that she’s singing, addressing her listeners and asking whence the disjuncture between the “it” of the protasis expected to make them happy and their present state of sadness?
My best theory is that “If It Makes You Happy” is a ballad from one of the narrative persona’s selves to another, a song from Smeagol to Gollum. The strong, normal “I” pleads throughout with the silent, depressed “You” (who “get[s] down, real low down) to surrender control, attempting to persuade “You” through tender affection (giving new meaning to self-care). “I” turns “Your” moldy bread into French toast, trying to mitigate “Your” attempts to isolate and damage the narrative persona (since You “derails your own train”). However, on this account, the “I” still cannot help but to confess in the pre-choruses to its own duplicity (in the first, “Well, okay, I made this up”) and weakness (in the second, “Well, okay, I still get stoned/I’m not the kind of girl you’d take home”). Has “I” borne enough witness to the validity of “Your” concerns that by the third pre-chorus a tentative synthesis can be proposed in the third: “Well, okay, we get along/So what if right now everything’s wrong?” Does the first-person plural imply a re-integration of “I” and “You” in the narrative persona which allows for the persona to rededicate itself to “it” which makes “You” happy? Perhaps, perhaps not: sadness gets the last word, but the final clause is interrogative, challenging the possibility of any declarative statement being final.
Sheryl Crow’s anfractuous lyrics — not only in “Everyday is a Winding Road” — would be greatly appreciated by another person who loved to weigh, choose, and arrange proverbs, to undermine himself, to be skeptical of certainties: Qoheleth, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth writes that he “sought out by wisdom all that is done under the sun” (1:13) and found it wanting, found it only hevel: vain, ephemeral, absurd. In the narrative persona as the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) who himself was “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12), he tests pleasure — all the accoutrements which belong to the one who has the highest status in the land — and determines, “This also was vanity” (2:1). To Sheryl Crow’s wonder at your sadness despite that “it” should be making you happy, Qoheleth growls back that “all things are wearisome,” (1:8) contending that it’s not in our nature to achieve lasting pleasure except perhaps in the toil itself with which God has given us to toil (2:10), yet even that cannot help but be a “chasing after wind” (2:11). Even the promise of wisdom has little to offer in Qoheleth’s estimation — what’s the use in the wise having “eyes in their head” instead of being like the fool who “walks in darkness” if “the same fate befalls them” (2:14–15)? And yet Qoheleth is the one fastidiously examining the wisdom tradition, trying to get the marrow out of it, even as he knows that it will not give a bit of gain, yitrōn.
Hearing “Everyday is a Winding Road” (and probably dancing against his will because of those infectiously groovy congas), Qoheleth would realize that Sheryl Crow is aware of the limits of pleasure, the impossibility of being more than fine. Her companion the “vending machine repairman” who was “high on intellectualism” (one cannot help but wonder which prestigious institution granted him his doctorate in theology) has tested for her the path of wisdom, and she’s happy to dismiss it as little more than a “brochure [that] looks nice.” Though by the time she wrote it she was already a wealthy rock star (and what’s a king to a rock star?), she sings with a tone of placid resignation that every day she gets “a little bit closer to feeling fine.” Closer to “feeling fine,” she says in the chorus, but each and every day also winds us closer to death, the ultimate release from getting high and low as everybody does. Though we do not know how the days will wind or what will come — for we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11) — we wind towards the inevitability of death. Nevertheless, she exhorts, “Jump in, let’s go/ Lay back, enjoy the show;” why should the inevitability of death preclude enjoyment of life?
Sprinkled throughout Sheryl Crow’s lyrics are these sorts of subtle, let-hear-those-who-have-ears-to-hear calls to enjoying the simple pleasures of life. While “All I Wanna Do” claims in the chorus that having some fun is her sole aim, Sheryl Crow’s biggest song ever is an unmasking of the lie that fun is anything grander than sipping on cheap, sudsy beer in a dive bar, starting in the morning with no end in sight. The fun isn’t at a “disco” nor a “country club,” and it certainly won’t avail from keeping up the appearances for coworkers and neighbors by spending your precious lunch hour washing your car (like “the good people of the world”). The reason she’s “not the only one” looking for fun is that there’s nothing better for a human life than the “fun” of a “beer buzz in the morning.” The song’s major chords turn round and round, the Mixolydian mode of the melody suggesting a resolution that never comes as the harmony moves on a pedal steel — up and down by half step in the prechorus, ascending in whole tones during the chorus — never obeying the rules for a proper harmonic resolution, refusing to allow the would-be tonic chord of E-Major to claim for itself any finality, chasing chord with chord until it fades out with dissonance sprinkled in, undermining itself to its end.
Likewise, Qoheleth interrupts his own monologue of misery with passages of joy. He extols the virtues of eating and drinking as a gift from God, saying that “there is nothing better for mortals” (2:24). Lest we think he thinks all is bad (that is, that all is sad in Crow’s parlance), he returns to his theme: “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil” (5:18). The worst thing Qoheleth can imagine is God giving someone “wealth, possessions, and honor” but electing not to “enable them to enjoy these things” (6:3). However little the good things in life can do about our death problem, they are still good, believes Qoheleth, and should be enjoyed as such. Qoheleth would quickly be fired from youth ministry: when he styles himself as an elder instructing a young man in the classic trope of wisdom literature, he quickly tells the youth to follow the inclination of his heart and the desire of his eyes (11:9), violating all parental guidance and the Torah to boot (cf. Numbers 15:39). For Qoheleth, even righteousness should be attended to in moderation for you may “perish in righteousness” or “prolong [your] life in evildoing” — “too righteous,” “too wise,” you “destroy yourself;” be a fool and “you die before your time” (Q 7:15–16). So long as you live your meager days you might as well enjoy life’s few good things; Qoheleth thus joins his voice with Sheryl Crow to tell you to go have some fun: drink cold beer in a dive bar, and you’ll feel fine!
 “Sheryl Crow,” GRAMMY.com, February 10, 2020, https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/sheryl-crow).
 “Whatever makes them happy…” is the diffident, default response for every relative upon hearing of a relation’s peculiar career path, neither praising or condemning the decision, but see Portlandia’s “She’s Making Jewelry Now” sketch (https://youtu.be/UBPT1pgByqc) for the perfect satire of this attitude, and Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love for why following your passion to make jewelry now is not the best career plan.