HITS Daily Double

In this world of #MeToo, #TimesUp, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, pay discrepancies and Roe v. Wade under siege, the word “feminist” may be the new F-bomb. Amid a degree of social upheaval not seen since the ’60s, women are coming together, raising their voices, pushing for social change—and few movements today are more compelling.

But when you scrape away all the urgency, the politics, the social change, one truth remains—humanity. In some ways, humanity is the most urgent reality of all. It scrapes the bones, gets down to the heart and leaves us reeling. It’s also the stuff that gets pushed aside in the name of more topical things.

And so Carrie Underwood steps forward with “Cry Pretty.” Her first single for Capitol Nashville. Written with Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose (“Girl Crush”), the femme trust turns in a tour de force that lays out the crux of a breaking point. Leave it to four women to get down to it, making “When all your mascara is going to waste” an earthquake revelation instead of a clever turn of phrase.

For her reunion with UMG Nashville prexy Cindy Mabe, who was Underwood’s key player back at Sony Music Nashville following the latter’s American Idol triumph and debut album, Some Hearts, the blond power-belter underplays and over-delivers with “Cry Pretty.”

The opening tension-building repeated electric guitar note and the confession, “I’m sorry, but I’m just a girl/Not usually the kind to show my heart to the world,” make it hard to tell just where the song is going. But the nuance of her unadorned voice—something one rarely considers with Underwood—illuminates the deeper humanity of a woman conceding her stoicism.

As she sings, “Falling apart is as human as it gets,” Chris McHugh’s drums tumble and Jimmie Lee Stoss’ bass throbs, echoing the tumult to come, and in the space of that phrase, “Cry Pretty” moves from hushed country ballad to hard-rock power ballad. Think Aerosmith’s Geffen years, Guns N’ Roses “November Rain,” Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home.”

Not that Underwood, who once sang with Steven Tyler on the ACM Awards, is going metal. But by harnessing power in the way she has—this track, please note, is a David Garcia/Carrie Underwood production—her signature all-but-overheated ballads are given a focus that keeps the message front and center, making the song’s intention as muscular as the track.

Not since Helen Reddy cooed, “I am woman, hear me roar” has a female artist embraced the idea that strength doesn’t mean shut down, solidarity doesn’t eradicate the deep feelings that drive the XX chromosome population. Instead, the Oklahoma-born-and-raised singer turns up the volume and throws down a gauntlet on her way to a climax after the second chorus, where her build to “You can’t cry pretty” goes note-for-note with Tom Bukovac’s scalding electric guitar solo.

Just as the air leaves the song, everything drops away and Underwood wails, “You can’t turn off the flood, when the dam breaks.” It is gospel, it is blues, it is the gut-churning howl of the sort of mortal wounding that would break this woman down. In a world where messy emotions are shamed and shoosh’d, Underwood just unravels the kind of sobbing release that is inevitable in an engaged existence.

From a chorus that echoes the working girl’s manifesto, “You can brave lie, and say it’s okay/ You can brave smile, and just walk away,” Underwood throws back her head on the bridge, uses the torque in her voice to power-belt, “When things get ugly/You just gotta face that you can’t… cry… pretty.”

BOOM! There it is: the ugly truth. In a world where sucking it up is de rigueur, even expected, Underwood strikes a blow for women that puts them firmly in the seat of their own emotions. She brings dignity and drama to being broken. And in her power-vocal relentlessness, Underwood shatters conventional wisdom with a potent few words and a squealing guitar.