On October 23, Carrie Underwood will release her fifth album, Storyteller, and it already has its first single. Underwood announced “Smoke Break” in a Facebook Q&A, calling it “one of those story songs that I feel like everybody can relate to,” but the way she’s decided to tell that story isn’t sitting so well with some fans. The sanguine tune has Underwood channeling the working class via a “small-town, working woman just trying to make a living” and “a big-city, hardworking man just trying to climb the ladder,” both in need of a vacation. But because not everyone’s circumstances permit an extended break from reality, Carrie’s got a quicker fix: “When things get tough, sometimes I need a smoke break.”
At face value, it might sound like Carrie’s granting her approval to light a joint or a cigarette and smoke away the day’s troubles. That’s certainly how some of her fans have interpreted it. Skim the comments on Rolling Stone, and you’ll come across at least ten chastising Underwood for promoting tobacco and lung cancer. “Carrie Underwood is trying to make money teaching you it is ok to take a smoke break with her new song,” one reads. It’s an understandable criticism: From the perspective of these characters, she’s singing about giving in to smoking and drinking as a temporary solution for work-related stress. “I don’t smoke, but sometimes I wanna light it up,” the big-city man admits.
Like many of Carrie’s narrative-driven songs, though, she’s making a larger point. A “stiff drink” and a “long drag” are just placeholders for any vice the overworked might depend on to survive. The concern, Carrie suggests, isn’t how Americans cope with their blue-collar lives (though she’s by no means undermining the severity of addiction); it’s the culture of stress that suffocates everyone — including both the mom working three jobs to feed her four kids and the first-generation college graduate just trying to do right by his family — that should piss people off.
Concealing that deeper worry with tall tales of drinking or smoking the pain away is the oldest trick in the country-songwriting book. Two years ago, Kacey Musgraves described a woman named Kelly who’d spend her waitressing days blowin’ smoke, but when Kacey sang about quitting, the idea represented more than Kelly’s cigs. That same year, Ashley Munroe begged her man to buy her weed and whiskey instead of roses and wine, while her bandmate Miranda Lambert has spent years singing about remedying heartache with booze. Predictably, each woman draws more ire from Nashville conservatives than the last. Just as songs about getting trashed will remain a rite of passage in country music, its superstars like Carrie Underwood will continue to find ways to keep them meaningful.