Like the Tokyo Olympics, the Fifth Annual Terrible Artist Spotlight Challenge is back, one year after it was originally scheduled. This year’s installation — following previous entries covering Soulja Boy, Dogstar, BrokeNCYDE, and Train (band) — brings us the story of Garth Brooks’ erstwhile alter ego, Chris Gaines.
Note: Chris Gaines does not exist. Brooks invented and portrayed him, as the main character of a planned but never-produced movie — a psychological thriller about the biggest rock star in history and a superfan who believes he’s been murdered. Beyond merely being fictional, Gaines is almost unfindable in 2021. “He” cut an album, but it isn’t on any streaming services. YouTube has precisely one blurry video featuring him. His appearance on Saturday Night Live is solely on Peacock (not Hulu or Amazon Prime). The hosts of 2019’s Chris Gaines: The Podcast said Facebook was even blocking links from their website. I have not seen a pop culture artifact so effectively scrubbed from the Internet since those Muppets that were cast members on SNL’s first season.
What you can find, and what Brooks’ notoriously aggressive copyright enforcement cannot stop, is people talking about Chris Gaines. Boy howdy, do people want to talk about him. There are blogs, podcasts, and legacy country music publications dissecting him, amateur musicians covering his songs, reaction videos, Twitter jokes, and on and on. You can’t hide the truth, Garth. We all know what you did.
A quick chronology:
- Some time in the 1990s — Country music superstar Garth Brooks envisioned a movie about a horny rock star called Chris Gaines, who may or may not have been murdered.
- February 1999 — Brooks held a press conference to announce a movie called The Lamb, created by and starring himself as Gaines. Also in attendance: a Capitol Records exec; rock producer and dinosaur-walker Don Was; Brooks’ staffer and later litigant Lisa Sanderson; Babyface; and budding movie producer/Mrs. Babyface Tracey Edmonds. A “pre-soundtrack” album, with Brooks performing in character as Gaines, would precede the film.
Not included in the press conference: anyone significantly involved in the movie business.
- September 28, 1999 — Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines was released. Critics launched their most scathing reviews. Fans seemed confused at best. With a heavy marketing push, it sold a disappointing(?) 2 million records and got a single, “Lost in You,” on the Top 40 pop charts, Brooks’ first and only.
- Unknown, 1999 — The phony VH-1 special “Behind the Life of Chris Gaines” aired. If you want to know the entire Gaines mythos that Brooks created, in all its clichéd, convoluted glory, this fake documentary is your ur-text. Like most episodes of Behind the Music, it focuses on the vice that almost led to the star’s downfall — in this case, sex addiction — before their redemptive comeback. It also has Billy Joel.
- November 13, 1999 — Brooks hosted Saturday Night Live as himself and performed in his Gaines persona as the musical guest. SNL can be a low-risk audition for non-actors looking to pivot to movies; around this time, Britney Spears and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson both parlayed hosting gigs into starring movie roles. Brooks did not.
- Various dates later — The Lamb was shelved and never became a movie. Brooks released two more albums that sold poorly by his standards, then retired* from music. Chris Gaines went down in history as a terrible idea that killed** the career of an artist bigger than Elvis.
* This retirement lasted four years.
** See above.
The most notable aspect of this fiasco is that everyone thinks it was a failure for all the wrong reasons. A country megastar transforming himself into a brooding alt-rocker? Crazy! What was he thinking? True, the image of Brooks in a Johnny Rzeznik wig was ridiculous, and yes, he went pretty far down the rabbit hole in “becoming” Gaines, including weight loss, multiple photo shoots, and an unnecessarily detailed and voluminous backstory. But I think that all misses the mark.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of Chris Gaines. Musicians have been successfully taking on alternate personas for decades, usually to try out a different style or switch up their aesthetic. Plenty of examples pre-date Gaines, from Luke the Drifter to Ziggy Stardust, the Sgt. Pepper guys to KISS’s Spaceman, Starchild, and Demon. And the practice continued long after Brooks hung up his emo hairpiece: Slim Shady is not a real person, nor are Sasha Fierce, Hannah Montana, or any of the Gorillaz.
More to the point, none of these are real people. Garth-Brooks-the-best-selling-solo-artist-of-all-time is not the same as Troyal Garth Brooks, the human being. As soon as he steps on a stage or opens his mouth in a recording studio, he’s performing a role. His 1992 World Tour program features a write-up outlining the differences between real Garth and “GB,” the performer. (Obviously, we should not assume Brooks composed this article himself, or that its description of the real Garth is not itself a stage-managed invention.) Even when the two roles are similar, or subsume each other, the performative aspect can’t be denied. We all know this — that’s why there’s discourse around what stars are “really like.” It’s an act, and we accept that.
So the issue was never the fact that Brooks took on a musical alter ego — it was that he did it so poorly. For whatever reason, his otherwise flawless musical instincts failed in both the content and the execution of the Chris Gaines project. First off, who releases an album to hype a movie that doesn’t exist? Movies create their own hype. There’s a multibillion-dollar industry around it. This dumb move was in keeping with Brooks’ history of bad decisions when it comes to Hollywood: according to Sanderson’s lawsuit, he turned down roles in eventual blockbusters Saving Private Ryan and Twister, and blew a shot at co-producing the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland because he wanted to write the screenplay.
More crucially, the music isn’t any good. The Lamb was supposed to be about a huge rock star who’s sold more records than Jesus, then pivots to R&B and is heralded as “the new Prince.” Wow, humble. And the record was supposed to be a Greatest Hits collection. So you have to really bring it with the quality to make those claims believable. Instead, we got Train-like pop rock minus the catchy hooks, with some adult-contemporary ballads mixed in. Many of these bland songs were re-recorded demos that had been floating around Nashville for years. Songwriter Gordon Kennedy (Eric Clapton’s “Change the World”) wrote several of them and even performed the lead vocal on “My Love Tells Me So.” Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss had already recorded “Maybe” before Gaines did. The fact that Gaines’ Fallout Boy rocker image didn’t match the music was just icing on the cake.
I’m reminded of the mostly forgotten 1992 film Pure Country, which featured country star George Strait, one of Brooks’ favorite performers, as a fictional country singer. The accompanying soundtrack arrived merely six weeks prior to the film, instead of two years in advance. That record was well received and became the best seller of Strait’s career, moving six million copies — not Garth Brooks numbers, but nothing to sneeze at. Also, nobody accused Strait of having gone crazy for adopting a new persona, probably because the character was so close to what people thought of country singers in 1992.
That was the real sin: Brooks went too far afield with his imaginary musician. The red-headed stranger is a country outlaw like Willie Nelson; Ziggy Stardust is an androgynous rock star with a glam fashion sense and a fixation on outer space, just like this Bowie fellow. Chris Gaines and his mascara, on the other hand, aren’t like the Garth Brooks we know. The look was obviously off, and the music didn’t sound like Garth, either: he sings in a breathy, melismatic falsetto, with no twang or steel guitar. It’s hard to imagine Gaines being a fun, self-deprecating dudebro on stage at concerts, joking about how he’s losing his hair or is overweight or can’t play guitar too good (Brooks does these things). He certainly wouldn’t sign autographs for 23 hours at a fan fest.
More than rock or certainly pop, country music relies on a belief in the performers’ authenticity. They have to wear belt buckles and drink beers, sing in one of a small number of approved accents, and sell a life story about hardscrabble upbringing in the heartland. Brooks has all of that. But if he can change himself, and become a sex-addicted rocker in leather pants whose album covers riff on A Clockwork Orange and Enema of the State, does that mean he’s been faking it the whole time? Does manufacturing a new character for oneself prove the original character was made-up, too? Brooks had long aroused suspicions that he was a country poseur, and for some people, his decision to code-switch and cut a pop-rock album only proved it.
But if Gaines alienated Brooks’ fans, he didn’t appeal to the mainstream, either. Ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan finds a class distinction at play, if you accept the assertion that rock stars occupy a higher social status in the music world than country stars and their fans. She suggests that “a country singer who performs rock music seems to be trying to elevate himself above his social station,” and that this made Chris Gaines impossible for rock fans to accept. Clearly, there is plenty of interplay between Country and Rock music, but when you think of artists who had both feet in one world and moved into the other, it’s generally a one-way street.
My personal take is that none of this would have mattered if the music was good. Great songs by a global megastar with the backing of a major label’s machinery will be successful. But these songs were just OK. Combine that with some critical haterade, and the narrative that Gaines was Garth’s midlife crisis took over. It didn’t help that the record came out the same year Brooks suffered personal losses — his mother died and his marriage fell apart — and did some other silly things, like playing spring training with the San Diego Padres (batting average: .045).
Ironically, Gaines may be closer to the real Brooks than the actual “Garth Brooks” persona is. Gaines’ intricate backstory draws heavily from Brooks’ own life: an upbringing focused on sports (Brooks attended college on a track-and-field scholarship), the tragic death of a close friend as a teenager, a parent dying of cancer, dropping out of school to pursue his music career, and an interest in rock music. Meanwhile, country star Garth Brooks is out here pretending he knows about rodeos. The real Garth grew up in the suburbs listening to ’70s radio rock and lists Billy Joel, Boston, Queen, KISS, and Foreigner among his favorite acts. That sounds closer to Chris Gaines than it does to the guy who sang “I Got Friends in Low Places.”
For a long time after 1999, Brooks was happy to leave Gaines in the rearview mirror. But something unusual happened after the dust settled. Chris Gaines got a new lease on life.
I trace the beginning of the Gaines revival to Chuck Klosterman’s 2009 essay collection Eating the Dinosaur, which included a thoughtful, if still critical, chapter on Brooks and Gaines. In 2011, Matthew Morrison of Glee covered “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” on his debut album, which started the slow boil of Chris Gaines covers: a 2015 duet of “It Don’t Matter” by Don Henley and Stevie Nicks; indie folk singer Rosie Thomas’s version of the same song appearing in the 2018 Mark Wahlberg film Instant Family; and even Childish Gambino, who gave his all to “Lost in You” for Australian radio in 2019. A quick search on Spotify turns up dozens of recent podcast episodes, and at least one entire series, all about Chris Gaines. Many of them were even kind of positive.
Gaines also got support from an unlikely corner: country music superstar Garth Brooks. Now unretired and remarried, to fellow country music superstar Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’ attitude toward his alter ego has mellowed a bit. In a 2015 interview, he said that even though his “ribs are still sore from getting the shit kicked out of me for doing that one,” he considers the Gaines album among his favorites. He told the Tennessean in 2019 that the Gaines project “isn’t done.” Fast forward to earlier this year and Brooks, ever the savvy businessman, took note of the surge in Chris Gaines interest and announced that he’d be reissuing Gaines’ music, including at least some never-before-released tracks. Given Brooks’ notorious history of repackaging existing material, it’s a no-brainer for him.
In other words, Chris Gaines will get another chance to prove he deserves the superlatives heaped on him by imaginary rock critics 20+ years ago. And thanks to the decline of the music industry, you won’t have to be an adherent of the Many Worlds Interpretation to live in a universe where Gaines is a legit star. You know how many physical copies Tyler the Creator had to sell to top the Billboard 100 last week? 55,000. Please. Garth Brooks sets 55,000 CDs on fire just to light his cigar. Get ready for No. 1 artist Chris Gaines.
As long as he forgets the wig.