Carolyn Dawn Johnson – “Complicated”

Released: 9.8.01

Peak: #59

Nope, not the one you’re thinking–this here’s a country song. Though Avril’s did have the feel of an MOR country ballad itself. And both songs rhyme their title with “frustrated.” And both artists are Canadian. And Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln. But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than banishing all identity problems with a simple “be yourself,” as somewhat befits teenpop’s misplaced confidence, this “Complicated” navigates the fuzzy gray area between friendship and love with an unresolved ambivalence.

Johnson made her name as the writer of Chely Wright’s “Single White Female,” a personal ad that established Johnson’s persona as well: The smitten, timid woman trying to summon up the courage to tell you how she feels. But if her early hits played to the strength of this persona, they also showed up her songwriting weaknesses. Rather than thinking up a clever twist or bit of wordplay, like them fancy Nashville pros, Johnson sings exactly what she means. When this works, as on her first hit, “Georgia” (“If I’m not over you by Georgia, then I’ll head to Alabama”), it’s refreshingly candid; when it doesn’t, as on her third hit, “I Don’t Want You To Go” (about not wanting him to go), she doesn’t have the vocal presence to make something of it.

In “Complicated,” though, this directness is a necessary counterpoint to the muddle of contradictory emotions the singer claims to feel. The “you” Johnson addresses is a close friend she’s fallen for. And Johnson’s small, proud voice darts from one impression to another: the self-consciousness that invades the comfort of a friendship, the fluttery hope that comes when another friend suggests you have reason to hope, the apprehension of winding up with neither friend nor a lover.

This pick’s kinda personal, and not just because I cherish that last gasp of female sensibility before macho jingo occupied country radio again. I myself developed a problem with crushing out on friends around this time, and I needed a song that acknowledged that slippery possibility in adults, not just in kids, and the dilemma it poses. For the record, I’d say tell her/him: A good friendship can outlast a rejected crush, and lots of friends disappear anyway. The strength of “Complicated,” though, is that it doesn’t accept that easy answer.

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