“Follow Your Arrow”

Written by Shelby Conine. April 14, 2015.

In 2013 Kacey Musgraves was still riding the tidal wave of fame and controversy that swirled around her first single “Merry Go ‘Round.” So, naturally, she released what is arguably her most controversial song to date, “Follow Your Arrow.”

The song touches on controversial topics like premarital sex, alcohol, drugs, homosexuality and religion all in three minutes and twenty seconds. Some said it’s “not your mother’s country music,” while others “had no problem embracing the genre’s new direction” (McKay). But to Musgraves, who co-wrote the song with Shane McNally and Brandy Clark, the hit “means so much to [her]” (Musgraves). What’s for sure, however, is that it definitely had an impact on the way country talks about some previously uncharted waters and challenges the narrative of country music.

While she admits that it’s not “your typical country song,” she asks listeners to have an open mind and really listen to it (Musgraves). One of the most obvious issues that she confronts is homosexuality. In the chorus she sings, “Make lots of noise/ Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls if that something you’re into.” While that might make some listeners uncomfortable, Kacey is confident that this is “the last frontier, topic wise, that country music hasn’t embraced” and that the genre is “ready for it” (Musgraves). That part of the song stemmed from a high school friend coming out to her after graduation. The friend, she said, didn’t feel comfortable coming out in high school because the place they were in wasn’t as supportive it could be. She felt that experience had a huge impact on her and wanted that community to feel loved by country music, even though she admits that her hometown wasn’t exactly welcoming to that lifestyle. Furthermore, both co-writers of the song are openly gay, which may have been the reason this controversial lyric earned its way into the chorus.

Throughout the song, she uses common phrases and sayings and then juxtaposes them with almost their exact opposite to make a point. For example, the first lines read: “If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore/if you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horrible person.” By turning the phrase on its head it’s easier to listeners to pick up on her meaning and for the song to have continuity. Musgraves is well renowned as a clever artist and this song exemplifies that.

Additionally verses dealing with drinking, weight loss, and church attendance are also used to exemplify that whichever you chose to do, it’s ok. These topics are contentious among people with liberal and conservative values, respectively. These issues, particularly homosexuality and marijuana use, are prevalent in society today and its nice to see an artist try to reconcile each side of the issue in a song.

The real heart of her message is found in the bridge, which reads “Say what you think/love who you love/ ‘cause you just get so many trips ‘round the sun/yeah, you only/only live once.” Not only does it channel Drake’s “The Motto” by preaching its YOLO (you only live once) message, but it also reiterates her belief that life is short so do what you want to do. Bridges are known to contain some of the most important messages in songs because the music changes and people notice what it says more and I think Musgraves purposely picked the specific lyrics to really back up her chorus.

Moreover, the emphasis on certain words allows her to make significant points. In the first set of verse, she makes “horrible” sound like “whore-ible” so as to point out that gossipers will construe your sex life as being a loose and it adds a cute edge to the lyric. Similarly, in the chorus, when she sings “when the straight and narrow gets a little too straight” her voice swings up an notch on the word “too” so as to indicate that, at some point, everyone’s going to break from society’s expectations and that’s ok. You’ll just need to find that place and then relax, or “roll up a joint” as she suggests in the next line.

The next controversial topic Musgraves tackles in the song is marijuana use. Though in the first two choruses she says, “roll up a joint, or don’t” in the last one she makes a change by saying “I would” instead of “or don’t.” I think her more liberal stance on weed definitely speaks to younger audiences that country music is looking for right now. Somehow Musgraves has struck this balance between being very much authentically country but with this amazing new twist. It definitely brings to mind famous marijuana user and outlaw Willie Nelson, who Musgraves sees as a big influence on her music.

Musgraves further balances the old with the new by the instruments she’s known for using, which are very typical of country music. In this song you can hear an acoustic guitar, banjo, steel guitar, drums, tambourine, and bass guitar. She even admits that it “reminds [her] of Glen Campbell or Marty Robins and maybe a little bit of Loretta Lynn in there and its real country and real simple” (Musgraves). In that way, she sticks with her country, southern roots.

However, the lyrics tell a different story. When Musgraves performed this song on the CMA’s in 2013, she was asked to censor the “roll up a joint” lyric because it wasn’t suitable for prime time audiences, which are mostly families and can include young children.

Obviously country has a long way to go before it’s completely ready to embrace Kacey’s progressivism, but I think that’s a lot about what this song is about. It’s about her belief that you should do you own thing no matter what everyone thinks, almost as if she’s updating the outlaw movement from the 60s and 70s. She’s walking this line between traditional and revolutionary by blending both into her music and I think this song perfectly speaks to that. And while I won’t be kissing lots of girls any time soon, if that’s what you’re into then, as Kacey would say, follow your arrow wherever it points.

      Listening Guide

 Time Form Listening Que Discussion
 0:00 Intro  guitar  sets up meoldy
 Verse 1  “If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore”  cute lyrics, plays on wordinteresting topics, ,
 Verse 2  “If you can’t loose the weight then you’re just fat”  drugs to loose weight? common phenomenon?
 Chorus  “So, make lots of noise”  hey’s and yeah’s, upswing on “so” and “too” weed reference, repete follow your arrow
 Verse 3  “if you don’t go to church you’ll go to hell”  church choir singing in the background? clichés,
Chorus  “make lots of noise”  same hey’s and yeah’s, more oo’s, follow your arrow x 2 again,
Bridge  say what you think  slower, more deliberate, less instrumentation, YOLO?, brief guitar interlude, whistling
Chorus “So make lots of noise”  change to “i would” instead of “or don’t” when talking about weed, outro with whistling

Works Cited

Follow Your Arrow. Spotify, 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <https://open.spotify.com/album/6Vp0nCHynKfnZOrozqA7gr>.

McKay, Hollie. “Kacey Musgraves ‘Follow Your Arrow’ Latest Sign of Shifts in Country Music.” Fox News. N.p., 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.