KOF #6: Redefining the Measure of Success through RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle”

by Jada E. Watson

One of the most overlooked songs of the last few years is RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle”. Widely applauded by critics and fans for its raw and emotional account of growing up the child of divorce, the song shockingly had limited impact on the charts. Released to radio on July 13, 2016 – three and a half years after writing the song – “Love Triangle” spent 30 weeks on the Hot Country Songs chart, and peaked at 27 two years ago today on April 15, 2017.

We first met RaeLynn in 2012 when she auditioned for the reality vocal competition show, The Voice, with her rendition of the Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels“. She proved to be a dynamic personality, a versatile performer, and a fierce champion of country music – performing Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” and The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”. Following her elimination from the show in the quarterfinal round, RaeLynn moved to Nashville, released her debut album, and toured with some of the genre’s most prominent artists. She also began writing her own songs, and has proven herself to be a dynamite with a pen as well.

RaeLynn “Love Triangle” with her frequent collaborators Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon in January 2013. The song is autobiographical for the young singer-songwriter: she was just three years old when her parents divorced, and drew on her personal experiences to shape the song narrative. Through this song, she recounted the pain of growing-up between two homes, with two beds, in interview with Tom Roland of Billboard Country Update:

I always felt like I was stuck in between my parents, relaying information back and forth and walking on egg shells, not knowing what was going to trigger something to make them mad and not knowing what to say in front of them. I was feeling that way at like six and seven, you know, having all these emotions run through my head when I should have just been thinking about Barbie (dolls).”

In fact, she revealed that the very day she wrote this song her parents were arguing as she was headed to a writing session with Robbins and Galyon. That argument led to this song. The opening lyrics introduce the triangle in the first 2 verses: a little girl sitting on her front porch waiting for her daddy to come pick her up for a weekend visit, with her momma standing behind the screen door behind her. Recounting her experience: “My dad would pick me up every other Friday at 6 o’clock and drop me off every Sunday at 6 o’clock, and I remember those last couple hours, like around 4 o’clock, my dad would get kind of sad because he knew that he was about to not see me for two more weeks.” The pre-chorus highlights the emotional confusion for a young child in this scenario – excited to see her father, but confused and devastated to leave her mom (a relationship that is flipped in the second pre-chorus, when she has to leave her father at the end of her weekend with him).

Then I run, to him
Big hug, jump in
And I cry, for her
Out the window

The video for this song, directed by TK McKamy, captures this emotional tension beautifully. It opens with a young girl playing in her front yard waiting for her dad (her white suitcase on the front steps) to come pick her up for their weekend together. The father doesn’t come up the driveway, he parks at the edge of the property and waits for her to jump into his arms for a hug. Her parents put on a show for their daughter, but this young girl is very observant and notices the impact that her departure and absence has on them: her mom sitting tearfully on the bottom step before she has to leave, her dad holding her extra tight when saying goodbye. It’s hard not to feel the gut wrenching pain of the scene in which her mother pulls her out of a hug to bring her back into the house after her short weekend with her dad. Magnifying the emotion behind the video is RaeLynn’s stunning performance as she narrates her family story, letting the tears stream down her face at the song’s climax. 

RaeLynn, “Love Triangle” (2016)
Directed by TK McKamy

It’s hard to understand how a song with such profound cultural resonance could have little impact on the charts. Her song follows in the line of a number of important songs by female artists that address difficult family and domestic situations:

  • Tammy Wynette’s 1968 “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman) relays the woman’s perspective on impending divorce – spelling out critical words in the song in an attempt to shield her young song from the details;
  • Dolly Parton recorded and released Donna Summer and Bruce Sudano’s “Starting Over Again” in 1980 about the collapse of a 30-year marriage;
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “House of Cards” (1994) speaks about dysfunctional family dynamic hidden behind the closed doors of small-town America;
  • The Dixie Chicks’ “You Were Mine” (1998) reflects on the breakup and divorce of the parents of band members (and sisters) Emily Robison and Martie Maguire;
  • Kellie Pickler’s “I Wonder” (2006) speaks of child abandonment in a personal message to her mother; and
  • Reba McEntire’s 2007 duet with Kenny Chesney on “Every Other Weekend” (written by Skip Ewing and Connie Harrington) is a story about the practical and emotional challenges of shared custody as relayed from the perspective of a divorced couple.

These are just a few important songs about dysfunctional families and divorce in which children play a role in the narrative. Several of these songs hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, including Wynette’s, Parton’s, and the Dixie Chicks’. But RaeLynn’s autobiographic ballad didn’t even crack the Top 20.

“When I hear things like that, it was a #1 in my heart. A song that makes that kind of impact did what it was supposed to do.’

Timing is everything in the music industry, and one cannot help but wonder how the timing of the release impacted the commercial lifecycle of this song. RaeLynn originally recorded the song in April 2013, but her label never released it to the market. As Roland reports, “it was the height of the bro-country era at the time, and sad family dramas were not quite the order of the day.” When she parted ways with Republic in the Spring of 2016, RaeLynn took the opportunity to re-record the song in a more raw rendition opening with stacked acoustic guitar, atmospheric effects on electric guitar, and drums (entering on verse 2). Robbins played guitar on this track, revealing that he used a guitar in which the strings hadn’t been changed in 10 years so that the finger movements would be more audible on the final recorded track. The first from her new label Warner Music Nashville, the song was released to radio in July 2016 at a time when women were struggling to find space on country radio. This was one year post-#TomatoGate, when it was openly revealed that programmers routinely keep women at 15% of a radio playlist, in a time when women were being told that “women don’t want to hear women”, that there’s just “one spot at a time” for female artists, and that “ballads don’t sell”. “Love Triangle” had a lot stacked against it. 

Yet, even though it didn’t fare well on the charts, the song has had immeasurable impact on the young artist’s fans. As revealed in her visit to Elaina Doré Smith’s Women Want to Hear Women podcast studio in November 2018, what keeps her going are her experiences in concert and conversations with them at meet-and-greets. Watching her fans cry while she performs “Love Triangle”, or hearing stories about how the song has impacted her fans’ lives (even to the point of saving marriages of couples considering divorce) changes her perspective on success. “When I hear things like that,” she told Doré Smith, “it was a #1 in my heart. A song that makes that kind of impact did what it was supposed to do.”