Achy Breaky Heart: I Just Don’t Think I Understand

It’s one of those disjointed childhood memories where all I can remember is an image and a feeling. I was standing in front of my family’s tall TV cabinet watching Billy Ray Cyrus performing Achy Breaky Heart on some awards show or late-night program. I knew that the song was really popular, and the crowd was going crazy, but all I could think was “man, I DO NOT get this.” Obviously my internal narrator hasn’t changed much: I was 5 when Achy Breaky Heart came out, I’m 28 now, and I still do not get it. But on this, the 54th anniversary of Billy Ray Cyrus’s birth, I’m at least going to try to explain it.

The thing with Achy Breaky Heart is that it wasn’t just a pop song: it was a phenomenon. I can’t think of a song in recent memory that is similar. Call Me Maybe, maybe? Single Ladies? It tapped into, and defined, the country craze of the early ’90s. You know how now country artists look like slightly glitzier, more polished versions of regular musicians? And most of their songs sound like regular pop songs, save a guitar intro or two (or, if you’re really unlucky, that country guy talk-singing that sounds a bit like the “rap” music on educational tape cassettes in the early ’90s about, like, the solar system). That’s not quite where we were in 1992. For one thing, this was peak Rural Mullet* era, and Billy Ray was leading the brigade.

*The Rural Mullet is not to be confused with the Rock Mullet of the ’80s or the Fashion Mullet of the 2000s.

So we’re talking super-short, like military-short top-hair, and then extra long spiral curled back-hair. This was a MULLET. Shall we have another?

There you go. A nice profile shot, where you can really see the transition from short to long. See, the feathery 80s mullets tried to go for a seemless business-to-party experience, but this was like two independent haircuts coexisting on one head. It was like if you turned a corner in your corporate workplace and were suddenly at a kegger.

The early ’90s country fad was less Keith Urban, Pedicured Cowboy and more 10 gallon hat-ish. Also, buckles. Hefty buckles. If you can answer the question “could I work on my car in this ?” in the affirmative, then an early ’90s country artist could wear it.And yet, layered earthy necklaces weren’t out of place, either.If Billy Ray could simultaneously sport chest hair, a cowboy jacket, denim, and multiple necklaces … well, be still our achy breaky hearts.But it wasn’t just that Achy Breaky typified how country boys dressed in the early ’90s, it also controlled how a generation of moms danced (technically people of all life stages and genders, but primarily moms for some reason). The line dancing craze was the biggest Achy Breaky-related cultural phenomenon other than Miley Cyrus. I definitely remember watching a line dancing show that aired regularly on television. Line dancing was inexplicably popular in malls. Maybe the show was filmed in a mall? And maybe malls were more of a cultural meeting place in the 90s, because I feel like people went to malls a lot more then, just as a general activity.

One thing that I’ve observed at weddings and gatherings: white people, in particular, love dances where you don’t have to figure out what to do. So it is no surprise that white people across the nation flocked to line dancing classes (technically people of all backgrounds and ethnicities, but primarily white people for some reason). The Achy Breaky was the must-know dance of the early ’90s, like the Lindy Hop and the Charleston in ages past.

Here, you can learn, too:

I definitely remember my mom pining for line dancing classes – maybe she still does. I should check on that because her birthday and Christmas are coming up.

I’ve avoided it so far, but we need to talk about Achy Breaky Heart, the song. Listen if you dare: this will be stuck in your head for days.

If you couldn’t bear to listen, I can’t blame you. It’s about a man who just went through a breakup. He tells his ex all the things she can do, but what she CANNOT do is tell his heart (his achy, breaky heart). Okay. But most of the things he says she can do are kind of ridiculous. Billy Ray is apparently fine with her doing the following:

  • Burning his clothes while he’s gone
  • Tell his lips to tell his fingertips not to reach for her. But why do his lips tell his fingertips anything? Is he like my niece, who learns about things by trying to eat them? (She’s fine, she’s a baby, it’s normal.) Or like Helen Keller putting her hands to Annie Sullivan’s mouth to feel the words? (I might be getting that wrong.)
  • Tell her dog to bite his leg. WHY? That isn’t okay.
  • Tell his eyes to watch out for his mind (It might be walking out on me today). I don’t think Billy Ray knows how body parts work?

Today, Billy Ray Cyrus is 54 years old. But 23 years ago, he was the 31-year-old king of country, creating a musical, fashion, and dance craze that swept the nation off its achy breaky feet. I won’t tell his heart – his achy, breaky heart – but I just don’t think I understand.


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