I tell you a story. Then I tell it again. And again. And again. Never mind that it wasn’t a very exciting story to begin with. Now I’ve told it twelve times, and you’re getting sick of it.
I’m not just talking about my lackluster social skills. This is the story of country radio in 2014. Entertainment Weekly reporter Grady Smith documented as much in his convincing supercut of mainstream country’s laziest clichés, and Vulture critic Jody Rosen illuminated the phenomenon in two pieces questioning the relative obscurity of female voices on country radio.
This isn’t the only story of modern country music. But it’s become the dominant one.
For years, people have told me that they don’t like country music because “all of the songs sound the same.” Let’s deconstruct that statement. First of all, the very definition of a genre implies that the songs within it contain some consistent elements. Second, now more than ever, there’s not a unifying definition of country music’s “sound.” Third, you could probably tune into pop or rock or hip-hop radio for ten minutes and make the same argument – and you’d be wrong. Feel free to dislike country music; you’ve got your tastes, I’ve got mine. I tend to be fairly lenient when it comes to genre labels, but I’m perfectly willing to accept that a particular style of music isn’t your favorite.
All of this is a preamble to say that in recent months, the argument that “all of the songs sound the same” has started to hold a little more water. Glance at the recent list of the Top 40 country songs determined by radio airplay, and you’ll notice some trends almost immediately. Young, thin, slightly scruffy white guys in their 20s are releasing hit after hit about cold beer on Saturday night, sitting on the tailgate with their best bros, lusting after the ever-elusive “girl.” To wit: Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl,” Brett Eldredge’s “Don’t Ya,” Thomas Rhett’s “It Goes Like This” and “Get Me Some of That,” Josh Thompson’s “Cold Beer With Your Name On It,” Jon Pardi’s “Up All Night,” Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night,” Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ for That Girl,” Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It,” Justin Moore’s “Lettin’ the Night Roll,” Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottoms Up,” Jason Aldean’s “When She Says Baby,” Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kinda Night,” Jerrod Niemann’s “Drink to That All Night,” Frankie Ballard’s “Helluva Life,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and “Get Your Shine On” and “Round Here” and “This Is How We Roll.” Bros are everywhere.
There are two separate issues at work here. One, women are underrepresented on the country charts. Two, the monotonous “bro-country” aesthetic has become the dominant one on country radio. Many of these songs portray women as silent objects of desire, unified by their penchant for tight blue jeans and long brown (or blonde) hair. Moreover, all of these songs are about hanging out with buddies on Friday or Saturday night – swap out a few words here and there, Mad Libs-style, and you’ve got yourself a new hit song. Meanwhile, female country singers both veteran (Sara Evans, Sheryl Crow) and up-and-coming (Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark) have been largely relegated to the lower reaches of the charts, even as they occupy the upper reaches of music critics’ best-of-the-year lists. Equally unfortunate: hit songs with less frivolous subject matter – sadness, death, alcoholism, identity crises, marriage, divorce – are few and far between.
The bro-country phenomenon is neither new nor inherently troubling. A hit song is a hit song, and I can’t fault the American public for lapping up the latest assembly-line hunks. There’s a place for frivolity, especially when it comes to popular music. I don’t even hate all of these songs as a rule – Eldredge’s “Don’t Ya” and Scotty McCreery’s “See You Tonight” are two of the stronger examples. But there’s only so much frat-boy drooling I can hear before I want to hear something else. Even if I enjoyed frat-bro pandering, I wouldn’t want frat-bro pandering to become the only pathway to country stardom. I feel even worse for women who want to hear their own experiences reflected in their favorite music.
This issue isn’t as simple as “Bro-country shouldn’t exist” or “Women’s music is better than men’s music.” Neither of these statements is true. Nonetheless, men held down 19 of the top 20 spots on the list of 2013’s most-played country hits. If you’re a woman and your name isn’t Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, you’re an underdog in the country landscape, and that’s just not right. As Rosen and his peers have pointed out, women in country music had a prolific and impressive 2013. Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Jennifer Nettles, Sheryl Crow and many other women released fully formed, aesthetically bold, thematically challenging albums in 2013, and none of them produced a Top 5 hit at country radio. Before you retort that country charts are determined by popular vote, negating the argument that country fans are dissatisfied with what they’re hearing on the radio, keep in mind that country radio is driven by singles, selected from an artist’s album by the record label and marketed as such. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the old saying goes – and bro-country, by commercial standards, ain’t broke.
It’s not that audiences don’t want to hear Ashley Monroe’s “Like a Rose” or Jennifer Nettles’ “That Girl” – they have to seek those songs out themselves, while faceless male newcomers like Eric Paslay and Cole Swindell stroll onto the charts without so much as a new concept or a unique style to show for it. Why? That’s the million dollar question. It’s a vicious cycle – people liked songs in that vein, radio programmers kept ordering songs in that vein, that vein became the dominant vein.
There’s no question that Musgraves is asserting herself within the industry. She garnered six CMA nominations last year, and she even trumped presumptive favorite Florida Georgia Line for the noteworthy Best New Artist award. Will audiences eventually embrace her music, which is darker and bolder than the pleasantries on current radio? I sure hope so. (An opening slot on Katy Perry’s tour won’t hurt.) As mainstream country has fallen into something of a rut, she’s a major bright spot. Her debut single “Merry Go Round” mercilessly deconstructs the fantasies of small-town life that serve as the bedrock of mainstream country, and “Follow Your Arrow” was last year’s most inspiring anthem of empowerment (take that, “Roar”). While the country bros were singing about their fantasies, Musgraves was singing about her reality. Guess which one was more interesting.
The new year is off to a promising start, with The Voice winners Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery making waves with their amiable debut singles, temporarily piercing the bro-mination. Kacey Musgraves won the Grammy awards for Best Country Album and Best Country Song at the Grammys, and she contended for the Best New Artist trophy (which she lost to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis). Eric Church’s outstanding new album “The Outsiders” is bold, fresh and exhilarating, at times overtly rebuking the modern cliches of the country genre. At the same time, Cole Swindell’s insipid “Chillin’ It” just topped the country airplay chart, and Florida Georgia Line’s bombastic “This Is How We Roll” (featuring Luke Bryan, himself a periodic bro-country offender) is charging up the iTunes charts. We’re not out of the woods yet.
On the bright side, country radio doesn’t determine our listening patterns in the age of streaming. We do. In that spirit, I leave you with five great songs currently on the country charts. None of them are about “girls.” None of them are sung by “bros.” They’re beacons of variety in a sea of cliches.
Brad Paisley, “The Mona Lisa” (Romantic affection delivered cleverly)
Dierks Bentley, “I Hold On” (Remaining faithful to objects from the past)
Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown” (The perils of small-town pride)
Little Big Town, “Sober” (Confronting mortality with abandon)
Sara Evans, “Slow Me Down” (On the brink of abandoning a failed relationship)