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Why country music can’t handle outlaw women

Country music has a woman problem.


Nico Lang

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 2, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 4:47 pm CDT

Country music is filled with bad boyfriends: Dolly Parton’s men like her—but not nearly as much as that dream girl she can’t compete with. Loretta Lynn’s guys kept her knocked up at home while they go out and have their fun. And Miranda Lambert and Brandy Clark have shown the sultry side of getting back at no-good exes. On Clark’s “Stripes,” she reminds her lowdown lover that she easily could pull the trigger—but “orange ain’t [her] color.”

But in country today, it seems there’s no worse boyfriend than Nashville itself. Over the past week, women in the country music industry have been weighing in on #SaladGate, a hashtag started in response to sexist comments by Keith Hill, a radio consultant, made to Country Aircheck about how to attract listeners to country radio stations. His advice to programmers? Drop women from the airwaves.  

If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.

Martina McBride had something to say about that. The singer behind the female empowerment anthem “This One’s For the Girls” responded in a post on Facebook that racked up over 16,000 Likes. “Do you not like to hear other women singing about what you are going through as women?” McBride asked her female listeners. “I’m really curious. Because to me, country music is about relating. Someone relating to what you are really going through on a day to day basis in your life.” 

Miranda Lambert shot back on Twitter by calling his analogy “bulls**t,” while singer Kacey Musgraves tweeted:

While it might be easy to dismiss Hill’s comments as a “joke,” just the sexist notions of an aging dinosaur, they’re an unfortunate reflection of the ways in which female country artists continue to be treated.

In the Country Music Awards’ Entertainer of the Year category, four of the past year’s nominees were male, with Miranda Lambert the lone woman on the list. Lambert has won Female Vocalist of the Year the past five years seemingly by default. There are so few female country artists having the same success as their male counterparts that the CMA keeps having to throw in Kelly Clarkson (who isn’t really a country singer) and Taylor Swift (who famously left Nashville for New York) to round out the list. 

There are plenty of talented female vocalists, but few of them are getting the same kind of exposure as their male competition—artists like Shelton, Urban, and Kenny Chesney.

For instance, in Billboard’s weekly ranking of the 25 most popular country songs on the airwaves, only two are by solo female artists. Before Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water” hit No. 1 in November, a solo female singer hadn’t topped the Country charts since 2012, when Underwood’s own “Good Girl” went to No. 1 that June. (It’s hard to count Swift’s chart-topper “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” because in what universe is that actually a country song?)

In the meantime, the charts continue to be dominated by the usual suspects: Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and the genre’s “bro-country” renaissance, a term coined by New York magazine writer Jody Rosen to describe the hard-partying, beer-swilling, good-times vibe that’s dominated country radio in the past decade. 

In the ‘90s and early aughts, artists like Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Leann Rimes, and Shania Twain became crossover household names, scoring some of the biggest hits of the decade. In 1999, Faith Hill’s “Breathe” was the biggest song of the year in any genre. Leann Rimes’ “How Do I Live” shattered airplay records in 1997, staying on the Billboard charts for a then-unprecedented 69 weeks.

What changed? The crowned bro-country prince, Luke Bryan, claims that country’s woman problem is because today’s music industry lacks those elusive Cool Girls, the ones who will go to your poker night, beer pong match, or pool hall while looking effortlessly put together. “They kind of have to be able to hang with the guys but also be feminine and pretty,” Bryan told Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith. “Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy.”

However, Nashville’s ladies don’t lack an ability to be “just one of the guys,” as Jenny Lewis recently put it; in fact, they arguably do masculinity a lot better. What makes the songs of Bryan and his contemporaries—Lee Brice, Jason Aldean, and Thomas Rhett—so profoundly dull is their sheer sameness: They’re an easy sell to country music programmers because they’re safe and boring, whereas the aforementioned “Stripes” and Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” pound with a genuine sense of danger.(These two YouTube mashups illustrate how male country singers recycle the songs over and over.) 

Even American Idol-winner Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” about serving comeuppance to an untrustworthy beau, is more thrilling than anything in Bryan’s catalog. Bryan’s current No. 2 Country hit, “Kick the Dust Up,” is more or less what all of his songs are about: tractors, cars, booze, partying, and young desire. His music is everything people who don’t like about country music say they don’t like about it, the genre’s insistence on tired cliches; Bryan’s songs feel patched together as if written by Mad Lib.

Thus, it’s not that Nashville lacks strong, powerful women but that the industry hasn’t the slightest clue what to do with them. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks proved the patient zeroes of this phenomenon when lead singer Natalie Maines voiced her anti-war dissent during a concert in London. “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” Maines told the audience. “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

While the backlash against the Dixie Chicks is common knowledge, with fans burning their records and demanding their songs be pulled from the airwaves, few realize just how effective the protest was. At the time of Maines’ comments, their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was one of the biggest songs in the country, climbing all the way to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100; it was utterly inescapable on the radio. Just weeks later, the song was off the charts completely, all but a distant memory.

If the 1990s had been country music’s boom period, when Lonestar’s “Amazed” could boast the rare feat of topping the Hot 100 in 1998, the years following the Dixie Chicks controversy proved the beginning of the genre’s crash—as well as its turn against women.

With the genre-bending success of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” in 2012 (which went to No. 4 on the Hot 100), and three years of imitators in country’s frat takeover, it’s easy to pretend that’s always the way it was. In his Entertainment Weekly interview, Luke Bryan shrugged off Nashville’s wave of reactionary sexism: “I guess I didn’t give you at all an answer, but I just feel like I don’t know what can be done to solve it. I think historically it’s always been that way a little bit.”

While the backlash against the Dixie Chicks is common knowledge, with fans burning their records and demanding their songs be pulled from the airwaves, few realize just how effective the protest was.  

Little has changed for women in the industry in the decade since the Dixie Chicks were forced off the airwaves. In 2013, Kacey Musgraves’ amazing “Merry Go ‘Round” was labeled an “anti-country song” for highlighting the dark sides of smalltown life, the pain of those who feel trapped in the only place they know. “We think the first time’s good enough/So we hold on to high school love/Sayin’ we won’t end up like our parents,” Musgraves sings. “Follow Your Arrow” received similar complaints because of its pro-gay themes: “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into.”

Unlike her idol, Loretta Lynn, Musgraves’ music isn’t explicitly political (she calls “Merry Go ‘Round” an “anti-small-mind song”), but what makes her music controversial is how she challenges not only the norms of tradition but the conventions of the industry she’s in. And as folk singer Tasha Golden explains in a 2014 essay, that is political in the current country landscape:

While “Merry Go ‘Round” validates many listeners’ experiences of feeling stuck (the song has succeeded even outside its genre), it also invalidates one of country music’s primary functions: to suppress that stuck feeling by celebrating small-town life, including deadbeat loves (“Slow Me Down,” “Before He Cheats”), dead-end jobs (“Drinks After Work”), and the use of alcohol and sex as distraction (“Chillin’ It,” “Bottoms Up,” “Doin What She Likes,” “Helluva Life,” every male-penned country hit ever).

Given enough time reading chart-topping country lyrics, one will feel that country listeners aren’t supposed to question the life they have, much less strive for a better one; they’re instead supposed to find and enjoy cheap distractions from it.

Jody Rosen told NPR that female country singers used to be the “moral center of the genre,” but mainstream country seems to like women best when they smile, look pretty, and don’t say too much. RaeLynn, a former contestant on The Voice, scored a rare solo female hit on the Billboard Country charts with “God Made Girls,” a stomach-churning love letter to traditional gender roles. Why did our creator bother with the female sex? RaeLynn has a simple answer: “Somebody’s gotta wear a pretty skirt/Somebody’s gotta be the one to flirt.” She also extolls the virtues of “letting him drive,” as if the lyrics were written by Steve Harvey.

University of Indiana professor Molly Brost found that only 10 percent of the genre’s No. 1 singles were produced by women.  

While Golden argues that “country still can’t seem to stomach women who want something more than to be at home having babies,” the case of RaeLynn shows that women have an easier time if they conform to traditional values. As Bustle’s Alex Kritselis argues, “country music has carved out a very narrow lane that women need to stay in in order to be successful.”

The stats back up Kritselis’ assertion. In a meticulously researched study of the past decade of country hits, University of Indiana professor Molly Brost found that only 10 percent of the genre’s No. 1 singles were produced by women. And among those 31 tunes, “22 of them follow the cash cow country music narrative in which women do nothing but long for men, fall for ‘bad boys,’ and marry uber-young.”

In country music, shaking things up comes with consequences. Just ask Little Big Town. The band’s “Girl Crush” is easily one of the year’s best songs, a haunting examination of the power of jealousy and obsession. Singer Karen Fairchild sings about watching an old boyfriend move onto a new love, while being possessed by a most curious longing. “I want to taste her lips/Yeah, ’cause they taste like you/I want to drown myself/In a bottle of her perfume,” Fairchild croons.

Of course, many listeners have mistaken the bold metaphor for overt promotion of homosexuality, which led to an all-too familiar backlash against the band. Alana Lynn, the cohost of Randy & Alana in the Morning Show on Idaho’s 104.3 FM, told the Washington Post she hasn’t heard these kind of complaints since “the Dixie Chicks’ President Bush comments.”

But a year after Maddie and Tae’s breakout hit “Girl in a Country Song” powerfully criticized the objectification of women in country songs (treated as nothing but a tractor accessory), the industry as a whole may be slowly waking up.

Instead of killing “Girl Crush,” the song’s provocative content has only made the song more successful. It’s already No. 1 on the Country charts, threatening to break the Hot 100’s Top 20 this week. As Rosen explains was the case with “Cruise,” it’s exactly the kind of mega-crossover hit that could open doors for more like it, with up-and-comers like Ashley Monroe and Kelsea Ballerini ready to reap the benefits of Little Big Town’s success.

While these singers face an uphill battle in an industry that still makes room for too few women at the top, whether it’s due to radio programmer bias or the norms of a “traditional values” industry, country fans face a test on June 23, when Kacey Musgraves’ second album, Pageant Material, hits stores.

Her debut LP, Same Trailer, Different Park, broke out in second place on Billboard’s album charts, eventually selling more than 500,000 copies domestically; that’s just north of 300,000 more than Lee Brice’s last record. Musgraves looks like a shoo-in for her first No. 1 album, with early notices calling Pageant Winner a “nearly perfect new set” and an “an album for the ages,” comparing it favorably to Adele’s industry-defining 21. But unlike Adele, Musgraves has yet to translate critical acclaim into radio success. Is Nashville ready for it?

If there’s anything Kacey Musgraves could learn from Loretta Lynn, it’s that success is the best revenge.

Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.

Screengrab via KaceyMusgravesVEVO/YouTube

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*First Published: Jun 2, 2015, 11:03 pm CDT