Saturday, September 28, 2013

special comment: the state of country music

In the year 2000, two of the greatest country acts of the decade teamed up to perform a song formerly written by bluegrass artists Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. The song was never released as a single, but received significant airplay anyway due to its controversial nature in the country music industry. It was a song about how traditional and neotraditional country music - and the performers who made it - were being shoved to the sidelines in favour of mainstream pop crossover success. The song spoke of how artists like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones would never have had success in this industry climate - they, and the culture and history that they represented, would have been ignored. The legends, the icons of the genre, would have been likely been forgotten.

The song was titled 'Murder On Music Row' and it was made a hit by Alan Jackson and George Strait - and the situation of which they were singing...

Well, it's happening again.

On September 12, The Nashville Scene published a breakdown of the lyrics on the top 20 songs of the country music charts, indicating the common lyrical threads and the genre's shift towards party songs centered on beer, trucks, and girls. The case the article made was not to highlight the individual successes or failures of the songs on said list, but to point out the astounding similarities between the songs in terms of subject matter, theme, and even lyrical content. Furthermore, given that the extreme majority of acts on the list were performed by solo male country acts, the argument could be made that the average listener would not be able to tell these men apart. There is only one songs fronted by a woman on this list - Carrie Underwood, and I would have a hard time calling the American Idol winner a country singer over being a pop star. On the list of songs, the noticeable outliers come from Tim McGraw - a stalwart of the genre who has been around for decades - and a song penned by Bob Dylan sung by Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish! Neither song was in the top ten.

On September 19, Billboard magazine released an article showing how a growing number of country acts are showing concern regarding the sameness of their peers' content. Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band said, 'there is not a lot of the country format I enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I wanna throw up. There's songs out right now on the radio that make me... ashamed to even be in the same format as some of those artists.' Think about this for a moment: the frontman of a critically acclaimed country act from rural Georgia, from a town of just over 5000 people, made the statement that he is ashamed to be in the same format as these artists. He goes on to call Luke Bryan's 'That's My Kinda Night' 'the worst song he's ever heard.' He goes on to target the country music industry, saying it puts 'songs and people on a pedestal that have no integrity to them whatsoever', and to the writers of these songs, 'you can look on song credits and see some of the same songwriters on every one. There has been, like, ten number one songs in the last two to three years that were written by the same people, and the exact same words, just arranged different ways.'

Zac Brown is right. So is Gary Allan, who, in an interview with Larry King, said 'I feel like we have lost our genre.' So is Kacey Musgraves, who said in an interview with British GQ when asked about what trends in music need to die, she replied, 'Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally, just stop - nobody cares! It's not fun to listen to.' Unfortunately, Miss Musgraves is likely wrong on this front, at least in comparison with the programming that Nashville has been pushing for country radio over the past few years, because it has become abundantly clear that a growing audience wants it. Incidentally, Kacey Musgraves released an album this year titled Same Trailer, Different Park, a controversial yet critical acclaimed debut album where she spoke openly about topics such as deteriorating rural culture, religion, and even same-sex marriage. It is one of the best albums of this year and will beat out Daft Punk, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Deerhunter, and a slew of other critically acclaimed acts on my Top 10 list.

Outside of major professional publications, Robert Christgau, and AllMusic, it was ignored. In most top ten lists by mainstream critics, I suspect it will be forgotten. And while it has sold better that you might expect, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 it was far from a smash hit, with the lead single only reaching #14. Oh, and the album it was up against that week, the major competition the label was setting Miss Musgraves against? Justin Timberlake's comeback album The 20/20 Experience, which proceeded to sell approximately 968,000 copies that week alone. That week, Kacey Musgraves sold about 42,000. For a more fitting comparison, the previous week Luke Bryan sold 150,000 copies with a compilation album, a glorified spring break mixtape. 

Now I'm not here to make a value judgement on whether I think the trend towards the mainstream is a bad thing - as much as mainstream modern country in all of its varieties isn't really my thing, I can acknowledge good music when I hear it and there is some there. But what is a much more worrying trend is the sidelining of promising new acts like Kacey Musgraves, a female singer-songwriter with incredible chops, fresh ideas, and an excellent sense of solid country music, in favour of meat-headed, practically interchangeable male country stars who have pop crossover success by catering to the lowest common denominator. From a business point of view, Nashville is making a killing on these country acts, but it does not reflect a sustainable business model when you put your most promising and intelligent new singer-songwriter in a decade up against Justin TImberlake. But at the same time, the country music industry is a business, and if they want to milk and oversaturate the market with mainstream male country acts to roll in the dough until the world gets sick of them, that's their choice. But there's a much bigger issue at stake here, and that is reflected in the comments made by Kacey Musgraves, Gary Allan, and Zac Brown: the loss of culture in country music. A loss of flavour and texture and the feeling that the songs are informed by authentic real emotions and songwriters who know their history and the place country music has played within the United States for nearly a century. At this point, Nashville seems to have forsaken this, presumably under the belief that nobody in their audience wants it.

But more and more evidence is coming to light to me that that is not the case. Recently I reviewed the newest album released by country singer Justin Moore, titled Off The Beaten Path. Now that album was terrible and I stand by everything I said about it, but it was something in the comments to that video that both concerned me and got me thinking, because people jumped to the defense of Justin Moore and not just because they thought his music was good, but they thought his music was relatable. They could connect with it, they saw in the offensive pandering nonsense that was that album moments with which they could connect - it was something. And they gravitated to those songs about small town USA and God and rural culture and all of that not solely because they were something they could relate to, but because mainstream country music has nearly completely abandoned that demographic. Or worse still, they attempt to appease that demographic with shallow, vapid pandering that sounds and looks utterly soulless, and yet the audience will take anything they can get. And frankly, I can empathize with their concerns - their defense of Justin Moore, who at least appears to believe the crap he's selling, is pretty much identical to my defense of Kacey Musgraves, at least on basic principles - we're both looking for culture in country music.

So what happened? How did we get here? What led Nashville to throw their history and culture under the ties of a Chevy truck lining up for a tailgate? Well, there's a lot of factors in that. One I can definitely pinpoint is within the country music industry itself - they've always gunned for the mainstream audience, with country pop rising in the late-70s and 80s and the explosion of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the 90s. But in those climates, there were still traditional and neotraditional country stalwarts like Alan Jackson and George Strait who fought to preserve that history, and there was an audience that bought it. But when Nashville found out they could appease that demographic by pandering to southern pride and small town nationalist spirit and patriotism, those that fought for culture and history were forced to the sidelines. 

And how can Nashville get away with that? Well, that's a twofold problem, and here's where things get ugly, because one of the groups that deserves blame are modern music critics, particularly those who are my age or a little older. The majority of critics outside of major publications like AllMusic and Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, who must cover country by obligation, have ignored and marginalized country music for a long time now, preferring to cover the newest underground hip-hop mixtape or independent album that nobody outside of a very, very small community of music nerds will ever care about. I could go on about how this attitude betrays the spirit of populism which the best critics have always embraced, but that misses the meat of the message: by ignoring country music, the critical press shut down the artistic conversation with country music. They made the implicit statement that there is no artistry or craft or intelligence or meaningful commentary in country music. And I would be remiss not to mention the political angle, where certain people, ignorant of country music as a genre, dismissed it as music for small town, right-leaning white trash rednecks who were incapable of appreciating 'better' music. This sort of thinking and dismissal is cowardly, shameful, and utterly despicable, and it shows most critics as narrow-minded as the demographic they dismissed.

But the country music industry heard it and realized they didn't need critical acclaim to sell records, unlike other genres like metal and indie rock and occasionally hip-hop. They didn't need us. So instead they started catering to the lowest common denominator more aggressively than they ever have before, putting money and professional songwriters behind anyone with a hint of talent, and they reaped the rewards, particularly considering the culture of anti-intellectualism and victimization that was being adopted by the stagnating and unfairly ignored rural population of the United States. And while I will not claim that country music was directly responsible for shoving large tracts of the United States towards the right politically, you can't deny that with the success of acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore and libelous songs like 'Have You Forgotten' by Darryl Worley that it didn't happen. And with the role country music played in the aftermath of 9/11, things got even worse - as much as I never liked The Dixie Chicks, they didn't deserve to have their careers ruined because they were right about the War on Terror before everyone else realized it. Like it or not, country music did contribute to the increased polarization of America, and the critics not doing their jobs by ignoring covering country music only made things worse, because the cultural conversation stopped

So thus I wasn't surprised that I get comments on my country music reviews saying that I shouldn't even be covering country music, because I'm a Canadian city boy and thus must be some sort of privileged white-collar Commie homosexual - even though I've been listening to country music for about twenty years. Even though I know more about country music than I do about most hip-hop and metal and electronica. Even though I'm the only critic on Youtube who has even bothers to cover country music and review it fairly, to give it a goddamn chance. And sure, YouTube is an echo chamber and any critical opinion gets pounced upon, but there was something different about this, because it reflects the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the shape country music is taking, that acts like Justin Moore are making money simply because they can pander to rural pride and the starving audiences will take anything they can get. And as Zac Brown said in his interview, 'country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say. Good music makes you feel something.'

So what's the solution to this? Honestly, I have no idea - if I could solve the increased polarity of America, I probably wouldn't be reviewing albums on the internet. What I will say is this: the increased popularity of country acts in the mainstream won't last. At this point, the market is nearly saturated, and when trends shift and the mainstream public gets sick of country, it's going to ruin a lot of careers. Right now, however, I'm significantly more concerned about two groups: the artists whose careers are suffering now because the industry is sidelining them and whom might never get another chance for the spotlight; and those concerned about American culture and history, particularly those who love country music and who don't want to see the genre implode in the same way other oversaturated musical genres collapsed, like disco and prog rock and punk and hair metal and grunge. But country is unique because so much of it is linked directly and is informed by American culture and American history. If you forget where your culture comes from, and the people who represent it instead of those who are looking to profit off of it in order to make a quick buck, you lose something you can never get back.

Alan Jackson and George Strait understood this when they recorded 'Murder On Music Row' back in 2000 - and really, the only reasons pop country imploded at the end of the 90s are the near-simultaneous failures of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and 9/11, where Nashville correctly realized that the USA needed a connection with its culture and its roots more than ever, or else the blow to the nation's spirit would never heal. But this time, things are different, and I don't see a good ending for traditional country music. Or, to put it another way, Alan Jackson released a new album this week: how many of you have heard it?

That's what I thought. I don't want to see another murder on music row. And why do I care? Well, the same reason Alan Jackson and George Strait and Zac Brown and Gary Allan and Kacey Musgraves care: I love country music, and there's room on the charts for both culture and partying. To quote Zac Brown again, 'I'm opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs'. 

He's not alone.

1 comment:

  1. When I’m looking for the latest country music, I always end up in one spot – 103.1 WIRK. I was even lucky enough to catch up with Keith Van Allen in the streets and got free ‘Rib Round Up’ tickets. Just one of the many events that keep me tuned into