Thursday, January 23, 2014

special comment: kacey musgraves is touring with katy perry

At first glance, it seems to make absolutely no sense: a headline that suggests that the opening act for Katy Perry one of the biggest pop stars in the past few years will be... Kacey Musgraves, a critically acclaimed but not exactly widely known country singer-songwriter. Kacey Musgraves, who hasn't had had a hit on the country charts rise higher than #14 on country radio. At first glance from the pop landscape, it makes no sense.

And from the country landscape, it makes even less. Kacey Musgraves' album Same Trailer, Different Park wasn't a huge commercial smash in comparison with the bro-country she railed against all year, but it was a critical one, landing on several top critical top ten lists, including mine at #3. She's a singer-songwriter who has a reputation for organic, Americana-inspired country that openly attacks traditional values with sharply written, well-composed lyrics that won her New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Awards. So what on earth is she doing touring with Katy Perry, one of the most shallow, ephemeral pop acts in recent years? Why is her label Mercury Nashville pairing her outside of the country genre altogether instead of one of the many other artists signed through the label, or even on UMG Nashville as a whole? 

Those questions - along with the assertions that Kacey Musgraves would probably be a better pairing with other critically acclaimed country acts like Jason Isbell or fellow songwriter Brandy Clark - has gotten some country music fans a little worried about Kacey's future. The funny thing is that from my point-of-view, I can't see a real downside to this decision on any front, and to explain that, I'm going to need to discuss the careers of not just Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry, but a third female act who also plays a part in this story - and how these results can only be positive in the long run and for once a very shrewd and smart business decision by Mercury Nashville.

Let's start with Kacey Musgraves and take a look at her recent tours over the past year. Before her album, she toured with Lady Antebellum and was writing songs for Miranda Lambert, which inevitably got her the push she needed to drop her album Same Trailer, Different Park in March of 2013. She debuted at #1 on the country charts and sold a decent 42,000 records her first week, which wasn't stellar. But here's where we get a glimpse at Mercury Nashville's first big miscalculation which I've mentioned in a previous video: the album she was up against was Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, a comeback album from one of the biggest names in pop music that went on sell almost a million records that week alone. Despite critical acclaim, Kacey wouldn't have a prayer of beating JT that week, and her label should have known that.

Instead, they made the second big miscalculation: they paired her (along with the Eli Young Band) as an opening act for Kenny Chesney. Frankly, I couldn't think of a worse pairing, especially when you compare the crowds that would appreciate Kacey Musgraves' brand of songwriting with the archetypal Kenny Chesney fan, which falls along the line of Jimmy Buffett fans with a lot more beer and belligerence (fact: organizers and staff hate Kenny Chesney concerts because of frequent brawls that break out). What it did mean is that outside of hardcore country fans, Kacey Musgraves' would have had difficulty connecting with fans in that audience. And it didn't help matters that the summer and fall of 2013 were overrun with bro-country, leaving no room for smarter, more emotionally-informed, or even just female acts on country radio. There wasn't anything she could really do against that - it's hard for lone voices of quality to stand against an avalanche, especially when it sells as well as it did.

So let's think about this from Mercury Nashville's point-of-view: they know they have a major talent on their hands with Kacey Musgraves, but her material isn't really catching on with a wider audience, at least on country radio. Maybe it's because Kacey's material is too transgressive for traditional country, or maybe her quieter style wasn't an easy fit amid the horde of bro-country acts, or maybe it's because she's too smart for mainstream country radio! But Mercury Nashville seem to have found a path I was championing back almost a year ago when I reviewed Same Trailer, Different Park: push her towards a pop audience and place her in direct competition with Taylor Swift, who has effectively left the female pop-country position and gone full Hollywood, leaving a vacancy behind her. If country won't accept her, maybe the pop charts - which have grown more tolerant of indie and folk acts over the past few years - would be a better fit.

Now this immediately puts a very negative light on modern country radio, as some of their programmers have already spoken out about the stagnation of bro-country and its inevitable collapse - but that's not Kacey's problem, country will start programming her music when it's ready. But why does Mercury Nashville think pushing Kacey towards Katy Perry is a good idea, or that her material might succeed on pop radio?

Well, at this point we need to bring in our third female pop singer: Lorde, the New Zealand teenager whose surprise hit 'Royals' ruled the pop charts in the latter half of 2013, mostly by being smarter and completely denouncing vapid music, especially luxury rap. In fact, if you took a deeper look at the pop charts this year, there were a fair number of songs that seemed to have greater lyrical ambition, with a tilt towards discussing social change among young people. Macklemore's 'Thrift Shop' and 'Can't Hold Us' were some of the biggest hits of the year, and 'Same Love' wasn't far behind. And this year with Adele's newest release on the horizon and Lorde's song 'Team' rising on the charts, this trend doesn't appear to be changing. But back to Lorde, she also plays one other important role in this story: she refused to tour with Katy Perry, citing concerns it wasn't right for her. In fact, Lorde has managed to convince her label to give her space and time to finish the record she wants to make - because that's what getting a #1 hit and a debut album that breaks gold allows you to do.

See the parallel? Like Kacey Musgraves, Lorde has the full backing and support of her label in the creation and marketing of her music; they want her to be a success. And with Lorde's minimalistic style, sharp lyrics, and distinctive vocals, one could argue she'd be harder to market that Kacey would be, especially to pop radio. And yet Lorde succeeded, which raises an interesting question: given the rise of country's acceptance in the mainstream (the one unquestionably good thing Taylor Swift and bro-country brought to the table), why couldn't Kacey Musgraves step up as the country counterpart to Lorde on pop radio? Could it be that a pop audience would be more receptive to Kacey Musgraves' Americana-inspired country over country radio itself? Could she find more success there?

Well, it's a possibility, but that still doesn't answer the big question: why Katy Perry, of all people? If you're looking to promote towards a pop audience, why wouldn't Mercury Nashville just push her old singles for pop radio instead of pushing her to tour with Katy Perry, an act that seems the antithesis of the depth, intellect, and maturity Kacey would bring to the table? Well, at this point, we need to take a look at Katy Perry's most recent release Prism, an album I didn't especially like but one that was epitomized by Katy Perry's search for depth and spirituality. But that sort of songwriting is hard work and you could tell that it was difficult for Katy Perry to make this material. At the very least, that album seemed to indicate that Katy Perry wanted to transition from making lightweight pop music into something deeper, and to receive more serious consideration as an artist.

And here's where the story gets bigger: because Katy Perry isn't the female pop star who feels that her creative process has been compromised. Lady Gaga recently fired her management because she felt they had been micromanaging her most recent album to its detriment and didn't allow her to go further. Ke$ha's conflicts with Dr. Luke have been even worse, where Ke$ha leaked her demo version of 'Dirty Love' (her favourite song off of Warrior) with a video she directed herself after a notoriously troubled recording process that included verbal abuse from the producer, along with a brutal contract that led to the stupid cancellation of her collaboration album with The Flaming Lips. Katy Perry has had a troubled relationship with Dr. Luke as well - could it be she's looking to tour and collaborate with different and better songwriters so she might improve her own skills so she doesn't need the pop songwriting machine in the same way? Why else would she look to tour with Lorde or Kacey Musgraves, who are both great songwriters but aren't remotely close to Katy Perry's pop style? Wouldn't you want an opening act who is a good match for the style and tempo of your main attraction?

So let's ask the big question: who wins here? Well, Katy Perry wins: in the best case, she gets to improve her songwriting skills working with one of the best in modern country music and at worst have an opening act who won't exactly upstage her in spectacle. Kacey Musgraves, believe it or not, also wins: she gets the chance to perform to a much bigger audience than she'd ever reach touring independently, and a demographic who will likely be more receptive to conscientious music given the recent actions on the pop charts. She has the opportunity to step up and take the female country starlet position that Taylor Swift left behind, and she's smart enough not to compromise her integrity. This is something I feel a lot of country fans are unnecessarily worried about: Kacey's not about to engage in the wild spectacle of Katy Perry's show, and certainly not in her music - remember, Katy Perry's likely looking to learn from Kacey, not the other way around. Furthermore, Kacey Musgraves is a smart woman - she works with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, and her label isn't about to push her entirely towards pop and compromise her country sound. Why? Because if Mercury Nashville are smart, they'll have realized that bro-country won't last and something is going to need to fill the gap, and they are fully capable of pushing Kacey Musgraves to both pop and country radio simultaneously along with her touring with Katy Perry. That way, they hedge their bets: bro-country fades, Kacey can step up - or she makes points on the pop charts which will inevitably bleed onto mainstream country radio. 

But what if Mercury Nashville aren't smart and want to push Kacey towards selling out in the vein of Taylor Swift, and by extension use the Katy Perry tour as coercion (ie. "you'll never tour something this big if you don't give us a pop song")? Well, it's a worst case scenario, but keep in mind a lot of Kacey Musgraves' appeal is different than that of Taylor Swift (at least it is now) - Kacey might be gorgeous, but her 'image' has never been the selling point behind her music and she doesn't quite aim at the teenage audience with her more provocative music. If the label pushes her towards that younger demographic... well, I can see it going one of two ways: either Kacey fights like hell (which from her interviews seems likely) and she gets sidelined by label conflicts; or she opts to subvert the system like Chumbawamba did in the mid-to-late 90s and release some blisteringly sharp satire. However, I don't see this as likely because it wouldn't play to either of the changing climates in pop or country radio, with stupid bro-country on the decline and acts with more maturity and depth doing well on pop radio and potentially continuing to do so - facts of which Mercury Nashville is very aware. Furthermore, it wouldn't play to Kacey Musgraves' critical strengths, and in an era where critical opinions seem to have more and more clout in convincing people to buy records, Mercury Nashville would be extremely unwise to throw that away - and if Kacey Musgraves walks away with any country music Grammys this year, the label will be even more hesitant to touch her. 

So in the end, I can't help but feel the pairing of Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry isn't a bad idea at all - in fact, I think it's kind of inspired, the sort of win-win that will pay dividends for both acts down the road. Yeah, country radio might take a hit - especially if this works and the label realizes they don't need to rely on country radio for a hit artist - but that hit strikes me as only being in the short term, because bro-country will go away and there will be room for singer-songwriters like Kacey Musgraves, especially if she smashes through on pop radio and becomes a breakout popular success. And hell, if Katy Perry picks up some chops and becomes a better songwriter, maybe I'll be able to like her next album more. Either way, as long as cool heads prevail and nobody does anything monumentally stupid, I've got a good feeling about this one.

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