Friday, December 12, 2014

billboard BREAKDOWN - special comment - 'god made girls'

So if you watched the episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN that came out last night, the episode for the Hot 100 week of December 20th, 2014, you might have noticed a curious omission from my list, a song that leapt up twenty slots this week. A pop-flavoured country song from a relative unknown that is her first major hit outside of the reality show that initially put her in the spotlight. A song that has earned praise, but also some considerable controversy, especially given the current country music scene and especially the act now topping the radio.

Yeah, some of you knew this was coming. It's time to talk about 'God Made Girls'.

First, some necessary context surrounding the circumstances that spawned both this song and the controversy around it, and the best place to start would be the artist herself. RaeLynn - yes, it is all one word - originally came into the spotlight when she auditioned for Season Two of The Voice - which I can't seem to get away from this week. She chose Blake Shelton's team and made it to the quarterfinals, where she was eliminated. And yet in a strange way, she's actually proven to be more successful than the winner that year Jermaine Paul, who was also on Blake Shelton's team. And yet it seems like Blake Shelton is giving RaeLynn a surprising amount of publicity, featuring her on two of his recent albums, in backing vocals on the absolutely terrible 'Boys 'Round Here' last year and in a duet with him titled 'Buzzin' from his recent album Bringing Back The Sunshine, where her talents were completely wasted. The one thing both these tracks have in common is that they've sucked, but not precisely because of her.

And we also need to consider the country music climate right now, especially the charts. Bro-country had a really bad year, with several artists losing a lot of steam and a lot of terrible songs rising to the top simply on momentum alone. The genre seems to be a state of flux, especially for its female artists. Sure, you have established hitmakers like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, but beyond that most women in country have earned their most success either behind the scenes or independently. And sure, Brandy Clark is slowly starting to get recognized for her stellar album 12 Stories released last year, and sure, Kacey Musgraves is justly cleaning up in awards shows, but it's not like she's getting any airplay. Granted, that also might have to deal with the socio-political climate of country music and the fact that Kacey is not one to compromise or deal well with stupid - looking at you, Bobby Bones. And with Taylor Swift gone to pop, Lady Antebellum struggling to maintain relevance, and the Band Perry between albums, there's a gap in country music in promoting female artists to teenagers, especially teenage girls. 

All of this leads to 'God Made Girls', a song written by RaeLynn and a few co-writers - all of them women - and is now starting to climb country and mainstream radio, currently at #61 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Country Digital Charts. This is past novelty curiosity on the charts, this is becoming a hit. 

And it sucks.

And you know, I'm not even talking about the lyrics, or the video, I'm talking about the music. I like producer Joey Moi and his ability to lend some broad texture to his songs, but it's clear he's much better working with Florida Georgia Line and Jake Owen than RaeLynn, whose voice is too thin to be set against thicker guitars and this brand of rollicking production all at the front of the mix. For a song all about emphasizing the delicate and girlish, the instrumentation doesn't really fit that, and the muddier production doesn't help. And I'll be blunt and I know is going to look harsh, but I don't think RaeLynn's voice is ready for prime-time yet. Yeah, I get the thicker Texan accent is a feature to her delivery, but her tone isn't very clean in the record and with every slurred word she comes across as desperately needing polish. And keep in mind she's signed to an extension of Big Machine and label executive Scott Borchetta is not an idiot - he would have recognized that RaeLynn probably could have used a little seasoning and training before charting, so immediately you have to start wondering why he's pushing this song.

Now keep that question at the back of your mind because now we need to talk about the real issues many people are taking with this song: the lyrics. Now regardless of the content, I'd have issues with the lyrics anyway, because I tend to prefer my teen-girl music to be on the brattier side, like say Avril Lavigne, and RaeLynn is decidedly embracing the fluttery pink princess and ponies side of the spectrum. And there's nothing wrong with that - it's a side of femininity that some women like and appreciate, and it's not anti-feminist for RaeLynn to embrace it in a song she helped write. While I'm not exactly a fan of the aesthetic - I'm a fan of women in country who spit a little more fire and brimstone - the lyrical style is not the problem - it's the content. The premise of the song is that in order to keep guys in line and 'rock their world', God made girls - in other words, it places women as existing to compliment men, not as their own autonomous interests. And guys are expected to wash their trucks and go to church because God made girls for them, and it places the girl in very much a stereotypical feminine role. Now as I said the aesthetic is not the problem - hell, I'd argue the traditional gender role isn't a problem either, because from the tone of the song the girl seems to be perfectly fine with it! The issue comes in that there was a higher power who specifically created half the human race to compliment the other, defining a role and saying implicitly that if you don't want to fit in that role, you're going against God.

Now a lot of people have criticized this song as being sexist, and on a certain level, I definitely agree. However, there are a lot of other facets to this conversation that need to be considered. For one, this song was written and performed by women, which makes things a little more complicated. Because let's be honest, if this song was written or sung by a Justin Moore or a Blake Shelton, it'd be getting a lot more hatred than it's already received. But this is a case of RaeLynn saying these things, speaking from her heart to her beliefs surrounding gender roles and God - if she's defining what she wants and believes for herself, it'd be hard for me to argue that's anti-feminist because it's her choice. Granted, her scope is considerably larger as she's speaking about all girls, which can come across as extremely presumptuous, and that leads to my second point: she's talking about girls. Both from her delivery to her lyrical style, she's presenting a very young, girlish point-of-view. There's inexperience there, perhaps naivete, a very adolescent and shallow viewpoint of the world, and thus it's hard for me to take this seriously as intentionally sexist. If she was playing this with an older perspective, it'd be a lot more objectionable, but as it is, I can look at this song and think, 'Well, she thinks that now, give her two years and a bad breakup and we'll see where she's at.'

But there's more to this song than that, and we now need to talk about the 'God' part of this song and where we get into tricky territory. Keep in mind that RaeLynn grew up in Texas going to church, and it's fair to assume her religious beliefs coloured her songwriting. And if we're going for a very literal interpretation of Genesis, her song does coincide with the story of why God created Eve from Adam. Granted, there are certain books of the Bible that should be read metaphorically and Genesis is one of those books - Revelation is another - but it explains why RaeLynn wrote a song like this. It's not justifying or excusing it, but it explains where these beliefs come from, for better or for worse. Hell, with the attempted effervescent tone and complete lack of drama, you could argue this song is borderline Christian music - which, if anything, makes things worse. I've talked before in my Hozier review why I don't tend to cover religious music, and this song is a prime example why, because it's telling a solid chunk of its socially conservative, likely religious audience exactly what they want to hear, and that doesn't make for interesting music. 

But 'God Made Girls' isn't marketed as Christian music, and herein lies the real ugliness of this conversation. And this circles back to the question why Scott Borchetta would want to push RaeLynn. Well, it all comes back to marketing - and in this case, the duo that is currently sitting atop the country charts.

Yep, we're going to talk about Maddie & Tae. Let me start by saying that while I kind of admire 'Girl In A Country Song' for its construction, it's pretty see-through for what it is. Basically, it's a broad reinterpretation of bro-country cliches in order to market an 'anti-bro-country' message - there are points where it can be clever thanks to the writing and my disturbingly extensive knowledge of bro-country, but as it is, you can tell Scott Borchetta is doing in playing both sides. He's got bro-country, he's got anti-bro-country, and he makes a fortune from playing up the competition. But Maddie & Tae's approach is confrontational, and Borchetta knows that if he wants to push more women to country, he knows he's got to play more angles to bring teenage girls who aren't exactly lining up to take that side. Hence, we have 'God Made Girls', a song that seems perfectly poised to capitalize on that market and cover the full demographic. The interesting thing to note is that Scott Borchetta used to have an artist to fill both roles - and her name was Taylor Swift, an artist who could get confrontational and more aggressive but also made more than her fair share of songs with fairy-tales and girlish iconography. It's one of the reasons why Taylor Swift had such massive demographic appeal, and it's why Borchetta has been panicking to replace her now that she's gone pop.

Now some of you have probably picked up on the fact that even with RaeLynn and Maddie & Tae, we don't exactly have a full spectrum of young female viewpoints in country music, and it'd be hard to classify any of them as really 'feminist', so why isn't that market angle being pushed? Well, speaking as a feminist and a longtime fan of country music, it doesn't surprise me that Borchetta's completely ignoring a progressive viewpoint - half because country music is primarily marketed to more conservative audiences that aren't interested in that viewpoint, and half because, well, the more feminist-leaning country artists aren't getting airplay. It's not like they don't exist - I do feel that some, and I use this term loosely, "Tumblr-activists" are jumping on a bandwagon to flame 'God Made Girls' but have nothing with which to replace it. And this really pisses me off, because when I can name a half dozen female country acts with a progressive angle who would kill on the radio and yet are completely ignored outside of critics and their small fanbases, I really do get angry. And in a sense it's the public's fault here - if you want to hate 'God Made Girls' and aren't looking to push in, say, Kacey Musgraves, Lydia Loveless, Brandy Clark, Lucette, Karen Jonas, Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose - I could easily go on - if you don't have that replacement in mind and are pushing for the change, it's not going to get better. Hell, I've been cheering for Lucy Hale all year, who basically has all of Taylor Swift's appeal and a built-in audience from Pretty Little Liars, plus far better songwriting - and yet her biggest hit peaked at #88. Sometimes the audience gets exactly what they deserve.

So let's take this back to 'God Made Girls' - does the song suck? Yeah, definitely, I'm not defending this track, but explaining why it exists. But I can't hate this song because I don't get any sense of malice and bad intentions behind it - it's too amateurish, sloppy, and earnest to feel like a cynical cash-in, but rather a girl who doesn't know any better writing a clumsy song reinforced by religious beliefs she's probably held her entire life. The only ill will behind 'God Made Girls' is in its marketing - and the only way to beat that is ignoring this song until it goes away. You know, like what the mainstream public does with pretty much all Christian music, which is where 'God Made Girls' belongs. Until that happens, I only have one question: why the hell are all these girls blondes?

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