Sunday, October 1, 2017

special comment: midland & authenticity in country music

So in 1994, music journalist Bill Wyman made a statement praising three artists in the Chicago underground who were getting critical and popular acclaim by nudging their sound and marketing towards a mass audience - in other words, going pop but holding up enough trappings of alternative music to maintain their cred and avoiding the insularity of the 'strictly underground' crowd. These three acts - Bikini Overkill, Liz Phair, and a little group called the Smashing Pumpkins - were just breaking out with records that were starting to get real groundswell, even if with the benefit of historical context it'll tell you that would fade in the years to come. But to certain underground figures, in an era where the lines of alternative and mainstream music were blurring even further as popular culture tried to co-opt an organic revolution, this was damn close to heresy.

And leading the charge against these acts was acclaimed indie rock artist, producer and music writer Steve Albini, who fired back against Wyman in a blisteringly profane statement that these acts were never truly alternative but just co-opting a sound and trend without the actual depth to back it up, pop artists in the guise of something they never were. Now on some level the venom did feel a bit misplaced - Wyman wasn't claiming these acts were alternative but that it didn't really matter as long as the music was good, but Albini's larger point resonated, that through a disingenuous appropriation of the sound they were doing damage to both their own long-term careers and artistic ambitions, and the alternative scene as a whole, threatening labels of authenticity and years of hard work by underground acts that did pay their dues and would kill to have some of that same success without being pushed through the meat grinder of the music industry. And if you were to follow what happened to alternative rock and grunge and punk in the next decade or so, you'd see that Albini was mostly right on the money here.

With all of that established, let's talk about history repeating itself, and a little band called Midland.

Well, for starters you really can't call them a 'little' band anymore - with 'Drinkin' Problem' they have a bonafide hit on both the country charts and the Hot 100 and it looks to be propelling their debut record On The Rocks into some decent sales. And I've actually talked about 'Drinkin' Problem' before on Billboard BREAKDOWN, where in terms of the sound that the band is using there is real potential - it has much of the welcome textures and feel of neotraditional country, and while I'm not crazy about the writing, it's a sign that there at least some audience who is looking for this sound to make a comeback, which is a good thing! But with more success, a greater light has been shone on Midland's roots and the origin point of this sound, and several country journalists like Kyle Coroneos of Saving Country Music have done the legwork to show that at the very least Midland's claims to roughscrabble country authenticity don't hold up in the light, more marketing than actual truth. And while for many genres this wouldn't matter, country - especially the local scenes - live and die on relationships and connections, and this is the sort of bad buzz that can play absolute havoc with a band's reputation. And that's even before we get to the music row side of things, because Midland is signed to Big Machine, the label run by returning feature of these Special Comments Scott Borchetta. And make no mistake, Borchetta is once again playing multiple angles in this, pushing both the pop country stylings of Rascal Flatts and Jennifer Nettles alongside artists that cultivate a more 'authentic' sound, like Carly Pearce and Midland, and that's before you get into the label shuffling behind Valory Music Group and the rebranding of BMLG and a slew of artists who have gotten screwed in the mean time. Suffice to say me pulling back the curtain and mentioning this is probably the reason Borchetta no longer follows me on Twitter, but the larger point is that there's a lot of money on the line if Midland's image is compromised, especially when its no secret the big cowriters were Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. 

And let me stress one thing: this isn't rooted in a grudge against Midland or McAnally or anything related to the sound of this record. McAnally has made a lot of music I truly despise and I'm not sure I can forgive him for cosigning Sam Hunt and 'Body Like A Back Road', but he's also been an innovative and fascinating producer and songwriter with a lot to recommend, and from interviews he clearly had good intentions producing a neotraditional country for Midland. And to some extent I don't even blame Midland for this: if Scott Borchetta is telling them to push this image and this sound and is giving them the tools and promotion to make it as a country act, I don't begrudge them taking that opportunity; if they're willing to accept the consequences of these choices - and oh boy there will be consequences and we'll get to that - then ultimately I think their presence on the radio for the shift of the sound will do more good than bad. My issue comes with the marketing and promotion more than anything - and that's before we got the wave of pro-Midland puff pieces over the past few days that might as well scream damage control and spin, especially when they're trying to throw indie journalists like Kyle Coroneos under the bus and accuse him of lying with increasingly shoddy arguments.

And a lot of this is rooted in a fundamental question that underlies the same conflict between Wyman and Albini over twenty years ago: does authenticity matter? And before you drop the easy 'yes' here, this is a complicated question and definition, and deserves to be placed in the context of history, where country is in a bit of a unique situation in comparison with indie rock or hip-hop. Like it or not as times have changed and evolved country music has felt the strain of sticking with tradition or being yanked towards pop and the machinery around it, followed by the inevitable backlash in the opposite direction. Much of this was coupled with changes in sound - after all, there was a time that Johnny Cash was considered too rock for country radio - but it picked up added layers of understanding intent and respecting the history, and if you were coming from the underground, paying your dues. But at the same time country music has been in the 'culture' business for a long time, to the point where several artists behind both pop country and the neotraditional movement got there by leveraging the writing talents of others. Of course you're going to have the indie purists who will only accept the grassroots success stories who put their time in and clawed their way to the top on sheer talent, but if you want proof that country music as a cultural institution is not built for those upstarts outside of their system, check the difference between Chris Stapleton's sales success and his number of radio 'hits' - and he's one who found success within the industry and has cowritten songs for Thomas Rhett! If you're only considering authorship as the sole progenitor of authenticity... well, George Strait wrote very few of his own songs... but Toby Keith has cowritten nearly all of his.

So ultimately authorship tends to get thrown out of the authenticity conversation and with that dozens of angry punks, oldschool hip-hop heads, and rock purists have yet another reason to dislike country, but like all of those other genres, the conversation ultimately boils down to the sound, the content, and to some extent the performing artists themselves showing respect for the scene and the history through both word and act. And this is where Albini has a very real point: when your audience is smaller and more local you can afford the luxury and dare I say the purity of the artistic ideal, that authenticity - and as much as people will argue whether it matters, it does have at least perceived value. After all, why would Borchetta have spent so much money in marketing and promotion trying to convince us that a former soap opera actor and a pop music video director were an authentic Texas country act and the second coming of Alabama and Brooks & Dunn? And Borchetta is smart enough to know that to the average mainstream consumer they'll won't ask questions or care to delve deeper... but he also knows that he can't really run roughshod over the indie scene that can see right through this, knows exactly what is being co-opted and can point it out with detail, and also increasingly have enough of a voice to shape discourse and buzz - not among the larger public, but among the music professionals that you need on your side for a band's successful promotion. And when you factor a music press apparatus where a significant chunk might as well rebrand themselves as paid PR rather than journalists or critics, you have your weapon to silence dissenters by claiming Coroneos is a liar or didn't do his homework to interview the band or producers - challenge his authenticity because that's a token that in the world of indie country, it matters.

The problem is that these 'puff pieces' are terrible. I've talked about the failing state of country music criticism and journalism for years now, and this incident is a prime example of those failures, lapping up what the artists and producers want to sell with no solid follow-up, which you need when they have every monetary reason to lie! And the 'lie' is the real issue here, because if Midland were remotely honest about their roots in privilege and success outside of country, there would still be hardline detractors but many would be won over by the strength of the music. But you choose to adopt a style where it is literally written into the DNA of the sound that it's a revitalization of traditional country, where authenticity runs bone deep, and then when you're unmasked as industry insiders you double down on your lie, you've only made the situation that much worse! It doesn't help that the entire marketed image feels so cartoonish, overstated, and plainly trying to capitalize on an existing pivot back to neotraditional sounds - but the problem is that the country music industry has been able to sell these lies for multiple groups for so long without being called on it. And at the end of the day, if Midland had avoided the publicity blitz or just acknowledged their past without exaggeration, most of the underground would have just moved on - hell, they probably would have gotten a pass! Take the late Glen Campbell, who passed away this year and who spent his career making pop country, and while he had his detractors in his heyday he never made a secret of what he was making, and thus won enough grudging respect from the traditionalist regardless! Or take Lucy Hale, who was very clearly an actress on Pretty Little Liars when she made Road Between, and yet as a pop country record it's one of the best of the decade because it's very honest about what it is!

But there's a level of ugliness of the lie of Midland's marketing that needs to be addressed beyond questions of authenticity, and like with Albini's anger at Wyman, it has less to do with artistic purity and more to do with the business and access. Because at the end of the day I'm not going to get angry at Midland for having connections in the industry - really, that's how anyone gets ahead in anything unless you're a prodigy or an outright force of nature like Sturgill Simpson. But I certainly get angry when I see music journalists slagging those who call out Midland's dishonest marketing by the cheap excuse that it's for the 'greater good' of country music, that because of their success all those indie acts we in the underground praise will surely see success - and it's condescending bullshit. As much as I'd love to see the day when Jason Isbell and Jason Eady are played as much on the radio as Jason Aldean, independent-minded country acts who want to own their masters, write more challenging songs and control their image and direction are always going to buck at the slick, safe, focus-tested extremely commercial way Nashville approaches music. And that's presuming they even get in the door, because Music Row has proven very adept at walling these people out when they don't play exactly by their rules, especially when Nashville and especially country radio is utterly ignoring grassroots success in favor of chasing a pop boom that went out with bro-country three years ago, where if you don't have a big producer's name along side yours your single won't get play! I'd love to think that Midland's success was organic and would open gates for indie artists with a similar sound to crossover, but this is not 1991 where record executives suddenly discovered the Seattle grunge scene existed, and it wasn't many before they were able to repackage acts co-opting that sound while leaving deserving indie acts in the dust. And you think country radio, where despite selling more records than most of his competition combined in the past two years Chris Stapleton can't get a hit single, will suddenly be willing to take on acts like Cody Jinks or Jaime Wyatt or Dori Freeman or even Sturgill? And that's before you acknowledge there are still older artists from the last neotraditional wave in the 90s still making music, proven moneymakers that the radio won't touch!

So at the end of the day, I really don't care where Midland came from, and neither do most of the indie country writers and critics calling bullshit on this marketing - if the sound and writing are good, I'd prefer to hear more of this sound than whatever trap-infused nonsense that they're trying to pass off as country. And some critics are right in saying that it shouldn't matter where Midland came from so long as the content holds up - it's Death Of The Author, I get it. But when you try to peddle that authenticity token hard in your marketing to a skeptical underground and big holes are found in the story, and then instead of owning your roots you get defensive and double down, it's a sign you really need to fire your marketing director. And the country 'journalists' who have tried to defend this marketing by buying into label spin and throwing a local journalist under the bus who has real insight into the scene the band is trying to co-opt - mostly through asinine slippery slope arguments, ignoring the obvious Big Machine angle, and even playing the 'you're just jealous' card - are showing exactly why the ongoing collapse of critical analysis in country music journalism has been such an endemic problem for years now. As Coroneos said this is less about authenticity than it is about truth, but at the same time the authenticity piece still matters, not just in maintaining the sound but for the band's long term prospects when success dries up, because if Midland remain such an overmanaged and overmarketed act in this vein, it'll be a harder veneer to hold and the cracks will glare all the further, especially if the neotraditional or indie sound does somehow break through in a big way. Country artists may have a longer shelf life than most, but hitching your career to a trend you can't effectively back up this early is a really bad sign, and dismissing the lies is a dangerous path towards allowing more Music Row clones and copycats to further dilute what that authenticity token could represent.

So to finish this off, let me interpolate a quote from Steve Albini here from the letters section of the Reader in 1994, slightly cleaned up because I don't quite have the same venom, but the point he's making to the music press deserves to be restated, at least for country. 'In your rush to pat this pandering band on the heinie, you miss what has been obvious to the 'bullshit' crowd all along: this is not an 'grassroots-driven neotraditional country act' more than so many of their historical predecessors. This is by, of and for mainstream trends. Watching the act you moo about prostrate themselves on the altar of publicity these last few months has been a source of unrivaled hilarity and a certain amount of righteous anger here in the 'bullshit' camp because we're very much aware most of this success will not trickle down, and seeing them sink into the obscurity they have earned by blowing their promo wads... well, on some level it'll just be sad'.

Albini may be harsh, but he's also seen it all, and that's not even touching on the ossified business of country radio that prop up and then discard acts year after year, trend after trend. And when you see people so easily led astray by a cheap marketing lie and a press apparatus that's built up to defend that lie and equate fleeting success with quality and further throw artistic integrity and authenticity into a bucket of gimmicks... again, Albini might be harsh, but history has not proved him wrong.

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