It’s a conflicting feeling, being a fan of country music nowadays. And I’d like to clarify: I’m a fan of the genre’s artists that tell stories with their records. I’m a fan of the genre’s trailblazers that break the rules out of artistry and intentionality. That’s the kind of country music I’m a fan of. What I’m not a fan of is the majority of what we’re seeing in the format today.
What’s even more conflicting, or rather discouraging, is the fact that it’s always been my life goal to make a career out of songwriting, but with the way hypermasculinity has overtaken this genre, that goal has been resting on some pretty unsteady ground. I love telling narratives with every song I write. The concept of creating a story with characters, or drawing upon personal experiences, and putting them into a three-and-a-half-minute song is so thrilling to me. The Nashville songwriting community has always been at the finish line in my imagined career trajectory, but with the way so much of this format has changed in recent years, I’m just not sure if that’s where I really should be.
Being a truth-teller is no longer what this genre seeks anymore; money is what it seeks. And it seems as though the Nashville machine sees money in masculinity. And sure, maybe capitalism is how most of the world works nowadays, but it’s admittedly pretty crushing to see a genre that labels itself as “the only place where you can hear real people create music about real life,” transition into life that isn’t really…real. It’s become all about life that’s fantasized. Inauthentic. Commercialized. Fake. And even worse, it’s further explored territories of negative social stereotypes. Today’s country music reeks of misogyny. Not just in actual musical content, but in the way female artists are treated in the genre itself.
Country music needs to do better. Even if not for its fans or pursuers, it needs to do better for itself. The integrity of this genre is drowning fast, and it’s not okay to leave the responsibility of keeping it afloat on the shoulders of the women—especially when they’re the ones who can hardly catch a break in the format anyways.
To the songwriters of country music…
The songwriting community in Nashville is one that has always been universally admired, adored, and envied. It’s built on the bravery of people baring their souls to the world, and hoping that the world won’t turn them away. The community is filled with so many different minds, styles, talents, and ideas, that it’s sometimes overwhelming for an outsider like me to even imagine how opportunistic each writing session must feel like.
Just this past year, we’ve received Lori McKenna’s stunning “Humble & Kind,” 24 absolutely incredible tracks from Miranda Lambert’s double-album, The Weight of These Wings, and even Taylor Swift popped back up in her home format by penning Little Big Town’s newest smash, “Better Man.” Just a few examples of many, these releases demonstrate what it means to write truth.
I hope the community continues to write music like this. And not every song has to be meaningful. I most certainly would never want to imply that. But, fun songs can still be good songs. They don’t have to be formulaic, and they don’t have to be trite. As Frank Liddell said at the ACM Awards this past Sunday, April 2, 2017, “tell the truth. It’s more interesting.”
To all the women of country music…
Keep persevering. To Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Lori McKenna, Kacey Musgraves, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose, and Maren Morris: keep fighting the good fight of heading the charge of women at the forefront of the genre. To Margo Price, Cam, Lauren Alaina, Aubrey Sellers, Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark, Sunny Sweeney, Rhiannon Giddens, and so many others: you’re seen, heard, and appreciated. The Nashville machine may not want to help you and your careers move forward, but your music has resonated with me enough for me to want to join you in moving the Nashville machine backwards. (I know there are so many other women that deserve mentions.)
To just about all of the men of country music…
(This part is not applicable to artists including Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Eric Church, Jamey Johnson, Cody Jinks, Brothers Osborne, and a few others that all fall in line with these folks.)
It seems like most of the men in this format are only capable of following what society has made “being a man” to mean. That is, catcalling women; defining women solely by their physical appearances, and absolutely nothing more (because women only exist for dudes to look at, am I right, bro?); shotgunning brewskies; driving a lifted pick-up truck; hunting, fishing, and loving every day; name-dropping past male country artists; and, simply put, just partying with friends. No paying any mind to emotions. No looking beneath the skin of a woman. Nothing. It’s all superficial.
And lest we forget the abominable musical homogeny of these songs that so many men invest so much effort into preserving, because the same chord progressions end up cashing similarly-sized checks at the bank…
So with that, I’d like to say a couple things to you, dudes & bros of the genre:
- Experiencing different emotions isn’t a bad thing, so start, at the very least, pretending like you have ‘em. Everybody cries—just ask Chris Stapleton. Everybody falls in love—just ask Jason Isbell. Guys: everybody feels things—just ask Johnny Cash. Pay attention to what you experience, because it makes what you say 100% more interesting. You won’t be characterized by the way you feel about personal experiences, if that makes you all feel any better? I know, I know; masculinity is tough to overcome.
- Women are not objects. Women are not sex toys. Women are human beings, and the women in country music are doing your jobs a hell of a lot better than you’re doing them.
You do not get to make this the cover art to your single and expect it to be okay, Canaan Smith. (Seriously, how many people did this get cleared by for it to be published? Did Pepsi do this?) You do not get to characterize them by the way they “crank your tractor,” Dustin Lynch. You do not get to use her body as bragging rights for how good you proclaim you are at sex, Sam Hunt.
Maybe sing about being drawn to a woman for something other than because she’s a “flatliner.”
The aforementioned “Like You That Way,” Canaan Smith’s newest single, reeks of sexism in every one of its cracks and crevices. The song is complete with the abhorrent, misogynistic cover art linked above, and sports lyrics that include the line, “Girl, you’re Miranda Lambert crazy and I like you that way” in the chorus.
Has sexism become protocol for mainstream country music? Just wondering. (*Bites tongue about the double-standards held against women for infidelities in comparison to men for doing the same thing.*) (*cough* Jason Aldean, LeAnn Rimes *cough*)
Just because Miranda Lambert has sung about her fair share of scorn does not mean you get to characterize her by those feelings. Also, feeling anger does not equate to “crazy.” See: tip #1, above. Emotions are fine, and you won’t be characterized by the way you feel about ‘em. Or, at least, you shouldn’t be. I can’t imagine Miranda Lambert is super gung-ho about being placed on a scale that measures women’s levels of “crazy.” (Also, she can write a song better than just about anyone else in Nashville, so hush.)
Observing today’s music industry is interesting when you’re an amateur songwriter. You think you have a general understanding of how everything works, but you really don’t. At least, I know I don’t. But I do know how to write a song, I do know how to tell the truth, I do understand the history of the country music format, and I do know that it’s not being fulfilled by most of today’s mainstream artists.
I understand that genres transform, progress, regress, etc., but the truth never does, and it never should, either. So I’m calling on the country music community to stop this format’s boat from sinking any deeper. Stories are dying to be told by a genre that’s just plain, ol’ dying. I want to be a part of this community in the very near future, but the folks that are already in it need to start working to save it, so it can have a future. Stand up for country music’s integrity. Say what needs to be said. Support all women. And men? Get to work, because y’all have more progress to make than anyone else.
CRAIG JAFFE | Women are better. | KXSU Editor