When you love pop culture but wish for more from it, there can be a dangerous temptation to view unconnected events as a trend and to see political motivations where business concerns are actually guiding decision-making. Such is the case with country music, which in the past several years has shown hints of grappling toward a new progressivism.
First, there was Chely Wright’s 2010 coming-out, which made her one of the first openly lesbian artists in the industry. 2013 gave us both Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J’s “Accidental Racist” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” two very different examples of what issue songs might sound like in contemporary country.
“Accidental Racist” is an almost agonizingly sincere attempt at racial reconciliation and a call for charity in judging both the sinner and the sinned-against. “Follow Your Arrow” is jauntier. The song garnered a great deal of attention for its gay-friendly sexual politics, as Musgrave told her listeners to “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into.” But it is more broadly about the folly of insisting that there is one sure road to happiness for everyone. And most recently, we have Kira Isabella’s “Quarterback,” a searing song about date rape released in April.
So do these songs represent a new progressive movement in country, or an application of country’s interests in sexual assault and sexual abuse to new narratives? Or have they garnered more press than airplay? “Accidental Racist” topped out at 77 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 23 at the Hot Country Songs charts. “Follow Your Arrow” made it to 60 on the first list and 10 on the latter. “Quarterback” has only charted in Canada.
Music journalist Chris Willman, whose 2005 book, “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music,” examines the genre’s evolving engagement with political and social issues, told me he thinks that songs like these are outliers rather than representative of a new movement.
“Once upon a time, country was better than any other genre at doing ‘issue’ songs,” he said. “Now, they’ve all but abandoned that, with the rare exceptions that have something to do with cancer or patriotism, and even then, I’m thinking more of a few years ago than right now. I’d say there are at least a couple of reasons for that. ‘Bro-country’ is so dominant right now that it’s hard to put out a song that isn’t about tailgating or beer or partying or booty-chasing.”
Some of these dynamics are driven more by the needs of country radio than by an inherent political orientation.
“There used to be a lot of whiplash on country radio, as you’d go right from a drinking song into a somebody-died song,” Willman says. “I think eventually the programmers noticed the whiplash and decided not to jolt their listeners around like that. Guess which type of song lost out? Not the party songs.”
And he suggested that focus-tested hooks have become more important to country stations than narrative-driven songs that take longer to digest and pull listeners in.
Country is hardly original in this regard. In a 2012 profile of the pop songwriter Ester Dean in the New Yorker, John Seabrook described the way Dean collected and sorted promising phrases, then set them to music. “Had she been ‘writing’ in a conventional sense—trying to come up with clever, meaningful lyrics—the words wouldn’t have fit the beat as snugly,” Seabrook observed. “Grabbing random words out of her BlackBerry also seemed to set Dean’s melodic gift free; a well-turned phrase would have restrained it.”
In country, the equivalent is what Willman called “’list songs’—where the lyrics don’t tell a story or address an issue but merely run through a non-linear list of what the singer likes about his hometown or partying or girls. Everything about a song has to be understandable if any random 10 seconds of it are excerpted by radio researchers, and so a song has a much better chance of succeeding if any line in the song could come at any point in the song.”
This environment means that politics are a risk. For artists who might not break out by other means, issue songs could be a worthwhile way to grab at least some media attention. Choosing to record “Quarterback” when Carrie Underwood had turned the song down got her a write-up in Billboard and has attracted some of the social justice criticism that can help credential a work with audiences who might not be drawn to the genre otherwise. But it is no guarantee that Isabella will achieve even Musgraves’s sales or prominence, ore even Underwood’s heights.
“When I wrote ‘Rednecks & Bluenecks’ in the mid-2000s I felt like country was really America’s jukebox, in terms of being a big tent and reflecting a lot of thematic and topical concerns as well as including a lot of musical subgenres,” Willman wrote to me. “But the music has gotten alarmingly homogenous since then, and it’s been the more serious and meaningful songs and artists that have gotten pushed out. I can no longer make the case for country being a reflection of a pretty full spectrum of American feelings and values that I did when I wrote the book 10 years ago–at least not the country that makes it onto the radio.”