It was a video meant to turn heads. Joe Don Rooney knew it would do at least that much. The guitarist of the country group Rascal Flatts, Rooney was sure the steamy video the band released last year for its song "I Melt" would give Nashville a little jolt. But he had no idea it would cause such an uproar in country music circles, get banned from the Great American Country cable channel, and provide material for late-night comedians.
Rooney found himself -- or at least his rear end -- at the center of a storm.
In the video, for the briefest of moments, his bare behind is visible as he gets out of bed. Never mind that model Christina Auria, playing Rooney's girlfriend or wife or whatever, spends most of the video in various stages of undress. Rooney is the star, and his split-second skin shot set country message boards afire, ticked off conservatives -- and was one of the factors that helped push the band's album "Melt" to nearly 2 million in sales.
Channels like Country Music Television and VH1 Country used to be relatively safe havens for viewers who wanted to see nothing racier than a young couple sharing an innocent kiss. Even as rap and rock videos became ever raunchier, country held fast to its more conservative code -- as befit its more conservative audience, presumably. That code, though, is under siege.
No, Kenny Chesney isn't likely to be seen tearing off Shania Twain's bustier during next year's Super Bowl halftime show. But more and more country artists are taking chances with risque, even relatively explicit, videos that erase the genre's previous boundaries of decency. Corn pone has gone corn porn, seemingly overnight.
Well, maybe not quite overnight. Tanya Tucker had to edit her 1992 video for "Soon" because it briefly showed her breast. The navel-baring Shania Twain also gets much of the credit, or blame, for taking country in a sultrier direction, beginning with her earliest videos. Faith Hill followed suit in 1999 with her famous satin-sheets video for the song "Breathe." And other artists including Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack and LeAnn Rimes have changed their down-home images to emphasize sexuality. Male artists, too, like Tim McGraw and Keith Urban are playing up sex appeal and playing down good ol' boyhood.
Rooney is still coming to grips with his own claim to country music lore. "I don't know about it being the most famous butt in country music, but it's the only one that's been seen on TV," the affable Oklahoman said in a recent interview.
He has taken the controversy in stride and, along with band mates Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox, is enjoying the surge of popularity the song and video have engendered. Like many of country's new breed, Rooney -- whom friends have taken to calling Joe Don Mooney -- often sounds less like a hayseed than a savvy marketer.
"We just said, 'Let's make the best damn sexy video we can.' Anytime you do something to shake things up . . . you're going to have some negative reaction," he said. "But I think the country crowd is evolving and the demographic is widening. We're reaching a younger listening audience, and a song and a video like this just brings more people in."
A striking example of the randy new Nashville is Deana Carter's video for the sexy love song "There's No Limit." It begins with Carter sliding into a pair of briefs and spends the next 3 minutes 29 seconds with her cavorting around a bedroom in her underwear and cooing into a phone.
"As long as it's honest, it's cool. And my video is . . . honest to what girls do," says Carter. "You wear your boyfriend's clothes and his boxer briefs. The video has to support the message. I mean, I think it'd be goofy if you were in a negligee standing next to a gravestone and singing."
Carter knew that her video was pushing the bounds of acceptability. And she even nixed a few concepts for videos that she thought went too far, including one that would have begun with her relieving herself in the woods after her car breaks down on a deserted road. "I'm pretty sure the record company was ecstatic to not have me peeing in a video," she says, laughing.
Even though the "No Limit" video raised eyebrows, Carter says she hasn't received any negative feedback and gets support from a lot of women, including industry luminaries.
"I saw Dolly Parton recently and she told me, 'Girl, I just loved you prancing around in that underwear,' " she said.
Most important for Carter, though, was the boost she says the video gave to her career. She had topped the charts in the mid-'90s with her album "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" but more recent efforts had not fared as well. Then came "There's No Limit." "I'm 100 percent certain that the video got me more radio play," Carter says. "Television is what impacts audiences more than anything else, and that's the same for country as for other genres."
Industry watchers aren't sure that's entirely true. If you talk to country music executives, "nine out of 10 will tell you that videos don't spur sales the way they do in pop or rap," says Wade Jessen, Billboard magazine's director for Nashville-based charts. Country is different, he says, because it still relies much more heavily on radio play to make a song successful.
Such skepticism about the power of videos may be well placed. Though Carter says the video helped her song get radio play -- and the album that includes it reached No. 6 on the country charts -- apparently it wasn't enough. She and her record company recently parted ways.
But whether the slew of naughty videos makes a demonstrable sales impact may be beside the point. There's a cultural shift taking place. Just as much of country music has crossed over to mainstream tastes and fashions, so too have the videos. And if the country music business is interested in tapping into mainstream pop markets and trends, sexy videos are a prerequisite.
"The entire American culture is liberalizing or emphasizing sex a lot more. Sex and nudity have crept into everything, including advertising, and the country market is not that different," says country music historian and cultural anthropologist Mary Bufwack, who co-authored "Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music" with her husband, music journalist Robert K. Oermann. "Performers, particularly younger performers, are part of contemporary culture and aren't uncomfortable with sex and nudity. And as the country music audience is exposed to more and more of it in the general culture, it's going to be less shocked to see it in this medium as well."
Indeed. The number of videos with sexual content or innuendo has increased gradually over the past 18 months, says Chris Parr, Country Music Television's vice president for music programming. CMT addressed the issue last year in a half-hour news program, "Sex in Videos: Where's the Line?" (a show that used every opportunity to play the sexy videos it was examining).
"It's still a very small slice of our business," Parr says from his Nashville office. "But it's true that the crossover artists have accelerated the trend a little bit. It's a different era."
Parr and CMT have to balance showing videos that will boost ratings for the channel against offending more conservative viewers. The channel offered two versions of the Rascal Flatts video -- a blurry-bottomed version for daytime airing and the full-moon shot at night. Great American Country, which reaches 24 million cable subscribers, simply refused to air an unedited version.
"We always take a hard look at it, and there are always judgment calls to be made," says CMT's Parr.
"If the audience is responding negatively, we have to address it. We'll keep out things that are obviously gratuitous or inappropriate, but it's not something we face very often."
Still, the videos continue to show up. A new one for Trace Adkins's song "Hot Mama" stars a buxom former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. She portrays a woman who transforms from harried housewife and overworked mom to insatiable sex kitten -- if only in Adkins's dreams. (During the filming of another Adkins video, Bufwack says, executives of his label showed up and asked that several actresses put a few more clothes on.)
In the video for Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar," a tall, beautiful woman slow-dances with a man. He later heads into the men's room -- where he sees her standing at a urinal. Turns out the head-turning she is actually a he. Chalk up a rare appearance for a transvestite in a country video.
Where is all of this skin-showing and risk-taking heading? And what does it mean for country? An editorial in the online edition of the conservative National Review (not usually a hotbed of music debate) decried the "rapid trend toward smuttiness" in country music and blasted what it called attempts to change its very essence.
Most worrisome to traditionalists is how country is increasingly becoming a pop product. The twang, the rhythm, the blue-collar ethos, even the old-fashioned beliefs and values, are all disappearing, say some fans.
A CMT poll taken last summer showed that more than a third of the station's viewers did not want to see any nudity at all in videos. And on CMT's online message boards, viewers debated the new trend in videos. While many found nothing wrong with it, a good number objected.
A viewer from California wrote, "MTV didn't start out that bad, but as each artist pushed the limit more and more, it has gotten disgusting." Another from Tennessee was more emphatic, writing, "Where have the values and backbone of country music failed? . . . There is NO ROOM in this industry for nudity. So, Shania Twain, Deana Carter, Rascal Flatts, and anyone else who is considering nudity to sell their songs, GET OUT!!!"
Still another argument is made that with the increased emphasis on looks and bodies, the music itself is being compromised. "Women who don't meet the standard of beauty, women who are too old, too heavy or too short, don't have the same opportunity to create, and that's a problem," says Bufwack. "I mean, we should have some room for hefty lady singers in country." Male artists, too, get extra points these days for leading-man looks, but Bufwack says audiences are still more receptive to an ordinary-looking guy than an unsexy woman.
Randee St. Nicholas is an in-demand video director who has worked with artists ranging from Prince and Whitney Houston to Faith Hill and Dolly Parton. But she doesn't do that many country videos because she views it as too conservative a market. St. Nicholas agrees, however, that that is really starting to change, mostly because the artists are starting to dictate what they want their videos to be.
"The smart country artists are just like any other smart artist. They're open to ideas and they're paying attention to fashion and trends," she says. "And right now, the younger pop audience has its own style going, and it's all about wearing as little as possible and showing as much skin as possible."
St. Nicholas views this new era of risk-taking in Nashville as a good sign.
"What has held country back so long is the industry polling its fans and being worried that the audience wouldn't accept it," she says. "I like the idea of the country market not being so isolated in Nashville and becoming part of the greater picture."