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Why stations are pulling Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ — and what that says about country radio

Little Big Town, left to right: Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet. (Courtesy Matthew Welch/Sandbox Entertainment)

Alana Lynn, a morning co-host on country music station 104.3 FM in Boise, Idaho, was excited to play Little Big Town’s latest single for her listeners. “Girl Crush,” a powerful ballad about a woman envious of her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, seemed destined to be a hit.

“I want to taste her lips, yeah cause they taste like you / I want to drown myself in a bottle of her perfume,” vocalist Karen Fairchild sings. “I want her long blond hair, I want her magic touch / Yeah cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much. . . I got a girl crush.”

Sure, it’s a provocative way to describe jealousy. But when Lynn played the song on the air, she didn’t anticipate that she would get furious phone calls and e-mails accusing “Girl Crush” of “promoting the gay agenda” and threats to boycott the station. The last time she heard this much outrage from listeners? “The Dixie Chicks’ President Bush comments,” Lynn recalls, referring to when the trio’s career imploded in 2003 after making critical statements about the president.

Are you surprised by the anger over Little Big Town — especially considering it’s a complete misrepresentation of their lyrics? Lynn doesn’t play the song in the morning anymore after parents complained they didn’t want their kids hearing it. But it’s not just in Idaho: In recent weeks, multiple radio stations from coast to coast have been inundated with similar complaints about “Girl Crush,” forcing several to take it out of a regular rotation. (Sample comments heard by a Texas program director: “You are just promoting the gay agenda on your station and I am changing the channel and never listening to you ever again!!”)

As a result, the song is mired in a difficult climb on the radio charts, and it has ignited a controversy that is symbolic of the fraught state of country radio.

There’s a deep chasm these days between what’s popular on country radio — still the genre’s most powerful platform — and what fans are actually buying: “Girl Crush” is No. 4 on iTunes, but lags at No. 33 in radio rankings. And while country music is seen as more progressive now — with explicit lyrics about sex and casual marijuana use — significant portions of the traditional audience will not tolerate a song that they even wrongly assume is about a same-sex relationship.

[Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and the evolution of sex songs in country music]

Syndicated radio personality Bobby Bones, who hosts the nation’s most popular country morning show, fumed about this topic to his millions of listeners last week while Little Big Town was in the studio. “Is it frustrating to you that here is your song — that is one of the Top 10 sellers for weeks and weeks and weeks — and people on the radio are still afraid to play it because they think it’s a ‘lesbian song?’” he asked. “It would drive me insane!”

The group agreed. “Just the fact that we’re still discussing that, number one, there’s so many problems with that whole issue,” Fairchild said.

“It shouldn’t even matter if it’s a lesbian song, is the first thing,” Bones added. Though, of course, that has been proven to matter. Look no further than Kacey Musgraves and “Follow Your Arrow,” the song referencing same-sex kissing that racked up awards and sales but struggled to find a radio audience. Even in 2015, the subject is still a taboo in the genre.

An anonymous Texas program director, who wrote a long post about the song for the music blog For the Country Record, is annoyed that listeners refuse to acknowledge the real meaning behind the lyrics. “Country music fans, please try to have an open mind about songs you are hearing on the radio today and if you don’t like them, that’s fine,” the director wrote. “But don’t not like them for the wrong close-minded reasons.”

[Kacey Musgraves, country music’s next real deal]

The backlash is disheartening for the Grammy-winning band,  which has been thrilled by positive fan response and sales numbers (“Girl Crush” is selling about 25,000 copies a week) but disappointed by the radio reaction. Fairchild remembers when she and fellow group member Kimberly Schlapman first heard the song, penned by veteran Nashville songwriters Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey. At Rose’s house during a “girls’ writers day,” Fairchild and Schlapman listened to the songwriter trio perform the tune — and immediately snapped it up for Little Big Town’s next album.

“It’s a genius lyric, such a beautifully written song about jealousy,” Fairchild said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was like, ‘Why would we not cut this?’”

Though label executives had some reservations about releasing it as a single, “They all agreed it was a moment on the record that everybody needed to hear,” Fairchild said. “Sure, there was a little bit of dialogue about the title and ‘Would people listen to the lyrics?’ But it didn’t stop us.”

As for the lyrics tripping up listeners, Fairchild guesses people hear the “taste her lips” line sung by a female singer and take assumptions from there — she’s still surprised by the controversy. “That’s just shocking to me, the close-mindedness of that, when that’s just not what the song was about,” Fairchild said, “But what if it were? It’s just a greater issue of listening to a song for what it is.”

The label recently cut a short commercial hoping to clear up some of the confusion. During the spot, the band introduces the song, while Fairchild explains the content: “It’s about a girl saying, you know, ‘Why do you love her and not me?'”

They hope it helps: If angry fans force program directors to play the song less, it creates a ripple effect across country radio. Some stations won’t even play a song if it’s not near the top of the charts, and “Girl Crush” is struggling to get there.

And there lies the problem with the divide between country sales and radio play: Even if a song’s sales are strong, there’s nothing like radio to attract an even broader audience. People in the industry hope there’s a way to reconcile the two, especially to diversify the kind of hard-partying tunes that have taken over country radio in recent years.

[Who’s that bro? A complete guide to the dudes of country music]

Though Little Big Town has seen success with party songs (such as the recent No. 1 “Day Drinking”), Fairchild says she’s heard from singer friends who hope that a ballad like “Girl Crush” can succeed on the radio and pave the way for more substantive music.

In fact, Fairchild jokes, “Maybe the real controversy is that a 6/8 ballad is on country radio.”

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