Sorry to break the superhero theme. This post has been a long time coming, and some of it is an amalgam of opinions I’ve posted in commentary on this site and in other forums. Despite being born and raised in Texas and attending a conservative university in East Texas that prides itself on redneck culture, I hate modern country radio and the vast majority of music that is played on it.
I have a girlfriend (now technically a fiancee after last weekend) who listens to modern country radio. Every morning when she wakes up, she turns on the radio in the kitchen and listens to 98.1 KVET here in Austin while she prepares her morning coffee. Also, her alarm to wake her up in the morning blares that station, and she insists on cranking up the radio in the bathroom to top volume so she can hear it while she showers and prepares for work. This kills me, but it at least shows that I am subjected to this stuff on a regular basis and am not completely talking out of my ass.
Country radio is at the height of its popularity right now. I couldn’t have imagined that it could get bigger than it was in the mid-90’s during the Garth Brooks era, but it’s popularity has continued to grow and flourish, even in the face of declining record sales in nearly every other genre in the music industry. I’m willing to bet that there were purists back in the 90’s who absolutely hated the direction that country music was heading under Garth’s huge popularity. Mr. Brooks was one of the first country stars to bring an arena ready, high energy, laser light and pyrotechnical bombast to a country music roadshow, largely due to the influence of the band Kiss, whom Garth was a huge fan of in his youth.
In contrast, I went to a George Strait show during that time, and it was kind of boring. George performed on a square stage with four microphones set up, one for each side of the stage. Throughout the night, he would sing one song, then move to the next side, sing another song, and so on. It was nice that the entire crowd got to see him singing directly to them, but other than that, it was a pretty vanilla experience. I still have a soft spot for George Strait, though, so I am unable to say anything else negative about his live shows. Mr. Strait even made a commentary about the lights and glitz and glamour of a country roadshow in his awful big screen film, Pure Country. While the movie itself was subpar (along with George’s acting abilities), the message of the film was not a bad one: Strait portrays a huge country music star who becomes disillusioned with the lasers and fireworks and blinding stage lights, and he decides to walk away from the whole thing in the middle of a nationwide tour. Later, as he makes his eventual return to the stage, he says that he is done with the bullshit, and he just wants to “play [his] guitar and sing.”
Even at that point, with the storm that Garth Brooks had created, this message seemed a little unrealistic. Garth Brooks was the driving force behind the popularization of country music, and many acts to follow would copy his example with beefed up roadshows and increasingly loud and flashy concerts. However, Garth Brooks still made what I consider to be mostly country music. His first couple of albums were pretty standard for what passed as country music in those days, and while he was no traditionalist, I had no doubt that I was indeed listening to a country music artist.
I believe the final nail in the coffin of country music, the one artist that marked the absolute transition of country music to nothing more than pop, was the emergence of Shania Twain. In 1995, Twain, along with her husband and producer Mutt Lange, recorded The Woman In Me. This marked a major change in poppular country music. Lange, a famous producer behind albums for many rock and metal artists such as AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner, The Cars, and Bryan Adams, brought a decidedly different sound to Shania’s music that can best be observed in Twain’s first hit single “Any Man of Mine.” This song was unapologetically pop, radio and arena ready, and it crossed over big time. The only thing that could be remotely considered “country” in the song was the addition of fiddles and the slight twang to Shania’s (Canadian, more on this later) voice. I remember the first time I heard the song (I caught the video while flipping channels), I thought, “What the hell? How is this country? The girl is hot, I’ll give her that, but there’s no way she’ll make it.” How wrong I was.
Twain exploded, kicking down the doors for the pop/country crossover, and many artists would follow in her footsteps. Nowadays, many bands have taken the Shania sound and the Garth bombast to create a strange hybrid music, one that owes much more to pop and rock than country music. Performers such as Big & Rich, Sugarland, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts are leading the way for pop bands that are posing as country acts. Occasionally, these groups will pull out a traditional country song, but their more popular tunes are ones that completely blur the lines between genres. Some artists, such as Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Big & Rich, and Neal McCoy have even flirted with rap and hip hop on some of their songs. There are even artists who have made country rap their sole selling point, such as Cowboy Troy, and Snoop Dogg has announced plans to release a bluegrass album, the progress of which has been detailed on this blog. Personally, I hate this trend, but that’s just me. I found a good blog post that explores the invasion of hip hop culture into the country music genre in great detail at The Village Voice.
All of these developments have paved the way for numerous country/pop crossovers. Just as country artists are making music that is far from traditional country, many pop and rock artists are easily making the jump over to country. Jewel has released a country album and stepped in as a judge on “Nashville Star.” Jessica Simpson has released a successful country single, “Come On Over,” to be followed by a country album this fall. The most popular television show in the country, “American Idol,” has become a farm factory for new country artists ever since the huge success of Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood. Since then, we have witnessed the emerging country careers of Kellie Pickler, Bucky Covington, Phil Stacey, and Kristy Lee Cooke. All of this from a decidedly pop-leaning television show.
There are two current artists that to me completely exemplify the trend of country music’s transformation into pop: Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. Targeting preteen and teenage girls, these two artists produce music that is barely recognizable as country music. Listening to Swift’s big single “Picture To Burn,” I can barely distinguish this from a song by any bubble gum pop artist. It contains the telltale hints of fiddle and steel guitar, the slight twang to the singer’s voice, and the well-worn themes of cheating men and pick up trucks. Other than that, how is this country? The same can be said of the style of any Miley Cyrus song, of which I have thankfully only heard a few. However, one cannot deny the impact of these artists on the current market.
Here’s where I will probably start offending a few people, but that is not my intention. Please note that this entire post is solely my opinion, and you are absolutely free to disagree with me on any and all points. My analysis of this music has led me to the conclusion that pop and country are now completely interchangeable. There is no longer a line between the genres of any sort. Just as the boy bands and their female counterparts sold millions of records in the late 90’s/early 00’s, country pop has now become the go to genre for solid record sales in a slumping market. And, just as it was sometimes difficult to distinguish one boy band or Simpson/Spears/Aguilera/Moore song from another, a lot of these country pop songs have begun to sound dangerously alike. It is all the same song, a cheesy, forgettable, unremarkable, formulaic pop tune with the minimal amount of steel guitar and fiddle added to make it “country,” pre-processed and shrink-wrapped for your easy consumption.
One part of this genre that strikes me as particularly offensive is the ongoing trend of artists adding a southern twang to their voices in order to sound more “country” for the masses. Jessica Simpson is gulity of this on her new single, and Jewel does the same thing. There are also artists such as Keith Urban, an Australian singer who affects an accent from the American south. One of the worst offenders in this category is Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland. In each of her songs, the country twang is so forced and unnatural that it borders on being unlistenable. It’s as if these artists think that this style of singing lends some country credibility to their music, which they are fully aware is transforming further and further into pop each day. As a person who grew up in the South and who does not speak with a heavy accent, I have to wonder why these artists feel that this is necessary. It sounds to me like pandering and almost talking down to their core audience. “Look, Ah sang lahk y’all tawlk! Ah ain’t pop! Ah’m country!” This further reinforces the stereotype that all people from the south speak in pronounced accents and only care about pickup trucks, cheating men/women, and shotguns.
UPDATE: I found this largely negative review of Jessica Simpson’s first live performance on a country tour, and it didn’t go over too well. One concertgoer even proclaims that Simpson does not have enough twang in her voice. It may be telling that the person who made that comment is from Illinois.
So where’s the appeal here? Are people just not thinking about this as much as I am? Do they not care that an entire genre is bending over backwards to sell them an underwhelming, pre-packaged product by exploiting their musical heritage and reinforcing stereotypes? I don’t know the answer. I guess the heart of the matter is that many people are not really interested in thinking about, being intellectually stimulated by, or being challenged by their entertainment, whether it be music, film, or novels. And I guess that’s okay in the end. I can always find other things to listen to or watch or read that match my interests. I am, however, saddened by the fact that the legacy of Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings is being cannibalized in the name of an industry desperate for record sales. Is it any wonder that Johnny Cash moved to releasing cover albums of rock ‘n’ roll music in the years preceding his death?
I’d be interested to hear Matt’s take on this, since he is a DJ at a country radio station.