What is Wrong with Country Music?

29 Apr

I started listening to country music during the spring of 2020 when COVID hit and I needed something a little more positive to listen to than my typical selection of rap. I had always had the impression that the kinds of people who listened to love three things: God, America, and beer. My siblings introduced me to a few of their favorites in a car ride to get bagels one morning, and I began realizing that country music was better than my what I thought. The songs were upbeat, talked about love and being happy, focused on the simple things in life, and made you want to dance. But as I learned more about the genre there I noticed some glaring issues with the lack of diversity and objectification of women. Through these realizations I saw three of the themes we discussed in class; Carmen and the racial Other, genius and the constraining of musical genres, and gender through the objectification of women.

Lil Nas X’s original “Old Town Road” was removed from the Billboard Hot 100 Country chart in 2019. Lil Nas X would later release a revised version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, which would finish 2019 as the year’s top Billboard Hot 100 song but never be added back to the country charts.¹

One example I touched on in many of my discussion posts this semester was Billboard’s removal of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the Hot 100 Country chart. In response to backlash about the removal, Billboard said that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” But musically it kind of did – Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted that “I thought, it’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?” The song pushed the boundaries of traditional country music but still contained genre’s core elements – except that it was performed by a black artist. This reminded me of our discussions on Carmen, where the white upper class creates a racial Other in order to maintain their position of power in society. A core element in modern music is being able to push the musical bounds and create new sounds and songs – we see this in the rise of EDM and SoundCloud rappers becoming superstars. However, similar to our discussions on Genius and classical music, Billboard helped restrict the creation of certain kinds of music for only one group. As with classical music, they are discouraging pushing the boundary and as a result the field remains dominated by white males, furthering the notion that there is a racial Other and they cannot fully assimilate into society. Ironically, Billy Ray Cyrus – a white male country artist – appeared in a remix that would later overtake the original song and propel Lil Nas X’s career.

Toby Keith’s “Drunk Americans,” a song about drinking and being American tying together different groups.

In Toby Keith’s Drunk Americans, Keith sings about different people coming together at a bar and being tied together because they are all Americans. While the song has good intentions, when you look at the lyrics some red flags arise. When describing the types of people at the bar, Keith says “all ball caps and turbans / all prom queens and strippers.”2 If we look at the second line, he says, “prom queens” and “strippers,” creating an antithesis between what society typically views as good versus bad. Applying that logic to the first line where he contrasts ball caps with turbans – ball caps being associated with sports and an American look – he is saying that people who wear Turban’s are bad and inherently not part of that group. Additionally, the very stereotypical or “exotic” (as we talked about with Carmen) imagery used in the music video and the fact that most Muslims do not drink further demonstrates an insensitivity to this group and reinforces the idea of the racial Other.

Lee Brice’s “One of Them Girls,” which talks about the pursuit of a woman.

Here in Lee Brice’s “One of Them Girls” we see the sexual objectification of women. In the hook Lee sings “you’re one of them girls that / ain’t tryna meet nobody… ain’t handin’ out your number / you like to make us want you / you like to make us wonder.”3 Lee is singing about being at a bar and seeing a girl who was just there to have fun and not meet anybody. However, even when she does not want to give out her number, he can’t take a hint – he says that by rejecting his approaches the girl is just doing it to appear more desirable and dreamy. When you think about what he is saying here it’s kind of a problem; even girls who say no to the approaches of a man are just doing it to build their desirability. No matter what a woman’s actions, even if it is trying to mind her own business, she is actually teasing men who have the “right” to get her number or meet her. This objectification of women is a serious problem in country music and in modern society as a whole, similar to the themes we saw when we talked about “girling” at the parlor piano. Those readings and discussions highlighted the unrealistic and unfair expectations of women to serve their families, and more specifically the men (either their husband or father), and an object to be consumed and controlled4. It is interesting to see that even with all the progress society has made on women’s rights, the underlying expectations have not changed. While modern society may not endorse girling at the piano parlor, lyrics like these encourage the sexual objectification and exploitation of women.

Luke Bryan’s “Play it Again,” which talks about trying to get a song to play again so he can spend more time with a girl he met at a bar.

In Luke Bryan’s “Play it Again” there is a lyric that I found really quite disturbing. The song has a light and airy feel, both because of the beat and Bryan’s smooth voice, and is something you would expect to see a family listen to in the car ride. I found the song because it is extremely well known and appears on many country music’s greatest hits playlists on Spotify. As I listened to the song more closely however, I was taken aback by one of the lyrics – “soon as I sat down I was fallin’ in love / tryin’ to pour a little sugar in her Dixie cup.”5 When I realized what he was saying it made me take a step back. Bryan is singing about a girl who he is attracted to and drinking with, but then implies that he is trying to pour “sugar” into her Dixie cup, which contains whatever beverage she is drinking. The idea that it is ever appropriate to pour something in the cup of a girl, or any unsuspecting victim of any gender, that you are drinking with and trying to take home is so contrary to what we should stand for as a society. However, I realized that many people would brush off that lyric (and many of the other problems that exist in our society) as being harmless and playful. If you doubt that, when I went on the Genius page to look at the lyrics, a user had inserted a description of this line as “Luke is hitting on this girl and hoping to get laid. ‘Pour a little sugar in her Dixie cup’ is pretty much the southern version of ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me.’ It’s also one of Luke’s favorite party moves – he’s pouring into Dixie cups in ‘Drunk on You’ as well.”6 If this isn’t a perfect example of what I am trying to highlight, then I don’t know what is. Pouring stuff into someone’s cup without them knowing should never be okay, much less be one of someone’s “favorite party moves,” regardless of if you call it “sugar.” Brushing off sexual assault and rape is not unique to country music; Simon Keelingside, who played Don Giovanni in the 2016 rendition of the opera, did an interview where he essentially justified Don Giovanni’s forceful assault of different women as “boys being boys.” Sexual assault is not “boys being boys” – it is a heinous act that will continue to occur and be downplayed until we as a society make changes to prevent, including realizing that lyrics like Bryan’s are not okay.

In conclusion, there are a ton of problems with country music. Maybe this is not all that surprising – a music genre associated with the South, toxic masculinity, downplaying of societal disparities, being overly nationalistic, and racist undertones objectifying women and marginalizing minorities? In 53 years, the Country Music Awards, the most widely recognized award show in the genre, has had a female artist win Entertainer of the Year only nine times (by seven different women)7. Even worse is representation of persons of color, who make up a measly 4% of the commercial country music industry and received only 2.3% of country radio airtime over the past 19 years8. While gender representation and racial issues have been at the forefront of other industries like Hollywood, country music has been slower to adapt, thanks to artists being unwilling to speak out and a fanbase that historically leans Republican9. While the treatment of these topics has improved slightly in recent years, more needs to be done to allow for the expansion of the genre in an ever-more diverse society. We also need to do better at talking about lyrics that are not okay and addressing them rather than brushing them off as harmless. Perhaps through those changes country music can become everything it is on the surface – fun, loving, and positive.


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1 Caulfield, Keith. “The Year in Charts 2019: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road,’ Feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, Is the No. 1 Hot 100 Song of the Year.” Billboard, 16 Dec. 2019, www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/8545487/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-billy-ray-cyrus-top-hot-100-song-2019/.

2 TobyKeithVEVO. “Toby Keith – Drunk Americans.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyWUTGEdLuE.

3 LeeBriceMusic. “Lee Brice – One of Them Girls (Official Music Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpkZfkxdj2c.

4 Ruth A. Solie, ” ‘Girling’ at the Parlor Piano,” in Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations, pp. 85–117.

5 LukeBryanVEVO, director. Luke Bryan – Play It Again (Official Music Video). YouTube, YouTube, 4 Apr. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALV-QtDFpSw.

6 “Luke Bryan – Play It Again.” Genius, 24 Mar. 2014, genius.com/Luke-bryan-play-it-again-lyrics.

7 Anthony Roberts. “Time for Gender Equality in Country Music.” The Hofstra Chronicle, The Hofstra Chronicle, 20 Nov. 2019, www.thehofstrachronicle.com/category/arts-and-entertainment/2019/11/18/time-for-gender-equality-in-country-music.

8 Leimkuehler, Matthew. “New Study Illustrates Broad Racial Disparity in Country Music.” The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean, 23 Mar. 2021, www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/2021/03/23/country-music-racial-disparity-study-black-artists/4714774001/.

9 “Behind the Music: Conservatives and Country Music’s Complex History.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2015/04/01/behind-the-music-conservatives-and-country-musics-complex-history.

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