Brandy Clark does not have time for your shit / photo courtesy of the artist
At this point, the word “sexism” has become synonymous with country music. As the genre has slowly plodded through the decades, it has remained unfriendly to women, especially the female artists who are fighting for their own place on the charts and country radio. Last week, the “world’s leading authority on radio programming” confirmed this pervasive sexism by arguing that, if country radio stations want to improve their ratings, they should avoid playing female artists.If you missed the controversial remarks, it’s likely because you don’t spend your time reading obscure country radio publications. In an interview with Country AirCheck last week, programming consultant Keith Hill gave his colleagues a pretty bold warning: “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” According to Hill, bro country faves like Luke Bryan and crooners like Keith Urban are the “lettuce” of country radio’s salad, and female artists are “the tomatoes.”
Hill proceeded to further stick his foot in his mouth and blame the absence of women on the radio on country music’s female fans. “The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists,” he said. “I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent.”
As infuriating as these smug and sexist assessments are, they are unfortunately based in reality. Country music has fundamentally changed over the past twenty years, especially where female artists are concerned. In the 1990s and early 2000s, country music was viewed as “chick music” as artists like Martina McBride, Faith Hill, and Trisha Yearwood dominated the charts while selling millions of records. Not only is Shania Twain country music’s most successful female artist, she also recorded the genre’s most successful album of all time, “Come On Over” in 1997.
A few short years later, country’s popularity began to wane. Fans complained that the sound that made Faith Hill and Shania Twain multi-platinum artists had become too pop-driven, too manufactured and slicked-up. In that time, country’s most popular artist was Taylor Swift, who turned men and women alike off from country altogether. In 2010, artists like Zac Brown and Jason Aldean began to introduce more “authentic sounding” country, complete with banjos and bucolic settings, to incredible success. A successful formula was created. We now call it “bro country.”
But as country music’s popularity boomed again -- it is now the most popular genre in the United States -- the presence of women on the radio has dramatically declined. Last year, Maddie & Tae became the first female duo in eight years to break into the country airplay top ten with “Girl In A Country Song,” ironically a critique of country music’s sexism. By Keith Hill’s own analysis, the highest percentage of female airplay in the United States is a pitiful 19 percent. A survey of the Billboard Hot Country charts in the 1990s would indicate that percentage has declined dramatically in recent years.
The lack of women on country airwaves has much to do with country music’s incredibly successful attempt to bring male fans back into the fold. To that end, the genre became markedly more masculine, in terms of both diversity and subject matter. In 2015, you’re just as likely to hear about hunting, fishing, and mudding on country radio as you are truck-related personal tragedies. Love ballads and done-me-wrong heartbreak songs have been replaced with party anthems that overtly objectify and sexualize women. Justin Moore, 2014’s ACM New Artist of the Year, recorded a four-minute anthem to the Second Amendment, simply titled “Guns.”
This hyper-masculinity has contributed to an underlying hostility toward women in the genre, and has translated directly into a lack of women in country music. This toxic mentality trickles down from record executives to program managers, then to radio DJs. Too often, according to artists like Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, these decision makers flatly refuse to give female artists the same opportunities that they create for often less-talented male artists. In the end, fans, female or otherwise, end up hearing fewer women on the radio.
It is also damn near impossible to support female artists if you never hear them, and it would be easy to think that there just aren’t any good female country artists if your only exposure to the genre is country radio. Outside of Miranda Lambert and a scant few others, there are a very small number of female voices to be heard on the airwaves. You don’t hear Sunny Sweeney, Amanda Shires, Brandi Clark, Shelby Lynne, or any of the other incredibly talented women who are playing to small, smoky bars and self-marketing their music online. You probably missed Angaleena Presley’s impressive first release, the critically-acclaimed American Middle Class. When those voices do break through, though, they are incredibly successful, like Mickey Guyton’s record-shattering debut, “Better Than You Left Me,” earlier this year.
In response to Hill’s comments, CMT President Brian Phillips told The Tennessean that the industry does a “pretty good job” of finding and supporting female talent. “I just don't understand how we keep finding ourselves behind the eight ball. I can't believe that our radar is off, because the talent always emerges and we always find it and great singers find great songs.” Not surprisingly, Phillips couldn’t be more out of touch. Even when the talent is recognized by critics and fans alike, country radio doesn’t always respond. At present, Kacey Musgraves’ “Biscuits,” a track that has been roundly praised by critics, has yet to crack the top 40 in country airplay. Her Grammy-winning track “Follow Your Arrow,” despite all its success, never did. Brandy Clark, also a Grammy nominee, has never cracked the top 100. Whatever country music is “rewarding” these great talents with, it apparently does not involve mainstream success or any meaningful airplay.
If country music had any real interest in making female artists more successful with female fans, industry figureheads wouldn’t just be paying lip service to the idea that female artists are offered the same opportunities as their male counterparts. If that were actually the case, Brian Phillips and his record label buddies would be moving heaven and earth to replicate the successes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill. In doing that, they would add diversity to the airwaves, bring better country music to its massive audience, and most importantly for them, piles of cash that inevitably follow. In allowing male artists to continue to dominate airplay and the charts, country music’s decisionmakers are greedily snatching up today’s pennies at the expense of tomorrow’s dollars. As female artists continue to fall behind in country music, record executives are deliberately walking away from the millions of records, armfuls of awards and billions of dollars that female artists generated in the 1990s. Most of those dollars, of course, coming from female fans.
Blaming country music’s lack of diversity on women, fan,s or artists is a lazy way to avoid addressing the inherent sexism in the country music machine. Women didn’t just stop enjoying country music after the 1990s, and the millions of albums that Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood sell every year are proof. What female fans clearly don’t appreciate, though, is radio DJs tossing in a few token tomatoes to round out the hour.
Women who love country music certainly have a duty to show their support for talented female artists, and they do, because iceberg lettuce is boring, and so is bro-country. Ultimately, though, it is not the fans who make the decisions about the music that is recorded and distributed to radio stations. It is these executives, program managers, and radio DJs who have the most ability to ensure that country music is an equitable place for men and women, and they’re doing a pretty fucking terrible job.
Amy McCarthy is doing the Lord's work on Twitter.