Photo courtesy of Miranda Lambert
At the Grammy Awards last week, Miranda Lambert officially maintained her title as the Reigning Queen of Country Music. Lambert’s fifth release, Platinum, was almost unanimously regarded as the best mainstream country album of the year, and she’s got the armfuls of awards from every major academy as proof. With the ballsy and fierce Platinum, Lambert cemented her status as the most powerful artist in country music, in terms of both lyrical content and commercial success.
Since 2013, country music has become America’s favorite music genre, and women have been a huge part of that success. In the last five years, women and female-fronted acts have dominated country music categories at the Grammys. Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Kacey Musgraves, and Lambert make up four out of the last five year’s Best Country Album award winners, all for writing records that were explicitly empowering for women. And yet, while Musgraves and Lambert are winning all the awards, they’re still being pushed down (and occasionally off) the charts by male artists with Paleolithic views on women.
Despite the critical acclaim for women in country music and their ever-growing audience, they still lag far behind in terms of album sales, radio airplay, and respect from their peers. In 2014, the three best-selling country albums were recorded by men, all but one of whom was trounced by a woman at the 2014 Country Music Association Awards and, of course, The Grammys. Women are clearly making the best music of the genre right now, but you’ll still struggle to find them played with any regularity on country radio. The men in country music are also more than happy to perpetuate these stereotypes, and are paid handsomely to do it.
The tired-ass jacked up trucks memes and beer-drenched machismo aside, bro-country is responsible for pushing some pretty reprehensible views on women into the mainstream consciousness. With hits like Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl Shake It For Me,” the female subjects of the song are reduced to sexually objectified body parts—long, sun-tanned legs, tight asses, and girl-next-door smiles. What’s worse is that the party-driven lyrics seem to deeply misunderstand issues of consent, boundaries, and bodily agency. Thomas Rhett’s “You Make Me Wanna,” a 2014 release that currently sits at #4 on the Billboard Hot Country Charts, features this rapey nightmare:
"You know better than to wear that dress
It oughta be against the law
Plain and simple, girl them dimples
Know just how to turn me on
Now baby don't you look at me that way
'Cause you know there's only so much I can take
'Cause you make me want to"
It’s music written for that douchebag who grabs your ass at the bar, by men who are just interested in cashing in on big fat recording contract checks. This weird juxtaposition of ass-backwards country girl stereotypes and girl-power anthems can be found all over the country music charts. “Country Girl Shake It For Me” was just as commercially successful as Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead,” a song about a woman fighting back against her abusive husband. At the same time that women are commanding a bigger share of country music’s fans, power, and dollars than ever, they’re subject to being objectified and minimized by both their colleagues and their fans.
In contrast, women in country are still recording honest, well-written tracks that often tackle hard-hitting issues, like teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Country newcomers Maddie & Tae, one of last year’s breakout country acts, dedicated an entire track to the problem of objectification of women in country music in “Girl In A Country Song.” Compared with hit songs about getting drunk in pastures and luring women out into corn fields to fuck them, it’s apparent that women have been squeezed into this sexist subgenre of “music by and for girls.”
Country music, as with all other genres of music, has always had a problem with objectifying women. It isn’t anything new, but it hasn’t always been this bad. Artists like Conway Twitty and Glen Campbell made entire careers out of writing nuanced, thoughtful songs about the women they loved, and somehow managed to admire more than the subject’s tits and asses. Even as recent as the 1990s, George Strait won the hearts of millions of women in the South by, you know, bothering to treat them like intelligent human beings who also didn’t mind a good looking cowboy in tight jeans.
Strong, powerful women in country music have been around since the beginning. Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Jeannie C. Reilly helped cultivate a generation of female artists who were deeply feminine, wrote true-to-life songs about their own experiences, were just generally a group of progressive, fire-spitting badasses. That tradition continued into the 1990s, when girl-power anthems like Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” were the genre’s most successful tracks. Somewhere along the way, though, something changed. After Dixie Chicks were forced out of country music for daring to have an opinion on the Iraq War and a mid-2000s lull in popularity, a new breed of country star emerged. The careers of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and other artists typically classified as “bro-country” are built on a hyper-masculine, party boy archetype that has been remarkably successful with a new generation of country music fans.
None of these complaints are new or revolutionary, but there’s really been no discussion as to why country music has such a problem with women. Is it because the genre's soul is stuck in the 1960s, when women were still struggling to go to college and work as professionals? Does it have something to do with the fact that most country music comes from the South, a place that loves nothing more than to restrict and minimize the rights of anyone threatening the status quo?
In reality, it’s neither. Country music has a problem with women because it refuses to acknowledge that the sexism it perpetuates is actually harmful. There is a pervasive belief that artists like Luke Bryan aren’t perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women, they’re just having a little bit of innocent fun out there on the tailgate with pretty girls. This kind of aw shucks sexism is justified because good country music is supposed to sound like the good ole’ days, a time when women weren’t allowed to open their own bank accounts. It is so pervasive that even songs recorded by women are not immune to falling into outdated gendered stereotypes. Take RaeLynn’s “God Made Girls,” one of country’s biggest hits last year. The entire song is essentially an argument that a patriarchal God created “girls” to be subservient sex objects for men and, worse, “give ‘em a reason to wash that truck:”
"He needed something soft and loud and sweet and proud
But tough enough to break a heart
Something beautiful and breakable that lights up in the dark
So God made girls"
This is the woman that country music is comfortable with: a soft, pretty, sweet little thing that is always available and never controversial. There are no popular female country artists that have even approached the idea of identifying as feminist, at least not publicly, and that’s because they know exactly what it would do for their careers. There is still a space for “strong women” in country music—just not in heavy rotation.
It is true that country music is a conservative genre that cares deeply about tradition, which means that it often lags behind other genres in terms of social progress. It is still an overwhelmingly white, male, and heterosexual genre of music, but diversity is slowly creeping in. Chely Wright is an out lesbian country artist, Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame) is currently one of the genre’s most successful artists, Mickey Guyton is making waves as a seriously talented woman of color with a Texas twang, and Kacey Musgraves won a Grammy for a pro-LGBT, pro-marijuana record.
If country music is to shake its sexism, it is clearly going to take more than industry awards. Fans of the genre, especially women, have a responsibility to the female artists that they enjoy. That responsibility means buying their albums, supporting up-and-coming women in the genre who are having a tough time breaking through the bullshit, and most importantly, refusing to buy albums from artists who clearly don’t have the ability to give women basic respect.
Amy McCarthy is raising more hell on Twitter.