by Tasha Golden
18 March 2014
Country Weekly‘s January 27 headline declared 2014 to be “the Year of the Woman.” Interesting, since NPR wrapped up their 2013 music reviews by describing how female country artists are “basically marginalized on the country charts.” As Jody Rosen, music critic for New York Magazine, told NPR, “[W]omen don’t do well on country radio, where you hear the hits. You’ll hear 17 men for every one woman.”
But Country Weekly apparently thought their headline – along with a story that fails to in any way address longstanding sexist issues in country music – could launch a feminist transformation. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that 2014 has in store only more of the same: an unyielding gap between the great critical reception of female country artists and the actual sales and radio play they receive. When asked by NPR why such a gap exists, Jody Rosen claimed to have “absolutely no idea.” In his view, it certainly cannot be because the songs aren’t commercially viable. “It fails to make sense,” he said, “that a female audience doesn’t want to hear women sing.”
But country music clings more desperately to traditional gender roles than other genres, and this often sets its female artists up to fail. American culture scholar Molly Brost notes that country music has long made family and home its centerpieces, enforcing traditional gender roles to maintain these institutions. So, “when a female country musician embarks on a career, the demands of touring often require that she leave” the home. In other words, a female artist’s success in the music industry precludes her success at – well, being a woman. In an industry keen on gender conformity, this presents a very real conflict.
It’s also, of course, blatant sexism. And its ongoing influence can be seen in interviews with female country artists such as Faith Hill and Martina McBride, who, Brost notes, “have discussed arranging concert tours around their children’s school schedules, an issue that is rarely brought up in interviews with male country singers.” The truth is, nearly forty years after Loretta Lynn caused widespread havoc with her release of “The Pill,” country radio (and its listeners) still can’t seem to stomach women who want something more than to be at home having babies.
In fact, the desire for anything other than the small-town status quo can be dangerous territory when it comes to country radio. It’s also unlikely to be explored by men. If women rank lower on country charts, it’s at least in part because they’re more often penning songs that long for something beyond back roads and beer. Take Kacey Musgraves‘ “Merry Go ‘Round” for instance, which won the 2013 Grammy for Country Song of the Year. But “despite her well-deserved critical accolades,” writes Sterling Whitaker, “Musgraves has yet to score consistent success at country radio.” In fact, one DJ told Musgraves that “Merry Go Round” was an “anti-country song.” Consider these lines:
We think the first time’s good enough, so we hold on to high school love
Same checks we’re always cashin’ to buy a little more distraction
We get bored so we get married
Musgraves claims that her song isn’t anti-country, “just anti-small mind.” But the current tragedy of country music is that these are often indistinguishable. While “Merry Go ‘Round” validates many listeners’ experiences of feeling Stuck (the song has succeeded even outside its genre), it also invalidates one of country music’s primary functions: to suppress that stuck feeling by celebrating small-town life: including deadbeat loves (“Slow Me Down,” “Before He Cheats”), dead-end jobs (“Drinks After Work”), and the use of alcohol and sex as distraction (“Chillin’ It,” “Bottoms Up,” “Doin What She Likes,” “Helluva Life,” every male-penned country hit ever). Given enough time reading chart-topping country lyrics, one will feel that country listeners aren’t supposed to question the life they have, much less strive for a better one; they’re instead supposed to find and enjoy cheap distractions from it. So when Musgraves critiques Mary’s confining, cyclical small-town life in “Merry Go ‘Round,” or when she releases a single called “Follow Your Arrow” – which implies that listeners might actually have direction and/or ambition – well, no wonder she barely made the top 10.
It’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the few women whose consistent hit songs seem to have overcome country’s gender-role imperatives. But the likes of Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are remarkable precisely because they are unusual: over the last ten years, songs by female artists make up only ten percent of country music’s number one hits (31 of 289). If that weren’t enough, these songs reached number one in part because they perpetuate country’s female stereotypes: 22 of them follow the cash cow country music narrative in which women do nothing but long for men, fall for “bad boys,” and marry uber-young. While critics and para-country listeners praise a much larger swath of female country artists’ work, the country industry itself can’t seem to regularly legitimize it with airplay or awards.
Instead, the songs that reach the top of the country charts are by men who reiterate the same themes and gender roles that have crowded country music for decades. In 1986, Karen A. Saucier wrote, “[T]he only appropriate roles identified in country music lyrics for women are those of lover, wife, and mother – never as worker or career woman.” Saucier also documented women as comforters and consolers of tired, hurting men (“When She Says Baby,” anyone?). Thirty years later, the only shift that’s taken place among chart-topping songs is the absence even of wives and mothers: the two respectable female roles in traditional country/southern culture.
In their place: women as sexual, fiery things, eager for male attention. This is a troubling development, given that the conservative culture which country music often claims to represent draws a firm line between “respectable women” and “women who actively seek sex.” Thus a great number of country lyrics – heard in this conservative context – condition listeners to see women not as respectable, but as sex objects.
Country listeners are of course free to develop their own thoughts about women, and no one can claim that sexist worldviews are inferable based on music preferences. At the same time, should we be surprised that those who are deeply invested (personally or financially) in hit country songs have a difficult time taking female artists seriously? And can we truly expect any 2014 releases by female artists to change the country industry’s measure of their legitimacy?
We’re only a few months into 2014, but taking a look at the current top country songs, the “Year of the Woman” is nowhere in sight. The top song this week by a female artist comes in at #21, and it’s Danielle Bradbery’s “The Heart of Dixie.” Its subject? A woman who wants to get out of her small town so badly that she grabs nothing but “her cheap sunglasses and her lipstick case” and just starts driving. Obviously, cheap beers, truck rides, and Pizza Hut dates weren’t doing it for her. But it’s unlikely any male writers are listening to Bradbery. They’re honing their chart-topping, barely-varying portrayals of women as tight-jeaned sexpots who can’t get enough of small-town life and unmotivated, alcoholic lovers. Such songs are reliable goldmines: strummed fairytales sold to men who don’t want to know better.
Tasha Golden is the frontwoman and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery (http://www.ellerymusic.com). Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen in Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, and Patrol Magazine. She’s a regular blogger for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, where her posts are among the most-viewed and most-shared, and have been featured by Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. She researches the intersection of art and cultural silences, and tweets @goldenthis.