In the era of Barbie, Taylor Swift, #GRWM videos and Brené Brown, a global cultural shift that has been brewing for some time has finally reached the boiling point. Content that speaks to the complexity and nuance of what it means to be a woman in today’s world is now being consumed voraciously by the masses, gobbled up by a female audience starved for something that for once makes them feel seen. The Nashville music industry, who always seems to be a few years behind the times, should be taking note.
Country Music Has a Female Relatability Problem
Country music, in its modern iteration, has a female relatability problem. As artists who have built promising fan bases are signed and given the “Nashville Shine,” the transformation that ensues seems to follow a specific path. Hair gets fuller, teeth get whiter, thighs get thinner, and wardrobe gets more polished. This is all to be expected in the pre-celebrity-glow-up phase, but things also seem to get a little…quiet.
In cleaning up the brand in preparation for success on a grander scale, these women are also often scrubbed of anything that makes them REAL. Any endearing awkwardness is media trained away, any interaction with controversial topics is neatly sidestepped, and any public incidents of “having fun and letting loose” never stray into sloppy. Any songs considered too “out there” are left to safely languish on some producer’s hard drive, out of sight and out of danger of offending anyone.
In this process, these women become caricatures of your best friends in the real world—impressive women with a full quota of feminine charms but without any of the substance that makes them actually friend-worthy. You know your friend who rolls her eyes at the system and can smell bullshit a mile away? She’s not allowed in, and suddenly this club seems a lot less fun.
The Acceptable “Edge” Has Become Unacceptable
Mainstream country music is currently stuck in a rut of catering primarily to the male fanbase, and the powers that be demand that the brand image of most female songwriters checks that box. Any mildly controversial aspect that is allowed to pass through the future superstar filter is of the specific type of “edge” that only appeals to men. For example, the “interesting” characteristics of female artists seem generally limited to the following:
1. Having tattoos
2. Enjoying physically taxing outdoor manual labor
3. Knowing how to operate farm equipment
4. Liking a specific sports team
5. Being prone to losing one's phone
6. Shooting tequila on stage
7. Shooting deer off stage
They’re also allowed to get their heart broken over and over again, as long as their references to the sexuality of these past relationships are demure and coy. God forbid they write about the whole truth of what it's like to fall for someone and get intimate in all the various forms that experience can take.
Nashville serves up this Instagrammable but bland entreé again and again, and is disappointed when it commercially falls flat. Even Jason Aldean has commented on the perviced musical sameness of what is being backed by promotional dollars, and maybe for once he has a point. To connect with the audiences of today, we need a perspective shift.
What if The Comments Section Is Right?
At the time this article is being written, there hasn’t been a female in the top 20 on country radio for a notable number of weeks. A certain faction of the internet loves to blame this on the quality of the material women are releasing. This is definitely not the whole story, but what if they are a teensy weensy little tiny bit…RIGHT?
What if the types of songs that women are encouraged to write are actually wrong? What if the songs they are encouraged to record and promote are wrong? What if the material record labels are willing to put their money behind is actually a bad call? What if the most pivotal songs in an artist's career only exist as voice memos on a phone, and the female fanbase that would love them will never get to hear them? What if the Nashville filter of today is filtering out a lot of the material that would actually resonate?
Art goes through many stages of critique these days before it makes it to the masses, so it’s time to examine that part of the equation. What if who female artists are being told to be if they want to be successful is only holding them back?
Stop Sanitizing Women In An Effort To Appeal To Men
This habit of cultivating a shallow and universally palatable artistic brand probably stems from the old way of breaking an artist via terrestrial radio. Traditionally, an artist would release a single and do a radio tour, which involves a lot of hand shaking, conference room performing, and the general ass kissing of a certain type of dude (You know the type. I will not disparage all radio people here, because some of them are actually cool.)
As labels have had to consider who would succeed in this environment they have gravitated towards a certain type of song and a certain type of girl—one who is good at looking pretty, acting grateful, and making people feel important. Now, do real women consider this skill set to be crucial? Absolutely not. Unless you’re singing about how having to look pretty and make people feel important sucks, we don’t give a shit. In fact, the worse you are at it, the more we like you.
Kacey Mugraves has given us some of the best country music in recent years, and the Grammy Awards agree. However, her surprising lack of airplay gives credence to the whispers around town that she refuses to make nice and “play the game.” However, she appears to be selling plenty of concert tickets and racking up millions of streams, so we have to start asking ourselves how much this is going to matter in the coming years as radio continues its slow but steady decline as a format, especially with younger listeners. Clearly there is a disconnect between what works with a real world female fan base and what works at radio. I would argue the same reason that radio doesn’t like Kacey is the exact reason WE like her.
It’s time to face the fact that cultivating a female artist’s creative brand to primarily appeal to the gatekeepers of a dying industry scrubs it of all the characteristics that make it appealing to real actual women. After this unfortunate transformation is complete, all we’re left with is a great singer with catchy melodies, amazing hair, and absolutely nothing of consequence to say. This might impress the old guard, but it sure as hell doesn't impress us.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Here’s why Nashville should care—women are notorious for voting with their dollars. Women control over $20 trillion in world wide spending, and control or influence 85% of consumer spending. Do women really want another smiling pageant queen delivering all the right answers during a Q&A segment, or do we crave something more authentic?
The numbers don’t lie.
The Barbie movie, which is essentially a darkly comic coming-of-age drama highlighting the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman, made a LOT of money. It turns out that touching on the devastation many of us feel when we grow up and realize that all the world’s gender issues are NOT resolved is a cash cow, as are sly jabs at the ridiculous mutations of masculinity we encounter on a daily basis. Complexity, imperfection, and nuance sells.
Multi-Faceted Country Artists Are Reaping the Rewards
Country artists who are allowed to be multifaceted are also currently reaping the financial rewards. It turns out complex women making art about complicated experiences are in fact, something people are drawn to.
Kelsea Ballerini has chosen to be very vulnerable in the media about the end of her marriage and exactly what parts of it she herself feels responsible for. As a result of this hard-fought self analysis she has written some of the most incredible songs of her career, in which she expresses the full spectrum of human emotion delivered with a heaping spoonful of wit and a dash of relatable bitterness. This body of work has deservedly earned a Grammy nomination for “Best Country Album” and has propelled her even further into the public eye.
Taylor Swift has also had an insanely profitable year. Swifties are big spenders, and she is a master of curating her public image to be honest and open in the exact right kind of way. The image she has cultivated of a former high school nerd with who grew up to have cool friends and wear red lipstick reads true. I have that friend. Hell, I AM that friend. Millions of us are, and we love a queen who checks in with us every day in song form to say “I see you. Go get’em tiger.”
Maren Morris recently made the comment that being outspoken about her potentially controversial values has been great for her business. An artist who has eschewed the traditional “shut up and sing” mentality to the delight of much of her fanbase, she has expanded beyond the country music genre to pull in fans from all musical walks of life. “In my career, I have been pretty clear with my values and putting my money where my mouth is, and over time, I’ve achieved a larger audience,” she says. We may not be able to claim her in Nashville for much longer, and that unfortunate reality should serve as a warning to companies seeking to nurture original new talent.
Authenticity Starts Early
I would argue that we could get better art out of women from the jump if they are allowed to remain exactly who they are. Incisive authentic songs come from incisive authentic people. What if we encouraged female artists to develop in this way from the beginning instead of telling them to dumb it down so they don’t freak out the Boomers in charge?
Futhermore, what if labels and publishing companies actually signed the women who are already out there releasing songs that are unafraid to get real? I can think of more than a few.
Female Country Artists are Already Cool Enough
The worst thing about the idea of dumbing it down to be likable is that female country artists today actually are ALREADY likable. I have met many of them, and I genuinely like 99% of them. The world should also get to experience that too.
If you have the grit to try to make something of yourself in Nashville, then that bold ambition is your membership card into a sisterhood that is genuine and warm. We’ve seen a lot, we’ve felt a lot, and we want a lot out of life. We’ve been thrown from the horse of creative favor many times, dusted ourselves off, and gotten right back on. We need to vent about it, drink about it, make fun of all the bullshit, and encourage each other to get better and keep going.
Trust me, there is no female songwriter here that is as one dimensional as the business would like to make it seem…if she was, she would simply blow away in the storms you have to weather here to stay in the game. The public wants to know these girls, hear their songs, and cheer them on. The team around developing artists should be encouraging them to create art that reflects their real experiences in life, not churn out more trite midtempos about backroads, tailgates, and wine.
This Movement Will Pay Dividends
I would argue that it is high time to let female country artists be the full and complete humans they really are. Labels and publishing companies would be doing themselves a favor if they created a culture that valued authenticity above likeability, and encouraged their songwriters to write about all aspects of their personal journey, not just the ones that are easy to swallow.
Nashville should be encouraging our young women to examine the world and themselves with a keen eye, and write honestly and unsparingly about what they see. Encourage them to alternate between telling the tough stories that make them uncomfortable and the stupid ones that just make them laugh. Write about the breadth and depth of what we go through on this planet, and describe life as we actually live it. There is no shortage of smart and talented girls here with a lot to say, and the music indutry's goal should be to flip on the megaphone and help them say it louder.
The companies that adopt this perspective will reap the monetary awards and get the satisfaction of knowing they partnered with great artists in the name of making great art. Brené Brown says “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” If Nashville can take this advice, we can give talented women the financial opportunities they deserve and partner in shared success for all.