Keep It Simple Stupid: The Dumbing Down of Country Music

luke-bryanCountry superstar Luke Bryan gave an extensive interview to Rolling Stone Country‘s Joseph Hudak that was published Tuesday (9-8), and in the interview Luke spoke on a range of issues, including the criticisms he’s faced from the media, not excluding here on Saving Country Music after Luke unfairly characterized “Outlaw” country artists, saying, “I’m not big on looking back on the past. I’m not an outlaw country singer. I don’t do cocaine and run around. So I’m not going to sing outlaw country.

Luke apologized, and the issue probably became a little more overblown than what the transgression deserved. But the context in which the Luke Bryan quotes on Outlaws were offered came from criticisms for his style of country being too soft, too simple, lacking guts, soul, and a message. The criticism was that Bryan’s songs are not deep enough.

Luke Bryan said in his Rolling Stone interview, “The people I want to appeal to, they’re not coming to analyze [the music] from top to bottom. They have to analyze their daily life. Every day. From the time their alarm clock goes off until the time they go to bed; they want to go to my show and not analyze anything, and not overthink. They just want to hop on the ride and leave and go, ‘That was a blast.’ That’s how you have to take ‘That’s My Kind of Night,’ ‘Kick the Dust Up,’ ‘Rain Is a Good Thing.’ That’s your moment to look for your beer under your seat and drink it and dance with whoever you came with.”

Luke Bryan’s implication is that you can’t blow off steam, or escape from everyday concerns with music that is deep, or that makes you think. The argument could be made that the opposite is true, that listening to heady music can increase your capacity to cope, hearing the problems of others can help you commiserate, in-depth storytelling can offer greater escapism, and depth of songwriting can help listeners come to important conclusions, cause the firing of synapses that otherwise may have gone dormant, or feel something deep that makes you come to an important conclusion about life.

Contrast this with comments from Taylor Swift—the once huge country star who has now moved on to dominate the pop world. Barbara Walters asked Taylor Swift in a late 2014 interview, “This is your first album of all pop songs. Are you at all worried that you will lose some of the country fans?”

Swift’s response was, “I’m not worried about that. I’m really in touch with my fans and I know what they like. What my fans in general were afraid of was that I would start making pop music and I would stop writing smart lyrics, or I would stop writing emotional lyrics. And when they heard the music, they realized that wasn’t the case at all.”

Of course, one can make the strong argument that there’s not much that’s smart about the lyrics of a song like “Shake It Off,” but it’s interesting that Swift and her fans were concerned that migrating to pop would mean downgrading the smartness of your lyrical content. Traditionally speaking, that would be the case. But today, the opposite might be the truth, and it may be one of the things at the heart of Taylor’s decision to go pop in the first place. Though there’s certainly exceptions, pop is now more the home of smart lyrics and emotional moments, and country is the place for thoughtless partying and shallow escapism.

Luke Bryan also mentioned to Rolling Stone how he wants to appeal to the other side of the musical equation. “You have to have the songs in country that people don’t have to think about; and then you have to have the songs that changes their lives. That’s what ‘Drink a Beer’ did for me.”

The problem is, “Drink a Beer” is not a very deep song. To some, the song has become the symbol of how mainstream country has completely lost touch with what depth in music means, and instead of offering truly meaningful music, resorts to plaintive, almost moronic language and conclusions, like when the character in Bryan’s  “Drink A Beer” song reaches a pensive moment, and the only thing he can think of is to drink a beer—basically the same outcome as many of Luke Bryan’s party songs.

“Drink A Beer” is probably a better song than many of Luke Bryan’s other singles, or the singles of his mainstream country cohorts. But that doesn’t make it good, or deep, or intellectually stimulating.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with songs that are just fun-loving moments of visceral escapism. The problem arises when that’s all you’re offering. And where much of mainstream country is going, especially concerning many of the biggest male stars, it is taking it a step further.

As Saving Country Music concluded in the review of Bryan’s Kill The Lights, “It’s almost like even when a mainstream male star these days is putting together a run of decent songs, it’s still imperative that they pull up just short before someone listening actually feels something, or comes to some sort of realization, and gets so startled that they go searching for more songs that deliver a similar result and end up an Americana fan. Right now a song like Garth’s “The Dance” would make the entire country music industry implode.”

It’s not just that depth and intelligence are missing from a lot of mainstream country music these days, it’s that it’s being purposely avoided. It’s uncool to be deep. It’s uncool to challenge listeners to think, to covey ideas through music, or tell truly meaningful stories. Performers believe that’s not what their fans want, and the performers who either attempt to make deeper music, or fans who seek this type of music out and decry mainstream country because of its shallowness, are accused of being closed-minded, misunderstanding that country music has now evolved, and that it’s not about sad stories or substantive matter anymore.

Luke Bryan has never symbolized the worst of what country music backsliding has been about. His latest album Kill The Lights is not nearly as offensive as the albums from Florida Georgia Line, Cole Swindell, and Chase Rice—the biggest singles from Kill The Lights notwithstanding. Luke Bryan’s sound has never been very country, but it’s significantly more country than Sam Hunt. And Luke Bryan is not the only one making quotes about how he doesn’t want his fans to think about the music, but just to sit back and drink a beer to it.

But Luke Bryan is also the biggest artist in all of country music right now, and in a position of leadership whether he wants to be or not, just like Taylor Swift is in pop. It has come to the point where country music has become the safe haven for people who don’t want to think. Then country feels they need to serve this audience with the style of music they desire, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to the point where a gathering of mainstream country fans symbolizes the dumbest and drunkest among us, and may be one of the reasons for the dramatic uptick in arrests, assaults, and even rapes and deaths at large mainstream country concerts.

In the end, people tend to reflect the culture they take in, especially individuals who may be more susceptible to influence based on their God-given measure of wisdom and intelligence, and the values of their upbringing. Hank Williams wrote incredibly simple songs, both in message and structure, and many songs about drinking. But these songs spoke to something deeper inside the human identity that resulted in the alleviation of pain, or the uplifting of the spirit. Music doesn’t have to be complex to be deep, and the lack of music education in America has allowed much of the population to lose touch with the fact that better music can be enjoyed more than bad music, and leave the listener not just with a sense of enjoyment, but the peace of fulfillment.

Simple songs, silly songs, and fun songs have always had their place in country music, just like pop music has. But when that’s all you’re serving to the public, you’re doing a disservice to people that reaches far beyond the parameters of music itself.