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Welp, that’s that. Gauging from the comments made in Rolling Stone‘s current country music special edition by the CEO of Big Machine Records aka the Country Music Antichrist Scott Borchetta, we can now put a period at the end of Taylor Swift’s pop country career. Finito. Done. End of story. Taylor Swift’s country run is in the books, and she’s now a pop star exclusively.
And for the love of God people, please don’t tell me she was never country to begin with. That goes without saying.
In the Rolling Stone article currently on newsstands, Scott Borchetta is quoted as saying that Swedish pop producer Max Martin, the man behind Taylor Swift’s last album Red‘s most pop-oriented material like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”, worked on “most of her” next album. Martin was the producer behind successful pop music franchises such as The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney Spears before being brought onto the Swift team at Scott Borchetta’s behest. But Martin, along with his fellow Swedish collaborator Shellback, only worked on three of the sixteen total songs on Swift’s Red album, despite their footprint feeling much bigger because the partnership comprised the album’s two biggest singles.
Scott Borchetta says in the article about Swift’s new album, “Taylor fans are going to love it. Will country stations play a complete pop song just because it’s her? No.” This quote is then reinforced in a caption under a picture of Scott Borchetta and Taylor Swift together.
So much can be read into this quick statement from Borchetta. A man who is known for brevity and measuring his words, Borchetta alludes to us that there will be little, or potentially nothing about Taylor Swift’s new album, or at least the singles that will be targeted for radio, that country radio will find enticing; so much so that he predicts that a format that has moved so dramatically in a pop direction in the two years since Taylor’s last release, and especially in just the last six to nine months since a major Taylor Swift single, will still be completely unwelcoming to Taylor Swift’s new material. That is how pop it is. More pop than Jerrod Nieman’s “Drink To That All Night” or Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night”. More pop than “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. If this estimate of Taylor Swift’s new material is accurate, and if country programmers will be able to resist the urge to play Taylor to audiences as her Big Machine-backed singles blow up on Top 40 stations, then yes, it truly is time for country to say bon voyage to Taylor.
Then Scott Borchetta tells Rolling Stone, “But when she comes to town, her friends at country radio will come and see her.” This seems to allude that Borchetta and Taylor Swift don’t think they even really need country radio anymore, they’re planning without it, and can trump radio politics with the strength of Taylor’s touring might. They care so little about the acceptance of Taylor’s music by country, they’re downright flippant, unconcerned about it. And clearly these quotes are buttering up the public so when Taylor releases her first purely pop single, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. Though would it anyway, given her track record with Red?
There’s a couple of other interesting nuggets from the same small portion of the Rolling Stone piece talking about Taylor’s new album. Though the premise of the conversation is about how Scott Borchetta, unlike many of his Music Row bunk mates, actually extends quite a bit of creative latitude and freedom to his artists, it is also reinforced in the article that it was Borchetta’s idea to bring big pop producer Max Martin into Taylor Swift’s creative process in the first place.
“He’s allowed me to evolve on my own one year at a time,” Swift says about Borchetta to Rolling Stone, but the very next line in the article says, “But he did urge her [Taylor] to collaborate with Max Martin on her last album.”
This Max Martin decision is the arguably the most important, most defining moment in Taylor Swift’s entire career up to this point, and interestingly enough, it wasn’t instigated by her. It was Scott Borchetta that made the decision to bring Max Martin in, and the result has been a big shift from substantive songwriting with country pop flavor, to the pop-only, vapid stylings of Max Martin, bringing in dub-step and other influences completely foreign to country music, and resulting in shallow compositions like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Of course Taylor Swift is not completely innocent in this dramatic, and defining career shift, but its origination point is undoubtedly Borchetta.
The story of Scott Borchetta barging in on Taylor Swift’s creative process during the making of Red in late 2012 was chronicled by Billboard:
âI said, âYou know, this song isnât working yet.â They both looked at me (Swift and Nathan Chapman) with a blank stare. ‘The chorus isnât elevating like it needs to. Where youâre wanting to take the song, itâs not going there. It needs a Max Martin type of lift.â
âŚ At that point Borchetta called Martin. Both Borchetta and Swift agree that it was a turning point for âRedâ.
And it was a turning point in Taylor Swift’s entire career, putting her on a completely different path from what got her to where she was.
Who is Nathan Chapman that is referenced in the above quote? He is the producer who worked with Taylor Swift from day one, recording her first demos, and presiding over virtually all of her music up to Red, when a bevy of eight producers, including Chapman on certain songs, were brought in to work on, and in the Max Martin instances, co-write Taylor’s songs. Compare this to Swift’s previous album Speak Now where Swift wrote the entire album by herself, and produced it with help from Chapman alone.
We can’t assume that just because Max Martin has a majority stake in Taylor’s new album that there still won’t be moments of substance. The rules of the game are a little different in this instance. When Max Martin was brought in on Red, his sole purpose was to produce radio hits. Now, hypothetically, he will be employed to deal with a more diverse range of material. Still, it is concerning that Max Martin almost always insists on weaseling his way into a co-writing role of the songs he produces. This is what we saw with Red, and what we’ve seen with other Max Martin-involved projects.
What endeared Taylor Swift to America and had critics coming to her defense was the fact that however pop she was, her songs were sincere expressions from her directly. She was the superstar that was also the girl next door. The Max Martin material from Red shattered this perception, and also resulted in significantly less industry awards and accolades from both country music, and all-genre based awards. It also resulted in some of the biggest sales numbers of Taylor Swift’s career. Choosing to go with Max Martin is about trading commercial acceptance over artistic substance.
At the same time, a complete cutoff from the country music realm makes a lot of sense for Taylor Swift. What are the two biggest criticisms Taylor has faced over her career? That she can’t sing, and she’s not country. Since her debacle on the Grammy Awards with Stevie Nicks in 2010, Taylor has at least reined in her singing problems to some extent. And if she leaves country, this will put this long-suffering debate about if she’s country or not to bed for good.
So that’s good, right? Let Taylor Swift go. Let the pop world have her …. Except that she was one of the genre’s last female stars that could do battle with the men who have dominated the charts and radio, and despite the Max Martin-produced material from her last album and her early material that lacked maturity, Taylor Swift was one of the last vestiges of artistic substance mainstream country music could boast, even if she was in the genre artificially.
Country music lacks female talent. It can’t fill out the nominees for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA and ACM Awards even when Taylor Swift is included. All signs point to Taylor Swift wanting to shake free from her country music bonds, with the singles she released from Red, and now these quotes from Borchetta that in many respects don’t seem to be taking into account the realities of country radio. But there’s no guarantee country music is willing to play ball with Taylor Swift’s departure. Country music needs Taylor Swift, and it will be unwilling to forfeit the opportunity to have her sales and touring force fall under its umbrella without a fight.
If Taylor Swift is truly leaving country, it’s hard to declare a victory for country music here, or for Taylor Swift. Without the support of country, and with the presence of Max Martin, there’s likely going to be a lot less trophies adorning Taylor’s mantle. At the same time Taylor Swift is now free to do what she wants …. or what Max Martin wants to do with her.
- Taylor Swift will make an announcement about her new album in late July, or early August.
- The new album will be released in October, or early November.
- There will be at least one collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the new album.
- It will include about 15 to 18 songs.
- Despite Scott Borchetta’s rhetoric, country radio will still play Taylor Swift, and with a lack of other leading females to fill the spots, Swift will still get nominated for country music’s top female awards.
Time was in country music when the Southern drawl was going the way of the dinosaur. I know, strange to think because of how pronounced Southern accents are today and since they’re usually considered part and parcel with country music. But in the mid to late 00′s when soccer moms were country’s most coveted demographic and artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts were ruling the roost, the Southern accent began to lose its prominence and be seen as unsavory by an industry trying to soften its image and appeal more to a pop-oriented crowd. Strong Southern accents were discouraged in country’s sippy cup era.
Nowadays it is a much different story. Southern twang is back in a big way baby, as bro-country dominates the format, and female performers try and turn up the sass to compete. As opposed to trying to apologize for their Southern roots, today’s country artists can’t shut the hell up about them, regularly reinforcing all things country in laundry list form with elongated drawls. This has seen the rise of the Southern accent once again, but along with it, questions about the authenticity of some of the performer’s twang.
Miranda Lambert, one of country’s leading ladies, seems to have the ability to accentuate or turn off her Southern drawl depending on the mood of the song she is singing. There is little doubt listening to the Lindale, TX native talk that her Southern accent is real. The question is if she enhances or diminishes it in an unnatural way when she sings, and if so, does that diminish the authenticity of her music or the performance?
Tyler Hubbard of the band Florida Georgia Line has one of the most pronounced Southern accents when singing of any popular country music artist today. From Monroe, GA, once again you just have to hear Tyler speak to know his Southern accent probably isn’t a put on. But is it unnaturally bolstered in Florida Georgia Line’s music? Interestingly enough, much has been made about the other member of the duo, Brian Kelley, not singing lead much at all. Whether it’s the way the songs were written or the way their producer (Joey Moi of Nickelback fame) arranged them, it was quickly identified that Tyler’s twang was the money maker, not Brian Kelley’s more normalized tone.
Big Machine artist Justin Moore from Arkansas may have the most accentuated Southern accent of them all, almost caricaturist compared to even some of his most twangy peers. Once again it makes one wonder if it’s faked until you hear him talk and his accent is just as pronounced, if not more than it is in his music. He would be an interesting person to ask about another concern facing the Southern twang, which is non Southerners all of a sudden sporting an accent once they get behind a microphone and start singing country music. This is exactly what radio station DJ Broadway from Country 92.5 in Connecticut did in a recent Justin Moore interview, and the conversation quickly veered toward how people think Justin Moore is sporting a fake twang.
“It seems like everyone, once they get to Nashville they have an accent, whether they’re from Michigan or Arkanasas, it doesn’t matter where they’re from,” Broadway observed to Justin Moore. “Does that drive you mad? Do you ever turn you head and go, ‘You were just talking to me, you’re from Michigan and that’s where you were born and all of a sudden you’ve got a Southern accent? Where did that come from?’”
Justin Moore replies, “People have said in my career that mine’s fake. But I mean, you and I have known each other for what, seven years or something? I mean I feel like going, ‘If you think I talk redneck, go hear my mom talk.’ I don’t have the time or the energy, or whatever has the thought process out there for people who have said that mine’s fake. Why in the world would I want to talk fake for the rest of my life?”
But a few will probably still believe that Justin Moore is faking it, probably because other performers without native accents will probably continue to employ it in their country music. Why? Because the Southern accent is a hot commodity in country music right now, and we can probably expect things to get even more twangy and drawn out from here.
As sad as it is to turn on the radio and hear what country music has become, it is even more sad to zoom out in your mind to a broader perspective and understand that what we’re hearing in mainstream country now is what will define country music for a generation: laundry list songs perpetrated by pretty boy entertainers, pock marked by rap phrases and EDM elements. Right next to the post-war rise of the Grand Ole Opry and Hank Williams, the bluegrass age, Countrypolitan, the Outlaw era, and the Class of ’89 will be this most unfortunate epoch of country music’s storied history that will have to be explained to future generations as either a dark age, or where the story of true country music ends.
The exception though, the counterpoint will be the females of the genre that did their best to offer an alternative, and leading them all in prominence is The Pink Pistol, Miranda Lambert. With four consecutive CMA’s for Female Vocalist under her belt and counting, she is the feminine face of country music for this current era. Few have been able to nip at the heels of the bros on the charts and in tour stats like Miranda, save for Taylor Swift who has become a consensus for the generation’s crossover success instead of a true, country-centric entertainer.
Miranda Lambert’s career arc up to this point sketched out a gradual softening of her edgy, “light shit on fire in scorn” style that won her praise for her candidness, strength, and countrified nature earlier in her career. This trend tends to be the destiny of most any artist if they want to continue to ascend the country ladder instead of stall, and by Miranda’s last album, the aptly-titled Four The Record, she had all but abandoned much of the rough-hewn style that was her original signature. Her new record Platinum, though maybe not violent or vengeful, certainly is edgy, and may not be ill-equipped to carry the marker of being called a retrenching of her early style, at least in ardent nature of some of the subject matter.
It seems when modern country artists attain the highest reaches of the genre, albums tend to not carry any underlying themes, but are simply aggregation points of singles and album cuts. And since “synergies” must be optimized for releasing singles and for tour considerations, the track lists are stretched out to 16 or so songs to compensate for the multi-year gaps in releases. This makes commenting on the albums as a whole as if they are an attempt to summarize an artist’s life or their current creative expression in a given period, instead of just a collection of songs meant to fulfill expectations of targeted demographics, a little bit silly.
On cue, Platinum really doesn’t have any root or theme. You may hope for one, or think that the one word title might allude to delving into some exploration of the human condition, sort of like what Taylor Swift did with Red—using the color as a jumping off point to expound on the virility of human emotion. Instead Miranda’s “Platinum” title track is simply about the hue of a hairstyle, and the color she hopes this album achieves from the RIAA—superfluous, materialistic, shallow things that don’t really hold any deeper meaning. Unfortunately, there’s no “Over You”.
Along with blond hair, which is referenced on this album numerous times, alcohol is mentioned in most of the tracks, including what may look like the title of a gospel-inspired song, “Another Sunday In The South”. Even before this album was released, some wondered how so much salty language ended up on the track list, including “Old Shit” and “Gravity Is A Bitch”, which for all intents and purposes, constitute two of the four “traditional” country tracks the project boasts. Yeah, doubtful you’ll be sending either of these to the old folks back home for their listening pleasure. The 3rd traditional country track, the Western Swing tune “All That’s Left” recorded with The Time Jumpers, is done so straight-laced, you might as well be listening to Asleep At The Wheel. But it is thrown into the middle of the track list almost like a token gesture to the red meat country crowd, like a penance for the album’s ill language and some of its sonic misdeeds.
Though you may think the song “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” that Miranda performs with Little Big Town would be one of Platinum‘s hellraisers, it actually comes across as the country equivalent of yacht rock, with softened edges and an 80′s adult contemporary string bed. When Miranda’s vocal track starts, bolstered by stacked harmonies from the Little Big Town team indicative of Bee Gee’s-style “How Deep Is Your Love” range proximity, it was a laugh out loud moment for this listener, exacting an animatronic effect upon Miranda’s voice fit for a Tron soundtrack.
“Little Red Wagon” is all attitude and immature histrionics, though I’m sure some females will get a kick out of it. Similar to the Carrie Underwood collaboration “Somethin’ Bad” (read full review), it feels like a feudal attempt to joust with bro-country by bringing the level of discourse down to their banal latitudes.
“Priscilla” finds one of Platinum‘s few personal moments for Miranda, but like “Bathroom Sink” which devolves into Miranda channeling Lita Ford, the song feels more like a vehicle to vent and reference mundane everyday moods and artifacts without any real story or message being conveyed beyond complaint.
“Babies Making Babies” is Miranda’s version of the Kacey Musgraves small town disillusion thread, and though Lambert’s overly-inflected drawl tends to hold this song back, it is deftly written and fairly country, making for one of the album’s better tracks. “Holding Onto You” gives Platinum one of its few understated moments; refreshingly sedated with an inviting, Motown feel, while “Hard Staying Sober” is the album’s “three chords and the truth” moment with bold steel guitar and Miranda’s sweet vocal spot being found where her alluring Southern drawl is present, but not hyped. By the time the song goes double time, you’re checking to see if anyone’s looking and cutting a rug in your living room.
Along with “Hard Staying Sober”, the album’s first single “Automatic” is another rich takeaway (read full review), reminiscent in a more warm and positive way despite the by-gone forlornness of the theme, with the tasteful chords pulling at your emotions.
Platinum commits some sins that are unfortunate, but not at all unexpected from the genre’s top female artist, but then atones for them with other worthy offerings until overall the scales are tipped slightly to the good. You’re never going to get the bold strike, the heavily-thematic sonic or lyrical opus you want from an artist like this, which would be the only way to truly engage the adverse forces in country music and attempt to wrangle control from their grips. So you just hope to get more good than bad, and that is what Platinum delivers.
Big Takeaway Tracks:
- “Hard Staying Sober”
- “All That’s Left (with The Time Jumpers)”
Big Throwaway Tracks:
- “Little Red Wagon”
- “Smokin’ & Drinkin’ (with Little Big Town)”
- Somethin’ Bad About To Happen (with Carrie Underwood)
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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This is the conclusion most high-nosed country music snobs can come to upon hearing that Jamie Lynn Spears has bent her back to the pursuit of a country music career, without even having to listen to a peep of her music. At first notion, the premise of Jamie Lynn Country seems so flimsy and transparent, it’s darn near a forgone conclusion that it can be nothing more than bubble gum and choreography.
Then when Jamie released her first single, the co-penned “How Could I Want More” in November 2013, many high-nosed music snobs had to spread mustard on their presumptive words and eat them. Not that “How Could I Want More” was Song of the Year material or anything, but it made one pause and consider for a moment that for all we knew, Jamie Lynn Spears could come out as one of these critical country music females like Kacey Musgraves or Ashley Monroe, and impress with weighty composition and artistic merit.
Or maybe releasing “How Could I Want More” ahead of an album was simply a way to diffuse critics, and creep onto the right side of the country music gatekeepers. After hearing Jamie Lynn’s full EP The Journey, the latter may not be a bad theory.
“How Could I Want More” certainly defines the The Journey‘s critical apex. Otherwise, the album starts off with two very commercially-oriented and formulaic offerings. As true as the story behind “Shotgun Wedding” might be for teen mom Spears, aside from a few moments of lyrical wit, the EDM-enhanced, banjo-backed intro and the predictable chorus make any enjoyment about as lasting as the joy in most forced marriages. “Run” is also fleshed out with oft-trodden cadences and sonic tropes; the somewhat interesting chorus progression notwithstanding.
“Mandolin Summer Sun” is all rhythm, and the hook and melody feel very forced. While the last song, the sedated “Big Bad World”, finally offers some of the same intimacy and vulnerability we hear in “How Could I Want More”, and Spears finally allows the listener to connect with her through story.
Really, there may not be enough here with The Journey to truly make any hard and fast determination about Jamie Lynn Spears the country singer, not just because we’re only given five tracks for insight, but also from a feeling of ambiguity or lack of direction in this release that leaves more questions than answers. Does Jamie Lynn Spears want to be known as a singer like Carrie Underwood? A songwriter like Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves? Is it all about the entertainment factor? What is her overall style or message? The Journey doesn’t really go very far in answering any of these queries. This could be on purpose, using this EP like a weather balloon simply to gauge public sentiment to see if the younger Spears is worthy of being picked up by a major label (The Journey was released independently on “Sweet Jamie Music”), or what style or songs will work for her moving forward.
Spears herself has said she’s “trying to figure out what the exact sound” is she wants to go with, and some of the material on The Journey sounds downright dated, like female pop country from the mid to late 00′s. Reading up on the album, you find out “Shotgun Wedding” was likely written in 2008 or 2009, giving it a good half decade to grow stale.
Even in 2014 though, half baked and dated material still bests most of what is coming from mainstream country males, and it’s only fair to grade The Journey among its peers. “How Could I Want More” is pretty good, “Big Bad World” is not half bad, and the other three tracks are pretty forgettable, but not offensive.
End Diagnosis: Inconclusive. Like with most EPs.
One Gun Up. One Gun Down.
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Garth! Hey buddy, it’s been a long time. Yeah, I know, we’ve seen each other in passing here and there. Some appearances at the award shows and such, and that whole thing out in Vegas and the recent box set release, though I’m not really sure if any of that counts. But hey, don’t worry, I’m not jumping on your butt or anything. You hung the moon for me for over a decade, and no matter what you decide to do from here on out, I’m forever in your debt for taking me to levels I thought were never possible, flying over stadiums on suspension wires and inspiring the Billy Ray Cyrus’s of the world notwithstanding. Hell I don’t even know that I can get worked up about all of that stuff anymore, or about your whole Chris Gaines gimmick, or for trying out for the Padres baseball team. I get it now. You were bored. You had climbed the mountain, conquered it, and were looking for the next challenge. Well let me tell you Garth, if you’re looking for a good challenge, I’ve got one. A big one. And this is one you might be able to accomplish. In fact, you might be the only one left on Earth who can.
Don’t think for a second that I blame you for taking a dozen-plus years off to spend time with your family, please. In fact I commend you for it. If we all spent a little more time putting family first, this probably would be a much more pleasant world to live in. Hell, don’t think the idea of dialing it all back doesn’t cross my mind every damn day, yet here I am working like a three-peckered billy goat. Do you know they say that country music is the biggest American music genre now? Ha, did you ever think we’d see that day Garth?
But this is the problem old friend. They’ve thrown the barn doors wide, and now everybody and their cousin is calling themselves country, and it’s gotten completely out of control. Be careful what you wish for, right Garth? I mean we’ve got DJ’s who don’t do anything but stand behind a couple of turntables pressing buttons now calling themselves country, rappers calling themselves country, hard rockers calling themselves country. It’s to the point now where I yearn for the days where Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift were the biggest pains in my ass. I look back now at the time when they said you were ruining the genre as the good ol’ days. By the way, do you have any idea if Waylon Jennings ever really said that line, “Garth Brooks did to country music what pantyhose did to finger $#@!ing?” Because for the life of me, I can’t verify it anywhere. And yeah, I know I just censored myself. But to some of us Garth, country music is still a family format.
I’m swallowing my pride here Garth. I need your help. Whether it was you and I pairing up in the in the 90′s to sell all those records that truly stimulated all these problems in the first place or not, the simple fact is you and I coming back together could maybe spell the end of it, or at least restoring some sort of balance to where if someone turns on their radio and tunes it to a country station, they might actually hear something that sounds like country.
I know there’s no need to pry you off you’re couch or anything; you’ve already got all the plans in the works for your big triumphant return, so this is not the direction my pleas are headed. What I want to implore you to do Garth is to keep it country. For the love of all things holy, keep it country. Please, as a favor to your old pal. Just be yourself. This is no longer about about trying to turn away the hordes who will call anything “country.” Truth is they won the battle years ago. That ship has sailed. This is about storming the gates ourselves, and taking back what is ours. You may be the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music, but as I’m sure you know Garth, country music is bigger than any one person (not to gloat, but you know…), and it is the responsibility of everyone, however big or small, to preserve and protect the country music institution, especially an artist like yourself whose benefited in the manner of untold riches from it.
They can say what they want about you Garth. There are old codgers and punks out there that will bad mouth your name no matter how the rules of the game change, and how much time redeems your past accomplishments. Actually, you want to put those critics to bed? Simply put out a true country album that is successful, and those people’s anger will turn to nostalgia and appreciation. I know deep inside of you is still that little boy from Oklahoma that grew up listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones; that appealed to the masses not by borrowing from other genres, but from finding and writing meaningful songs and singing them from the heart. Some focus on your wireless mic and your flawless, almost too-perfect presentation. But I focus in the fire in your eye, the aching moan in your voice that mimics a steel guitar the comes bursting through the mix to remind us all of the magic that country music can evoke when done right.
And you Garth, and only you, may still have the power at this late hour to remind the masses of that magic.
You did it once for the money Garth. Now, do it once for the music. Because we need it now more than ever.
Your once strained, but now rehabilitated and appreciative friend,
Yes, yes, it’s the age-old complaint that music doesn’t sound as good as it used to, and that the singers of today aren’t nearly as good as the ones we grew up with. Though there is certainly a bit of “old man syndrome” that creeps into this endless debate about the direction of popular music, there is also very specific and irrefutable data that backs up these claims that music isn’t as good as it once was.
As Saving Country Music first illustrated in the article The Science Behind Why Pop Music Sucks, information from a study called “The Million Song Dataset” proves that on a scientific level, music is becoming less complex, and less diverse. Each red dot in the diagram below is a song, and as they trend down and bunch closer together, the songs get less complex, and sound more similar to each other.
Now Concert Hotels has posted a list that took the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” as complied by Rolling Stone in 2008, and added to it the nominees for top male and female artists from the 2014 Billboard Music Awards and other popular artists of today; artists like Justin Timberlake, Lorde, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga. They then matched these names up with vocal range data from The Data Place that takes the highest and lowest vocal ranges that an artist has displayed throughout the entirety of their released music, and determined who has the best and worst ranges as singers. Since some artists do not have vocal range data on file for them, they were not included in the study. 77 total singers were included in the graph, and guess who came in dead last? Arguably the two most popular artists in country music right now: Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan, with Luke landing in the caboose spot.
Axl Rose and Mariah Carey led the list, and when you consider that coming in before Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift are artists not particularly know for their singing prowess, but more for their styling such as Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, Eminem, Neil Young, and Tom Waits, it makes this distinction especially dubious. Along with Swift and Bryan in the basement is Justin Bieber at #73.
Of course range isn’t everything. The amount of feeling, uniqueness, and other properties of a singer’s voice must factor heavily into deciding who is the “best” singer. But range is certainly a factor, and like with so many other measurements these days, country music finds itself on the bottom rung, bested by its peers in the pop, rock, R&B, and even rap worlds.
The Vocal Ranges of the Greatest Singers. From Mariah Carey’s ear-piercing whistle to Barry White’s deep bassy growl, compare the vocal ranges of today’s top artists with the greatest of all time. (via ConcertHotels.com).
Who would have envisioned this ever happening a few years ago? Not that Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood have been at each other’s throats over the years or anything, but for the last half decade or so, Miranda and Carrie have defined the polar opposites of mainstream female country in many respects. Miranda is the rough-edged, hard-scratch Texas girl ready to squeeze triggers and light shit on fire if provoked, while Carrie Underwood is the more refined and elegant American Idol winner with world-class pipes. High-caliber voice vs. high-caliber pistol. And though nothing but cordiality has reigned between the two publicly, their opposing polarities have created an unspoken friction, if only between elements of their fan bases.
Yet here they are, joining forces to release a duet called “Something Bad” as part of Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum due out June 3rd, and debuting the song on the Billboard Music Awards. “Singing with Carrie Underwood is very, very intimidating,” says Miranda Lambert to the AP (see below). “She’s an amazing vocalist, I’m a big fan of hers, and asking her to do this was nerve-racking. I sent her an email, this long, blobbing email about if she wanted to sing on the record, it could be cool, but maybe she didn’t want to, if she liked the song, but she didn’t have to like the song. When I sent it I thought, ‘This sounds ridiculous.’”
Ridiculous or not, Carrie Underwood accepted, and “Something Bad” came into being. But the next question is, why this pairing, and why now?
Despite what the duo may or may not say or allude to publicly, “Something Bad” has one primary purpose: to break through bro-country’s stranglehold on country music. That is what this is about. The bro-country phenomenon has lasted for too long, and the pairing of country music’s two top females (Taylor Swift notwithstanding) may be the only way to break the bro-country monopoly. “Something Bad” is the symbolic, “We are the women of country, hear us roar!” statement. Yes ladies and gentlemen, war makes strange bedfellows.
Both the Lambert and Underwood camps are no doubt hoping this will be a big hit, and it’s no accident the Billboard Music Awards are also involved. The last time Miranda made it to the top of the Billboard charts was with another duet, when she paired up with Keith Urban in the song “We Were Us.” But that success was fairly short-lived. “Something Bad” is meant to be a statement against the male oligarchy. Even the day before the Billboard Music Awards, Miranda Lambert posted a photo to her Instagram account saying, “Welcome country’s new duo … Oklahoma Texas Line” with her and Carrie pictured in matching Thelma & Louise T-shirts, making a not-so-slight allusion to the bro-country extraordinaires Florida Georgia Line, and the “take no prisoners” attitude of this song.
“Two girls from Texas and Oklahoma that are living their dream right now,” Miranda continued to the AP. “We’re really rocking in country music, and we’re coming together as a force … If you’re sitting on the front row, you might want to scoot back. It’s a force, you know what I mean? It just feels exciting to me … It’s been too long since two girls in our genre have come together like that, especially in a song that’s kind of in-your-face. I’m excited, and I’m hoping that she’ll come to the dark side, and blow something up, or set something on fire in the video or whatever.”
The pairing does raise concerns that Miranda may be persuading Carrie Underwood to the dark side of female country music, and not just figuratively. As a song on Miranda’s upcoming record and not Carrie’s, “Something Bad” features Miranda in the driver’s seat, calling the shots. And for a while now, Carrie seems to have been somewhat following Miranda’s dominating style of these “woman scorned” revenge songs that in some respects are the female version of bro-country—using song formulas that swap beer, trucks, and tailgates, for smashed taillights, cat fights, and bonfires fueled by old boyfriend’s mementos, however less frequent and better-written as they happen to be.
Make no mistake, “Something Bad” is not just another song. This is Miranda and Carrie taking a baseball bat to bro-country’s pretty little souped up 4-wheel drive, and it will be fun to see just how this attempt to crash the good ol’ boy party at the top country’s charts will be received.
Once again Scott Borchetta adds to his Big Machine Records empire, and once again it is an acquisition that reaches farther into the pop world. Announced Monday, Republic Records Senior Vice President for Promotion and Artist Development David Nathan is transitioning from a position at one of Big Machine’s partnered subsidiaries to Big Machine proper to serves as the label groups Senior Vice President for “Pop Promotions.” The move is effective immediately.
David Nathan will be an executive liaison between all of Big Machine’s respective labels: Big Machine, Republic Nashville, The Valory Music Group, and the recently-acquired Dot Records, which by all accounts hopes to be a home for at least some acts outside of the country genre.
“We’re thrilled to formally welcome David to the team,” Borchetta says. “Heâs an incredibly talented and energetic executive whoâs always thinking big. David has been involved with Taylor Swift’s history-making crossover success from the very beginning as part of the mighty Republic pop promotion department. I simply could not pass up the opportunity to acquire 100% of his focus to the artists at the Big Machine Label Group. This is another step in the evolution of our company and we know itâs going to bring mega pop muscle for our initiatives.Â We can’t wait to begin working together.”
The move once again reinforces Big Machine’s focus on the pop world. In April of 2013, Borchetta landed a deal with the pop producer Dr. Luke that allows artists, songwriters, and producers from pop and country to collaborate more freely. It also comes as Big Machine prepares for the upcoming album release cycle from the their biggest star: Taylor Swift. As a huge crossover success already, David Nathan’s skillset will undoubtedly add to her pop infiltration.
“I’m honored and excited to take this next step in my career,” Nathan said. “It affords me the opportunity to do even more and grow both professionally and individually.”
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Random prediction: Taylor Swift’s new album (out likely in November-ish), will include a collaboration with Justin Timberlake on one of the album’s biggest singles.
In January of 2013, Taylor Swift signed on to be the “Brand Ambassador” of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s Diet Coke brand—the type of endorsement you see from many big-level country and pop stars. Shortly thereafter the starlet started appearing in ads for the cola, most notably a recent television commercial tied to the marketing slogan “You’re On”. The commercial culminated in a shot of Taylor Swift in her dressing room right before going on stage drinking a Diet Coke. But unfortunately for both Taylor Swift and Diet Coke, when they tried to translate their “You’re On” slogan to the print world, many people began to draw parallels between Coke, and the cola’s cocaine-laced past.
As can be seen in the billboard below, when the slogan is spelled out, and proceeded by “Coke” there can be some underlying connotations that don’t conform to either Taylor Swift, or Diet Coke’s squeaky clean reputation. Add on top of that Diet Coke to using energy drink-like verbiage around the ad campaign, saying things such as âhow go-getters get going,” and “âWhen itâs time to be on,” and “âWhether youâre the best man about to give a speech at your friendâs wedding or Taylor Swift about to go onstage in front of millions, the refreshment of Diet Coke keeps you on,” and the campaign became ripe for parody, and that’s exactly what happened.
Stealing on the opportunity to exploit the “You’re on Coke” wordplay, parody artists started making mock print ads of the Diet Coke campaign, and even a parody commercial of Taylor Swift’s “Diet Coke” dressing room scene (see below).
Now, according to the New York Times, the “You’re On” ad campaign has received so much flack, it is being pulled and replaced by a âJust for the taste of it” alternative—the same ad slogan that helped launch the Diet Coke brand in 1983.
Diet Coke’s “You’re On” Taylor Swift campaign was meant to stem the tide of consumers, especially young consumers, abandoning soft drinks for healthier alternatives, energy drinks, coffee, and other beverages. It certainly seemed to get folks’ attention … their very rapt, dedication, and focused attention.
Â Original Taylor Swift Diet Coke Ad:
Parody Diet Coke Ad:
“I was driving. My two daughters, Violet and Harper, who are eight and five years old, started singing along. I was so happy and relieved that my two girls were singing a popular song on the radio that had some substance and depth, which I considered to be healthy for them as kids. I know that sounds kind of parent-ish.”
This was the revelation former Nirvana drummer and and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl had when listening with his kids to a song from one of the world’s biggest pop stars right now: Lorde. Grohl went on to tell Rolling Stone, “When I met her I said, ‘When I first heard your song on the radio and my kids sang along I felt like there was hope for my kids to grow up in an environment which is more than just superficial.’”
Between 2011 and 2013, the biggest-selling pop star in the world was not Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, or Lady Gaga. It was Adele. Her album 21 absolutely dominated popular music for two straight years, and had critics raving about the style and substance the singer exuded, while not fitting the form of the typical pop star stereotype. Lorde does not fit the pop star stereotype either. She razzes on photo reporters for blotching out her less-than-perfect skin, and tight fitting fare doesn’t seem to be her bag.
The whole theorem that pop music is just an excuse to oogle at pretty people has a problem holding up when you look at some of the recent trends in much of the pop world. Of course there’s still exceptions, and the weighty nature of Lorde and Adele can be debated. But even when looking at other Top 10 artists like Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, and Ed Sheeran, these aren’t the customary pop specimens with zero substance that are solely based on image. The pasty, short, red-headed Sheeran with his original songs and acoustic guitar is nothing similar to the showy pop performers of yesteryear. And though their names might be splattered all over the press, artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber aren’t placing as well in the charts or sales numbers as one might expect.
Meanwhile you take a look at country music’s leading artists, and what do you see? You see image-driven, shallow males with even shallower songs, squeezed into ultra-tight jeans that have become the spandex tights of our time. Maybe backwards baseball caps have replaced kinked hair, but the servitude to image has stayed the same. Trend-focused and willing to do anything for fame, not standing on principles or worried about the legacies they’re forging, popular country music has become the new bastion for the shallow performer and the sellout; the pop of our time, camouflaged in denim.
I don’t have any data to back my assertions up. No pie graphs or chart analyses; this is strictly anecdotal. But I’ll be damned that if in 2014, your average pop star isn’t more likely to outpace your average country star when it comes to substance and depth in their music. Recently critically-acclaimed country star Kacey Musgraves announced she’d be writing and playing some concert dates with Katy Perry. Oh how the hounds erupted about what a travesty this was. But at least Kacey Musgraves is writing her own songs, with another artist that writes her own songs, and those songs are about something more than lists of countryisms with no narrative. Isn’t this a better alternative than Dallas Davidson and three other drunk douchebags in a round robin throwing “beer, truck, girl” into a hopper and writing a song depending on however they land? It may say more about mainstream country music than it says about Kacey Musgraves that she has to reach out to the pop world to find collaborators she feels she can relate to.
Even with Taylor Swift, at least her songs are about something. They may be about some ex-boyfriend’s scarf or other trivial matter, but at least there’s a story arc. At least her songs are coherent on paper, and are drawn from inspiration. Compare that with the verses of your average Florida Georgia Line song and Swift feels like Faulkner.
“Pop” is the perennial bad word in country music to where even pop country stars tend to shy away from the term. Why? Because it infers a lack of artistic merit. Some of the biggest pop stars in the world still want to be regarded as artists of substance by their peers and fans. We already see many artists now residing in the ranks of the Americana and bluegrass worlds shy away from the term “country” even though their music may fit that term traditionally, simply because they don’t want to be lumped in with the stuff being played on the radio. This trend is robbing mainstream country of some of the critical talent it could use to create more balance and substance in the format. Country used to be the safe place on the dial, and you wouldn’t have to worry about listening to it with your kids in the car, unlike KISS-FM. Now that dynamic has flipped, and it leaves one wondering if in the future “country” will be that bad word that infers a lack of artistic merit. Or if we haven’t already arrived there.
How in the world did we get to this place in country music where a pop DJ who hasn’t even been in the format but for a year feels like artists have an obligation to not only acknowledge his presence, but pander to his adolescent and self-centered insecurities, and furthermore, that said DJ would use those personal insecurities publicly as fodder for his bullshit syndicated wacky morning radio show?
This situation between Kacey Musgraves and Clear Channel DJ Bobby Bones has grown so grotesque, that it is an ideal vehicle to illustrate the vile ills of modern society, the depravity of the obsession with celebrity culture in the United States, and its interfacing with the internet age.
Long story short, it all started with Bobby Bones lampooning Kacey on his radio show after he felt she was rude to him in an interview. The situation then escalated when Bobby Bones would not stop harassing Musgraves on Twitter and through his show, insisting that she must acknowledge him and accept his mealy-mouthed and backhanded “apologies”. The feud grew even more publicly defacing for Kacey, and self-aggrandizing for Bobby Bones when he played the Cancer card in March to try and get Kacey to acknowledge him through the veil of charity outreach.
Then last Friday Bobby Bones dedicated his entire show to Kacey, hoping she would call in. Whether it’s true or not, Bobby Bones has been portraying that he’s banned from mentioning Kacey Musgraves on his show by the “suits”, and that each time he does, he’s fined $50. However Bobby’s mentions of Kacey, along with his general obsession with the singer, have only grown to a fevered pitch in the last few weeks, including on Monday’s show when he listed off 10 reasons that Musgraves did not call in on Friday for his “Kacey Musgraves Day”.
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Bobby Bones is a bully and a radio troll, and he needs to leave Kacey Musgraves the fuck alone. And yes, I know that means A LOT coming from the proprietor of Saving Country Music. Bobby’s pathetic need for attention and acceptance is beyond caustic, it is clinically certifiable, and has now grown to such extremes that it should be dealt with in a swift manner by mental health professionals.
For some reason Bobby Bones is under the misguided impression that he is somehow in a parallel position with the artists that his radio show covers, instead of being in a subservient role as a member of the media.
Where is Clear Channel in all of this as the situation continues to escalate, and Bobby’s listener toadies parrot the Musgraves harassment non-stop? Where is Kacey Musgraves’ label? Where is Taylor Swift who made millions and won a Grammy with her anti-bullying song, or Hunter Hayes who’s out there preaching in his latest single how people shouldn’t be treated the same way Bobby is treating Kacey? And the fact that Bobby Bones is trying to act like he’s just reaching out and wanting to be nice is what turns the situation from being troublesome to downright sinister. Bobby Bones has a right to criticize anyone or say whatever he wants on his stupid ass radio show. But his approach has become one of Chinese water torture, terrorizing Kacey Musgraves with his incessant pleas, hoping to break her will so he can claim victory.
Kacey Musgraves on the other hand is doing exactly what she should be doing in the situation of a bully and a troll, which is ignore their pathetic asses. By acknowledging Bobby Bones, all she does is start the cycle all over again. Even I didn’t want to acknowledge and feed Bobby’s obsession, sitting on my hands for weeks as the situation escalated, until now it has become so unhealthy and dangerous, someone needed to stand up for Kacey.
The country music community should be rallying behind Musgraves. Instead they continue to feed Bobby’s self-centered egotistical fantasies by kissing his ass in return for positivity from his radio show. This is the consequence of putting such an unproven commodity like Bobby Bones in such a position of prominence. He’s like the boy king barking out orders with corrosive and undermining results, but nobody has the balls to truly stand up to him from fear of backlash because of his perceived “power” as the biggest DJ in country music. He’s like the obsessed boyfriend or girlfriend that can’t get over the fact that their former lover wants nothing to fucking do with them, and driven by some fear of rejection, refuses to face reality and relent.
The most important thing to realize is that what Bobby Bones and Clear Channel fear the most about this situation is that Kacey Musgraves is proving she doesn’t need them, but that they need her. They barely play Kacey Musgraves on the radio. But look, she’s out there winning Grammy Awards and the ACM for Album of the Year, and selling records just fine. Why? It’s not because she’s pandering to anyone, but standing on her own two feet as an artist, and letting her music speak for itself. This is what has won her respect, and if Bobby Bones truly had any respect for Kacey, like he constantly professes on his radio show, then he would respect her wishes, back down, and leave her the fuck alone.
So seriously Bobby, just fucking can it. Quit mentioning her, quit building radio segments around her. And then, and only then, may you have an opportunity in the future to repair the damage you’ve done with country music’s most critically-acclaimed current artist.
At Sunday night’s 49th Annual Academy of Country Music awards, George Strait walked away with the evening’s top prize; the coveted Entertainer of the Year award, 25 years after he first received the award in 1989, and arguably the first time in 25 years a traditional country music artist has received the distinction. As “King George” has been wrapping up the final legs of his farewell tour, capping off a historic, Hall of Fame career that has seen 60 #1 hits, 33 Platinum records, and over 68 million records sold, the country industry has been giving him a symbolic standing ovation by bestowing him with some of the industry’s top prizes.
However some apparently are not happy about it, especially in the camp of the 2013 ACM Entertainer of the Year, Luke Bryan. With the fan voted dynamic of the ACM’s Entertainer of the Year, it has made it necessary for artists to lobby for fan’s participation, and none lobbied harder than the reigning ACM Entertainer. Luke Bryan and his camp put out an entire series of vote-getting videos leading up to the ACM’s of Luke crashing parties (Luke’s latest album is called Crash My Party), including a birthday party, a wedding, a baby shower, and a girl’s night. The series of highly-produced videos that clearly had a large advertising budget behind them was capped with a very emotional, tear-stained plea for Luke Bryan votes, showing his inner circle erupting in his dressing room during Luke’s 2013 win, and his parents crying about how much the award meant, especially in light of the passing of Luke’s siblings.
All of the other candidates, including George Strait, released videos asking for their fans to vote for them as well, but none put out even close to the effort of Luke’s camp. The result was both a very financial, and very emotional attachment to Luke Bryan winning Entertainer of the Year in 2014. As the Luke Bryan camp looked at it, it was theirs to lose …. and they did. And then emotions ran over.
Twitter blew up with angry Luke Bryan fans, the majority of which did not see George Strait as an “Entertainer.” That’s how Luke Bryan’s merchandising manager saw it (a spot once held by artist Cole Swindell), and his tweet Sunday night in the aftermath of the Entertainer announcement sparked off a Twitter storm, with many Luke Bryan fans agreeing, and many traditional country fans coming to King George’s defense. “It’s called Entertainer of the year on ho’s your career … Unreal Acm’s! Not an entertainer,” said Luke’s Merch manager Hunter Jobes.
Hunter Jobes since deleted the tweet, and deleted his account.
Many others parroted the idea however, while others asked how there was any way Luke Bryan could lose a popular vote over George Strait with the type of social outreach Luke has compared to Strait—the same exact concern that was raised by Taylor Swift fans in 2013 when it seemed clear there was no way they could have been bested by the Luke Bryan camp. Neither side likely took into consideration that there is an industry vote that is also tabulated in the results, though the ACMs will not publish either the results of the fan vote, or the formula with which the eventual winner is found through to help alleviate some of the anger and misunderstanding the fan votes result in.
The fact that so many can’t see George Strait as an entertainer despite his historic, Hall of Fame record and career speaks to the widening cultural gap in country music. For many years country music’s traditional country fans have said there’s no respect in the new generation for the artists that came before and made it possible for an artist like Luke Bryan to be bestowed untold riches through the country music institution. And last night, in a wave of emotions, the true colors of many of country’s new generation shined through.
It was announced Monday that the song “Medicine” by Shakira featuring Blake Shelton will be performed by the cross genre duo at the 49th Annual ACM Awards on Sunday, April 6th. Aside from whatever ills the song itself might contain, the slotting of the performance on a major country awards show once again illustrates country music trying to use stars of other genres to promote itself, instead of showcasing the virtues of country and why the genre is worthy of attention on its own.
Having a performer from outside of the genre collaborate with a country artist is certainly not unprecedented for an awards show, or a radio single, or any general cause for alarm. What makes this case somewhat exceptional though is that this is Shakira’s song, appearing on Shakira’s album, especially when you consider there is so much noise leading up to the ACM Awards about a lack of space to showcase worthy country artists, including this reasoning being one of the justifications for the ACM’s breaking their rules and nominating Justin Moore for New Artist of the Year when he’s clearly ineligible. There’s also a lack of solo female representation in the ACM’s current performance plans and on country radio. Replacing a worthy female country voice with one from the pop world seems short-sighted.
Making matters worse, Shakira isn’t just releasing this song in her home genre of pop. It has entered the Country Airplay charts this week at #57. “Medicine” is Shakira’s “gone country” moment. All that said, “Medicine” as a song is not all that bad … for a pop song. In fact if you compared it with many of the top songs in country right now like Jerrod Niemann’s “I Can Drink To That All Night,” Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottom’s Up”, or Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl”, it is downright refreshing. Whether it’s a symptom of just how far down the pop/EDM/rap road country has traveled or any true merit “Medicine” actually contains, I’m finding it hard to get worked up about this song either way.
Pop country stars use it as rationale all the time to smooth over their commercial outreach into the pop world: they say that country has always had its pop leanings and sensibilities with artists like Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold. And you know what, they’re right. What has changed now is that country has backslid so much, a pop song can sound like a dalliance with substance and roots compared to your average country radio offering, or even sound more country than your average country song. That is what you get with “Medicine”, along with the common phenomenon of when non country artists do country songs, they tend to gussy it up in things like fiddle and steel guitar to insulate it from easy criticism.
Lo and behold, a subtle, but present steel guitar starts off “Medicine”. ClichĂŠ, but classic lyricism about heartbreak create the structure of the song that does a serviceable job showcasing the vocal abilities of both Shakira and Shelton, which is really what this song is all about. I definitely could do without Blake’s “Po po po poppin’ the pills” part, but these are the little catchy elements that appeal to nubile pop ears, so they’re understandable in this context. Shakira has an interesting, unique cadence that draws the ear in, and the song is effective in widening the exposure of her talents. “Medicine” is a song about being unable to drown the misery of a broken heart, which despite being done many times in country and other genres, will always have a relevant and rather universal appeal.
With top male country music in such a downward spiral, while at the same time systematically dominating the top of the format, we may have to get used to the new reality that pop music may in fact hold more depth and more artistic merit than most mainstream country. This has been the case made by many Taylor Swift apologists for years, and can also be seen in the rise of pop artists like Adele and Lorde.
Is “Medicine” a good song? God no. Is it country? Not really, but there’s some country elements there. If it had remained in the pop format where it belongs, then there would be no reason to cry foul. But it didn’t. Nonetheless, there’s much bigger fish to fry than Shakira releasing a silly, one-off pop country song.
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1 Gun Up for decent lyricism, strong vocal performances, and unoffensive music for a pop song.
1 Gun Down for at its core being a wistful and quickly forgettable pop song calling itself country.
Saturday night was Clear Channel Radio’s inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin, TX at the Frank Erwin Center—a mid-sized arena that the University of Texas uses for baskeball games, and that serves as the city’s largest indoor concert venue. The festival was the first major event in the new country music partnership between Clear Channel and CMT in their bid to make a multi-platform country music media empire. As Clear Channel was broadcasting the event through many radio stations and their iHeartRadio app, CMT.com was streaming the event online, and taping segments for future television programming. This type of collaboration is what we can expect as country media coagulates into huge companies duking it out for your attention. Clear Channel had their top personality, DJ Bobby Bones, as the emcee of the event, and CMT’s big star Cody was working the backstage area.
In typical Austin fashion, the event and live feed started 12 minutes late. Though iHeartRadio was touting the experience as a “festival”, the outdoor, multi-day and multi-stage discovery of new music that usually accompanies the music festival experience was swapped for a very structured environment centered around the most familiar names in the format, and instructional diatribes on the virtues of Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio app: the company’s seemingly sole plan for pulling out of their $300 million-plus quarterly loss tailspin. Of course making this plan a perilous one full of risk is the fact that every day the music streaming marketplace gets even more crowded as competition grows and the march of streaming startups and other companies looking to get into the streaming business seems endless.
The show opened with a shrill, cacophonous screech of legions of teenage girls driven mad by visions of Luke Bryan’s ass shaking in their heads, but first they would have to fight through Eric Church and his prog rock extravaganza. It was fortuitous of the festival’s organizers to put Church on first, because the festival’s corporate-driven demo definitely wasn’t home field for Eric’s “Outsider” message. His set would be the first and last time the festival crowd would be regaled by anything that couldn’t be labeled as “formula,” though it did set the tone that the night would be a rock show and nothing but, and a country show in name only.
Following was Jake Owen who started off with his stalled, Cadillac Three-penned single “Days of Gold,” and later had the 10,000-head Frank Erwin Center crowd singing in unison to a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” rap he broke into in the middle of his song “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”
The quizzical Dan + Shay taking the stage was the best opportunity for the sold-out crowd to drain their bladders in anticipation of the headliners, as they witnessed one of the most forced anointment’s of a country music super duo the format has ever seen. Despite their slick presentation, the iHeartRadio festival crowd was in no mood to sit through songs they’d never heard before. Dan + Shay made the rookie mistake of taking their whip to the crowd too many times with their “Let’s hear you make some noise!” pleas that grew less and less effective through their abbreviated and generally boring set. It was just too early in their career arc for them to attempt to fill a slot like this amongst the other big names. Lady Antebellum fared much better with songs readily familiar to a crowd whose alpha and omega of music are defined by Top 40 country playlists.
As arguably the hottest band in “country” music, Florida Georgia Line was well-received by the capacity crowd. Like master assassins who can choose their poison, the duo could call on any number of current blockbuster radio hits to ingratiate the crowd to their pop rock cologne-spritzed and wallet chain-draped show. “Thank you for helping us change country music history,” is what Tyler Hubbard said leading into their rendition of the longest-running #1 in the history of country music, “Cruise”. It seemed appropriate that they hadn’t “made” history, but completely “changed” the perception of what country music is by moving it so far in the pop direction and integrating so many hip hop elements into the format that they now feel like regular country fare.
Florida Georgia Line was the moment the astounding sameness of country music’s top mainstream acts became palpable. Where the traditional “festival” setting is driven by diversity and discovery, the lack of surprise is what this crowd was looking for. Florida Georgia Line’s radio tracks are slick a well-produced, but their live show was a little jarring, with pitch issues and too much energy spent on emitting enthusiasm instead of delivering good vocal performances.
Hunter Hayes, though certainly not rising to be considered in any way a highlight, did offer something a little different than the other performers preceding him on stage. Though his songs that cast him in submissive roles to his female counterparts, and a song decrying bullying were gut-wrenchingly, and sometimes downright objectionably sentimental in nature, at least he was singing from the heart, and had a message to deliver beyond naming off a laundry list of countryisms. Nonetheless, his set came across as calculating, safe, and left the distinguishing music fan wanting. But it was different, and at this point in the presentation, that was enough to label it refreshing.
With Taylor Swift burning her iHeartRadio chit during the 2012 pop version of this festival in Las Vegas, Carrie Underwood was tapped to be the female country powerhouse of the event. In a lineup of entertainers, Carrie distinguished herself as a singer, but of course she ran through a condensed set of her top singles that left little room for anything truly country or truly refreshing. Great voice, ravishing legs, and good sense of dynamics made her one of the more engaging acts of the night though.
You could tell when Jason Aldean took the stage why even though radio might be smiling greater on an act like Florida Georgia Line, there’s definitely a difference between a seasoned headlining performer, and the young pups still finding their way in how to perform for a crowd. The music? Of course it was terrible, but Aldean had a command that was only matched on the night by Carrie Underwood. While the younger stars had to sweat out their stage presence through sheer energy, Aldean was an efficiency of movements, hitting all the notes and bringing home solid renditions of his most popular songs. Where some top mainstream performers you may simply look at quizzically of why someone could like what they were doing, despite the music, you understood why Aldean is considered one of the very top male performers in the country format right now.
Luke Bryan represented the other end of the spectrum. Though his set was diverse and had a few attempts at heartfelt, deep moments, his booty shakers were all about his moves on stage, and by the time the next verse came around you got poor pitch, and too much breath in the microphone from a tired performer. Ironically, during Bryan’s “Rain Is A Good Thing” was the very first time the entire night that a traditional instrument (besides a couple of mandolins buried in the mix and mostly for show) made an appearance, when a fiddle found its way out of the case. There was also a steel guitar on the backline, though it was more seen than heard.
Having seen the presentation of iHeartRadio’s Las Vegas festivals, the Austin installment looked dark, and difficult to get a sense of depth or perception for those watching at home. The Frank Erwin Center is a somewhat cavernous, dim space, despite the modest seating capacity. Unlike some newer arenas, it is more round instead of oval, not really making it conducive to stage shows where fans on the wings feel far away. The crowd seemed somewhat less engaged and enthusiastic than you would expect from a mainstream show, and even the people in the front rows seemed a little too far from the stage to facilitate the type of interaction that many mainstream performers are now used to on tour—slapping hands as they strut across stage and yell “Come on, put your hands up!” The risers didn’t reach out into the crowd, and the stage presentation seemed a little cramped and unimaginative. But other mainstream concert tropes like allowing the crowd to finish lines to songs, and the calling out of “What’s up Austin!” dozens of times—despite likely half the crowd not even being from Texas—certainly made a nauseating amount of appearances on the night.
Was the event a success? Since the goal wasn’t necessarily to make money or even show off country talent, but to raise awareness of the iHeartRadio streaming option among country fans, that question is probably best answered by Clear Channel. But the presentation was relatively smooth once it got started, they didn’t really fall behind time (remember the Green Day blowup at the last iHeart fest?), and the performers did their thing as expected. Both Clear Channel & CMT can sit back and evaluate how successful their attempt at cross company synergy was, and iHeartRadio got their product in front of a new segment of fans.
But the brave new world of music consumption has yet to find a true pecking order, and nobody knows whose streaming options will find their way to the top, or even survive. Clear Channel is betting big on iHeartRadio and country music, and we may look back at this festival as the moment iHeartRadio solidified its hold on the country consciousness, or as a needless gargantuan expenditure that eventually led to Clear Channel’s demise under a mountain of debt.
Time will tell.
The Academy of Country Music Awards have always been surrounded by accusations of block voting, vote swapping, and other manipulations of the system at the hands of country music’s major labels, as label representatives work to ensure the artists, songs, and albums they want to push get rewarded. There’s been so much talk about it over the years and plenty of indirect evidence that it almost goes as understood that behind-the-scenes political gaming of the system is how the ACM’s wheels are greased.
The ethics and transparency of the ACM system has been under extra scrutiny this year with the revelation that New Artist of the Year nominee Justin Moore is undeniably ineligible by the ACM’s own stated rules, yet the ACM’s are unwilling to do anything to rectify the situation. With The ACM Awards less than two weeks away and nothing being done about the Justin Moore issue, it sets up an interesting scenario if he ends up winning, with fans and representatives of the other two New Artist nominees–Brett Eldredge and Kip Moore—having a legitimate beef with why their artist was overlooked for a nominee who should have been disqualified.
The ACM’s New Artist of the Year, just like their Entertainer of the Year, is presented to the public as a fan voted award, though the final winner is actually chosen by a combination of fan votes and the “professional membership” of the ACM’s. Unfortunately for fans though, just how much their vote counts is not revealed, the results of the fan votes are never published, and the exact ratio of fan votes to professional votes that is used to choose the eventual winner is not public knowledge, if there is a dedicated formula for picking the winner to begin with.
It must have been that “professional membership” quotient that resulted in Luke Bryan’s shocking win for Entertainer of the Year in 2013, because there’s no way the PR machine of Taylor Swift and legions of team Swifty fans armed with cell phones could ever be out dueled by any other artist, especially Luke Bryan at his prominence in early 2013.
The announcement of Luke Bryan as Entertainer of the Year came as a shock to fans, industry, and media alike. Luke Bryan wasn’t even considered a front runner for the award by most pundits entering the show. It certainly shocked Saving Country Music, and I said as much on the ACM live blog at the time. Today also called it “shocking” and a “huge upset.” If anyone was going to upstage Swift, it should have been the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, and The Voice personality Blake Shelton. Without sly maneuvering behind-the-scenes, it’s hard to see how Luke Bryan would even have a chance in a vote where fan votes were part of the equation.
Exacerbating the heartbreak for Taylor Swift’s fans was the fact that later on, the ACM’s actually announced Taylor Swift as the winner on their website.
The error (or truth when it came to the popular vote) was discovered on May 12th, 2013 and later changed, but not after it sent conspiracy theories swirling that the ACM’s had given Taylor, and the millions of fans that had taken of their time to vote for her on a daily basis leading up to the awards, a raw deal. Of course the thing about a conspiracy theory is you don’t actually have to prove anything, you just have to create doubt. But that’s exactly what the ACM’s did, and have done in their voting system by ostensibly ruling all of the votes cast by fans irrelevant when they chose Luke Bryan as the eventual Entertainer of the Year winner. If the ACM’s wanted to refute this, they could do so by releasing the 2013 vote tallies through a reputable accounting house showing where Luke Bryan ended up in the standings, or an explanation of how the system declared Luke Bryan the winner. But of course they won’t.
So the next question is, why would any fan vote for the ACM New Artist or Entertainer of the Year this year? Their votes didn’t count for the Entertainer award last year, and this year, the front runner for New Artist of the Year isn’t new, and isn’t qualified to receive votes by the ACM’s rules. The whole fan voted element to the ACM Awards seems to be more about creating attention for the awards, and generating traffic for ACM’s web properties. The nominees make videos prodding the fan bases to vote, even though the results may not matter. Some are also asking why Australia was added this year to the countries eligible for voting. As one of the few artists that has focused on the Australian market, this might work out well for Taylor Swift … if those votes actually count.
Then there is the issue if fans should be voting for the ACM Awards in the first place. Kenny Chesney, who won the ACM’s Entertainer of the Year Award four years straight, had some pretty damming words about the ACM’s allowing fans to vote in 2008—the first year the ACM’s allowed fan voting for Entertainer of the Year, and the last year Kenny Chesney won the distinction. In a press conference after the ceremony, Kenny said:
It is an industry complaint that I have. That’s all. I’m so excited to stand up here tonight, and that’s important for everybody to know. I’ve got to choose my words wisely here. I think it’s important to know that I do think the fans should be a part of this awards show. I really do. But I’m probably one of the guys in the audience that didn’t think it should be for Entertainer of the Year. The Entertainer of the Year trophy is supposed to represent heart and passion and an amazing amount of sacrifice, commitment and focus. That’s the way Garth [Brooks] won it four times. That’s the way I won it. That’s the way [George] Strait won it … and Reba [McEntire] and Alabama all those years.
I think it’s a complete disrespect of the artist — what they’ve lowered us to, to get Entertainer of the Year. … Because of that, it really diminishes the integrity of the music that we’re making and how much work goes into it. That’s what really matters. That’s what Entertainer of the Year really is. It’s not about flying somebody to some shows and giving free songs away — and giving this and that — and seeing how hard you can push people’s buttons on the Internet. As much as I love the ACMs and what they’ve done for my life, that’s how I really feel about it.. And I can say that because I won tonight.
I’m honored to be up here for four years in a row to tie Garth’s record, believe me. I may not ever win it again, but I know I’ve achieved this. I just think we all need to be careful how we give this award away in the future. … If somebody stands up here in the future, they should do it because they sacrificed a tremendous amount.
The lack of transparency in the ACM’s system, the fan voting, and the woeful disregard of the rules they do have in place, is eroding the integrity of the awards not just amongst grumbling, disenfranchised traditional country fans and industry gadflies, but amongst fan bases of big, mainstream names like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood (whose fans feel like she’s continually snubbed), and Entertainer of the Year alum Kenny Chesney.
The question country music fans, the industry, and the ACM’s themselves should be asking is what will happen first: more transparency and stronger adherence to the rules by the ACM brass, or a lowering of the integrity of the awards to a point where their ultimate relevancy comes into question long term?
And as far as voting for New Artist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year through the ACM system, the best thing a concerned country music fan who wants to put the music first could do is not vote at all, and have their voice tallied as one that desires more transparency, more fairness, and a better adherence to their own rules by the Academy of Country Music.
Tuesday was the release of Jerrod Niemann’s dumb new album High Noon, and before we’ve even had a chance to really delve into just how much of a mockery it makes of country music, Niemann’s already out there on the defensive, preaching to us how country “purists” really don’t know what the hell country music is all about, and how he’s just carrying on the traditions of Willie and Waylon by pushing the boundaries of the genre.
High Noon‘s first single “Drink To That All Night” drove country more in the direction of EDM than ever before, to the point where I’m not sure what’s country about it aside from the stupid, formulaic, country stereotyping lyrics. The second single from the album called “Donkey” promises to take this trend to a place many shades worse, and very well might go down as the worst song in the history of country music in this bear’s opinion—but that’s another story. A further perusing of High Noon‘s wares shows a lackluster effort of EDM and hip hop pandering veering towards a pop wasteland with little redeeming value afforded to distressed ears searching for any single reason why it shouldn’t be considered any more than some EDM/country mashup side project instead of a premier solo effort from an established country artist.
But that hasn’t stooped Jerrod Niemann from naming himself amidst country music’s Outlaw pioneers.
“When people think about country music, and they use the term ‘Traditional Country,’ they’re talking about something that has happened in the past,” Niemann tells Billboard. “But, when those songs were out currently, they were the freshest thing on the radio. Nobody was saying ‘Let’s go record traditional country.’ They just wanted to record music that meant something to them. Willie and Waylon were getting flack for being progressive at the time because they were mixing it with rock and the outlaw thing.”
Sorry Niemann, but that’s bullshit. Were there some voices saying that Willie and Waylon were pushing the boundaries of country music too far back in the day? Sure there were, and Saving Country Music has pointed this out before as well. But…
1) This had just as much to do with the fear people had of Willie and Waylon because they were shaking up the established Music Row system as it had anything to do with their music.
2) Willie & Waylon’s new take on country music was nowhere near outside the boundaries of country compared to what some artists are doing today. The musical equivalent to High Noon if Willie and Waylon would have done it would have been to cut straight up Disco records with country lyricism and called it country—and then thrown it back into the faces of critics before they even had a chance to raise a peep because Hank Williams was criticized too.
3) Oh an sorry Jerrod, but yes, Waylon and Willie did say, “Let’s go record traditional country.”
For example: What was Willie Nelson’s breakout album during the mid 70′s Outlaw era? Red Headed Stranger—the consensus pick by critics as the greatest country album of all time. What was the biggest single off of Red Headed Stranger, and really the only single of note from the album? It was a song called “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was a traditional country standard when Willie cut it. The song was written by Fred Rose, originally recorded by Roy Acuff in 1945—30 years before the release of Red Headed Stranger. It was also cut by Hank Williams in 1951, Ferlin Husky and Slim Whitman in 1959, and Bill Anderson in 1962 among others. Red Headed Stranger also had other classic country songs such as Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” and a hymn called “Just As I Am” that get this Jerrod Niemann, was written in 1835, making it over 140 years old when Willie cut it. So saying that Willie didn’t say, “‘Let’s go record traditional country,” is completely bogus. One can make the argument that’s exactly what Willie said, and it resulted in arguably country music’s greatest contemporary work.
Meanwhile Waylon may have had a touch more rock in his sound compared to Willie or his other country artists of the time, but the backbone of his music was the steel guitar of country veteran Ralph Mooney, and Waylon was cutting songs like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and “Bob Wills Is Still The King” that paid homage to traditional country greats. Then take a look at the lineup of The Dripping Springs Reunion—the gathering that arguably put the power of Willie and Waylon on the map. It included Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and other aging country greats that at the time were being forgotten by Music Row. Even as Willie and Waylon were rising in prominence, they were paying homage to the ones that came before them.
“I’ve always tried to respectfully add a few elements here and there,” Niemann tells Billboard. Are you kidding me? “Drink To That All Night,” Donkey,” and other offerings from Niemann’s High Noon aren’t respectful to anything but his label’s bottom line. Take a look at this video and tell me the non-country elements are just “here and there”:
The problem with Jerrod Niemann, the reason he’s even worse than many of his current pop country cohorts is because he knows better. I have no doubt Florida Georgia Line grew up listening to mixtapes with Hank Williams Jr. on one side, and Drake on the other. To Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain are classic country. But Jerrod Niemann is 34-years-old. He’s not trying to push limits, this is last ditch effort to get attention from the industry in a no hold’s barred, sellout move to secure his share of the fortune being made off the destruction of country music. And no matter how much he wants to be in front of this issue, how much he preaches falsehoods about how country music once was, he’s simply a sellout in a woman’s Ross Dress For Less discount bin hat—and certainly no progeny of Willie or Waylon.
Like my grandpa always said, you haven’t made it until another man has thoughtfully perused an assemblage of weapons and pondered your demise. And I know what ol’ grandpa Trigger would say if he were here today: “Who the hell is Eric Church?”
There’s been a few interesting opportunities bestowed to Saving Country Music over the years: Interviews by by The New York Times and the BBC, quotes by CNN and Fox News just to name a few, and then there was that time when I was cited in a Playboy Magazine article about Eric Church …. though it was actually in reference to Luke Bryan having a vagina. It’s a long story.
While I’ve never thought of being quoted in Men’s Journal as being a crowning achievement, the idea by writer Erik Hedegaard to read inflammatory quotes from Saving Country Music to Eric Church and then capture his reaction is a pretty clever one. Of course, Men’s Journal couldn’t have quoted the many positive things I’ve said over the years about the Sunglassed One. It would’ve been no fun to read to Eric Church how he “… deserves tremendous credit for creating an album that is this far off Music Rowâs well beaten path, and goes beyond the simple back and forth between love ballads and braggadocios laundry list songs.”
So instead Men’s Journal pulled some snippets from the only “Ăber Rant” I’ve ever written. It’s fair game though; I wouldn’t have written it if I wasn’t willing to stand behind it, or at the least, take responsibility for it. Eric Church, or at least his marketing peeps, had crossed a line releasing a video that showed somewhat psychotic imagery in reference to Taylor Swift while the ink was still drying on numerous creepy stalking stories involving the young starlet. I don’t have any particular love for how Taylor Swift’s been at the forefront of eroding the integrity of the term “country” with her pop songs. But wrong is wrong, and it seemed like a pretty dim bulb move to release that type of imagery rife for misunderstanding about a young woman, despite whatever the intentions were behind it.
And apparently Eric Church’s peeps agreed, and pulled the video mere hours after my expletive-fueled rant demanded they do so, and then posted an explanation to head any press drama off at the pass. Now that’s an accomplishment this sweet, innocent little independent country music writer can hang his hat on.
In fact if the Eric Church teaser video that was taken down by my demand was so harmless, I encourage them to post it back up and let the people decide. Eric Church Inc. should probably thank me for pulling their bacon out of the fire before the video spurned a media frenzy, which probably should have happened anyway, and was on the very brink of happening before they pulled it. In hindsight, maybe instead of demanding they take it down, I should’ve given them more rope by saying nothing and leaving them a clear path to leave it up. But I digress.
So Erik Hedegaard of Men’s Journal reads Eric Church this quote from the Saving Country Music Ăźber rant:
Eric Church isn’t an ‘Outsider’; he’s a fucking conformist. He’s a marketeer .â.â. who has Svengalied a bunch of disenfranchised country fans into believing he’s offering any type of alternative to pop country, when in truth he is more of a tool of the mainstream pop-country industrial complex than anyone.
“Wow, that’s a rough one,” says Church, hearing this for the first time. He’s in a trailer parked on his property, where he’s building his dream house. Resting on a table in front of him is the Gerber knife, the pistol, and the .25-06 Remington with a sweet Leupold scope. Scratching his neck, he looks seriously irritated for a moment, like he’s about to grab one of those nearby tools of destruction and go after the messenger. Then he seems merely at a loss for words. Finally, he gets his small-town North Carolina twang working again and says, “Have we done it our own way? Yeah. How we are is popular now, but it wasn’t when we first did it, so what am I supposed to do?” He puts his hands on the table. “I mean, it’s a possibility that we’re marketing it now. But we’ve been that person the whole time.”
Grandpa would be proud …. Actually Grandpa told me no such thing. He just told me to mind my mother and slipped me $10 bills when she wasn’t looking.
We’ve known for a while that Eric Church is a reader of Saving Country Music, or at least that he’s read the site before. There was the time back in 2010 or 2011 when Church read an article on the site, misinterpreted it, and wrote the song “Country Music Jesus” (See Eric Church talk about writing “Country Music Jesus”). But he seemed genuinely shocked that even I would go that far this time. Then again, there’s a good chance he never saw that teaser video with Taylor Swift as the (seeming) target, either.
Eric Church goes on in the Men’s Journal article to paint a pretty sinister picture of himself.
I have a pretty good understanding of how I am. I’ve always been pretty laid-back and easygoing, until I’m not. When I get going, you’re never going to stop me. When it gets going, I’ll destroy everything.
Eric explains his nickname on the road is “Chief.”
It’s a real thing. I’m a different guy. I’m a different hang. Some people are intimidated by it and cut me a wide berth. I’ve noticed it.
But if I saw Church walking towards me, in Chief mode or not, I’d stop to shake his hand. After all, it’s just music, and musical opinions aside, he deserves respect just like anyone. Unless he’s doing something that could potentially result in the harm of others. Then I might stand in his way, whether that meant my detriment, or demise. And that’s just the way of things.
Thanks for the ink Men’s Journal.
Saving Country Music has been sounding the warning bell that the big story of 2014 will be the formation of two gargantuan media companies that will absolutely dominate the country music landscape and encapsulate everything from radio, television, print and online media, and social network channels. The Country Music Media Arms Race is being fought by the two biggest radio station owners in the United States: Clear Channel and Cumulus, and during this week’s Country Radio Seminar, we are starting to get some of the specific details of the plans these future massive media companies have, and to say their plans are expansive is an understatement.
Cumulus Media is #2 on the radio ownership totem pole, and to attempt to hopscotch their rival Clear Channel, they are planning massive expenditures, acquisitions, and ventures to push the recognition of their big country music brand: “NASH”. NASH and NASH-FM is the brand of Cumulus’s 70+ station syndicated Top 40 pop country network. We already knew that Cumulus had recently acquired a 50-percent interest in the 17-year-old, 500,000+ circulated Country Weekly magazine to re-brand it as NASH. Now in some recent reports, the beans are being spilled about the extent of just how far Cumulus is hoping to push the NASH brand.
Some of their plans are obvious. Since their rival Clear Channel has now partnered with CMT, Cumulus and NASH are looking for their own television partner, potentially Great American Country or GAC, or re-branding the Destination America and American Heroes cable channels owned by Discovery Communications. Also, after Clear Channel’s streaming service iHeartRadio announced a country music festival in Austin, Cumulus and the NASH brand are looking into doing a festival and/or concert series, as well as a radio-based award show with Dick Clark Productions—the same production company behind the Academy of Country Music Awards, or ACM’s.
But the Cumulus plans go even further than that. Here is a run down of some of the things Cumulus has planned for their pop country NASH brand:
In the vein of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill chain, or Rascal Flatts’ recently-announced plans for a chain restaurant, NASH wants to open a fleet a family-friendly fern bars to help establish their brand in certain important markets and locations. You could enjoy some Taylor Swift fried cheese, or a Brantley Gilbert blooming onion.
Yes, you read that right. Apparently NASH wants to get into the home improvement game. This move isn’t unprecedented. Big corporate brands such as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren have dipped their stir stick into the pain business to help solidify their corporate brands in the past, but a radio network? How about a nice Tim McGraw taupe to spruce up that breakfast nook?
Again, not completely unprecedented since you have big artists like Jason Aldean enjoying a big endorsement deal from Wrangler, and Taylor Swift peddling Keds. Some artists also have their own specific clothing lines. Country music and popular culture is a very visual medium, and being able to sell consumers similar clothing to what they see their favorite artists wearing is shrewd business.
Maybe the strangest of the ideas Cumulus is looking into, the company apparently wants to leave no stone unturned, and wants to bring the NASH brand right into people’s homes so they won’t forget who to consume their country music through; a little hard to do when you’re watching NASH TV from your Carrie Underwood signature NASH microfiber couch, muching on NASH leftovers from the night before in a room painted in your favorite NASH colors.
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Cumulus and their NASH brand is out for nothing short of absolute cultural immersion, with the vehicle being the widespread and growing appeal of popular country music. Pop country is seen as very safe and marketable because of its well-liked and clean image. And if Cumulus has its way with NASH, it will become one of the most recognized brands in the United States in the coming years.
Your move, Clear Channel.
This week in Nashville is the annual CRS or Country Radio Seminar where executives and personalities in country radio gather with executives and artists in the country music industry to hobnob, network, and attend workshops and presentations about the direction and future of radio and country music. This year the backdrop of CRS most certainly will be the Country Music Media Arms Race breaking out in 2014 (see more about this below).
Bits of interesting news about the country music radio industry tend to trickle out of CRS week, like a couple of years ago when an Edison Research study concluded that country listeners wanted more classic country on the radio. Edison Research President Larry Rosin said at the time, âI believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people donât want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and weâve let them float awayâŚWe run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.â
Scott Borchetta Quizzically Compares Big Machine Music to a Ferrari,Â not McDonald’s.
Even before the CRS events got started in earnest Monday evening, many interesting pieces of information about radio and country music emerged in the run up to CRS. Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta had the most puzzling quote, choosing a strange, if not unfortunate analogy to compare his label’s music to when explaining why he chooses to delay releasing music from artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Moore on Spotify and other streaming services until months after the release date has passed. Borchetta told The Tennessean:
âIâm not McDonaldâs. Iâm not 1 billion served. Iâm much more in favor of building a Harley-Davidson or a Ferrari and take that 1 or 2 percent of the population who love what we do and super-serve them.â
It seems like that analogy needs to be flip flopped, but big power players like Borchetta, and their ability to control the market with landmark deals with Clear Channel and others entities will certainly be one of the big topics at CRS 2014.
Why Radio Still Matters
Every time Saving Country Music broaches the subject of country radio, the alternatives such as satellite and streaming services are brought up as evidence of why radio doesn’t matter anymore. Though radio may not matter to a specific consumer, when it comes to the research, the experts, and to the culture and listeners in country music specifically, radio is still by far the most dominant format, especially for consumers to discover new music.
“Time and time again when studies are done, broadcast radio remains the No. 1 source for discovering new music,” Broken Bow Records executive Jon Loba told The Tennessean ahead of CRS. “Radio is still 80-plus percent of your music exposure. One thing I remind staff at least once a month in an artist development meeting when we are focusing on other mediums of exposure that are important â streaming, or press for TV, or whatever else â I try not to let everyone get in the weeds with that. Radio is still the primary form of exposing new music.”
Despite dramatic growth in music streaming across the board, just like with the transition from CD’s to downloads, country music is lagging behind other genres in the changeover, allowing country radio to continue to hold onto its power over consumers. As Nate Rau writing for The Tennessean explains:
“An analysis of music streaming data for 2013 shows that, despite growing noticeably, country still lags behind the other genres. Of the top 10,000 streamed songs last year, 28 percent were rock songs, 28 percent were hip-hop/R&B songs, 19 percent were pop songs and 8 percent were country songs, according to Nielsen data. But on traditional radio, country music outranks all other genres as the most popular format.”
Radio Losing Its Autonomy From Record Labels
Whereas in the past many radio stations were independently or regionally owned and their charge was to serve their communities with music, now that radio consolidation has put the majority of radio stations in the hands of a few select companies, principally Clear Channel and Cumulus, the point of radio in many instances is not to serve communities, but to serve record labels. As Broken Bow’s Jon Loba explains:
“When I got into the business, at my first CRS in 1997, I remember radio stations saying, ‘It is not our job to sell records. Our job is to keep listeners tuned in to our station. That is it. If we happen to sell records as a byproduct, thatâs fantastic, but itâs not our job.’ [Now] thereâs a much more symbiotic relationship, not just in words, but actually in action. CBS and Clear Channel both are taking the time to say very proactively, ‘We want to help you highlight your priorities, we want to help you sell records. We know healthy record labels are a large part of our business.’
The Country Music Media Arms Race is Heating Up
Similar to how all popular music is coalescing into one or two huge mega-genres or mono-genre, the media that covers and serves country music fans in radio, print, online, television, and social formats is consolidating around two big media players: Clear Channel & Cumulus—the two largest radio station owners in the United States, supported by partnering or gobbling up other important players in the country music media realm.
In December of 2013, word came down that Clear Channel had cut a deal with CMT to create nationally-focused country music programming to be distributed across the 125 country radio stations owned by the company, as well as some digital and television platforms. This move was in response to Cumulus, the 2nd-largest radio station owner in the United States behind Clear Channel, which had created its own national syndicated format earlier in 2013 under the NASH-FM brand, serving 70 separate radio markets.
Then Cumulus matched Clear Channelâs cross-media move by partnering with the long-running magazine Country Weekly to migrate the NASH-FM brand into print and online media. Announced in late January, Country Weekly in the next couple of quarters will become NASH Weekly. Cumulus has also registered nashweekly.com, and is expected to make an online presence for the NASH brand a focus. Then yesterday, even more ventures and partnerships were announced from Cumulus, including a television station, live concerts and events, even potentially restaurants and consumer products will be part of the massive NASH brand expansion.
Personalities and cross-platform promotion are what is driving the media arms race. CMT’s Cody Alan who now also appears in Clear Channel’s syndicated radio network can do an interview with a big country star, and use that interview both on television and in radio, transcribe it for print and/or online media, and promote it through both company’s social networks. However there are obvious trappings to having one or two companies control all of country music’s media.
âFrom the record company standpoint, it is absolutely more efficient and cost-effective with respect to reaching a larger audience in one shot,” says Broken Bow’s Jon Loba. “But it can also be somewhat scary in that there are fewer voices and opinions being heard out there.â
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What’s for certain is that in 2014, country music media will go through the biggest paradigm shift in the genre’s history, touching every facet of how consumers engage with country music, and creating two massive companies who will dominate the media landscape, partnering with the country music recording industry and blurring lines between covering music and creating music like never before.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t want to write this review. If I had my druthers I would just ignore this album, and focus on something else. But in the face of an absolute onslaught of requests, I will give my personal opinion unfettered and unabridged. I’ll also preface this business by saying that if you like or love this album, that’s all that matters, and my opinion or anyone elses should not sway you from your enjoyment of this music.
Also, before anyone says that it doesn’t matter what kind of album Eric Church released, I would write a negative review for it because of some predisposed bias, or because I do not like the guy on a personal level, go read this review, this review, this review, this review, and take into consideration that his last album Chief was my choice of the albums nominated to be the winner during the last cycle of both the CMA and ACM Awards.
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To put it bluntly, as an album, Eric Church’s The Outsiders is garbage. Does that mean there’s no good songs on it? No, there are some good songs on it, and a few good moments in otherwise not good songs. But as an album, The Outsiders is an absolute, colossal failure of process. It is a muddy mess, with no compass, direction, theme, groove, cohesiveness, or underlying thread connecting the disjointed, ill-conceived and poorly-executed song ideas simply meant to show of how different Eric Church is with no other underlying message or originality of either concept or story. Simply put, The Outsiders is a face plant of the creative process, posing to be “artistic”.
Eric Church is reported to have written a whopping 121 songs for the album before he hit the studio. And judging by the result, I believe him, and wouldn’t be surprised if he’s selling that number short. Apparently we’re supposed to be impressed that 121 songs were vetted for this album, but it speaks to songwriting by formula as opposed to inspiration, and is one of the reasons for the flat, uninspired, and unoriginal result when looking past the histrionics this album contains.
The Outsiders is an exercise of finding the biggest wall available and throwing a disparate hodgepodge of disconnected ideas and undisciplined influences against it to see what sticks. As much as we were sold from the very beginning of this album release that everything would resolve and make sense once we heard the entire project in context, the individual songs released before this album make even less sense now, and the songs as a whole resolve to a sum lesser than their individual parts.
But you won’t hear this from the vast majority of critics. They can’t shut the hell up about how brilliant this album is simply because it isn’t country rap, and it’s not “bro-country” (and UNAPPROVED savingcountrymusic.com term).
First off, I refuse to give into addition by subtraction and give undue credit to music simply because it isn’t as shitty as something else. Is The Outsiders better than Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, or whatever the flavor on the moment in pop country is? Maybe, though at least these guys have some idea of direction. But that doesn’t automatically make Eric Church and The Outsiders “good”. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that music should be judged against it’s peers, but Eric Church’s peers as a reigning Album of the Year winner aren’t Tyler Farr, and Dan + Shay, they’re George Strait and Taylor Swift, and these artists have a theme, a sound, and a direction.
The high-reaching superlatives I have seen attributed to this album from noteworthy and credible sources is nothing short of disturbing, and even at times dangerous. Each to their own opinion, and we can agree to disagree, but when NPR says, “Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch,” this speaks to the continued discounting of the leadership the women of country music, and the men of Americana and independent country are displaying. I couldn’t disagree with NPR’s sentiment any more, especially seeing how The Outsiders really isn’t a country album, at all. There’s one track you could call country. Otherwise it is purely rock, and this misappropriation of the “country” term is yet another offense disqualifying this album from being something that should be considered “bold” or “epic”.
One of the biggest proselytizers for this album has been Eric Church himself. “Itâs a very polarizing song,â Eric said about “The Outsiders” title track to The New York Times. âHalf the people hated it, half thought it was the greatest thing they ever heard. But I think that wide range of opinions means you made something artistic, you actually made art.â
Oh, so if you start off with a Waylon phase guitar, lead into a heavy metal song, then speed bump the groove with a couple of interjected Pork Soda prog rock bass guitar solos, add a little pseudo-rapping, and people discredit it for being too busy and lacking direction, that’s how you know it’s “artistic”?
The whole point of this album seems to be to set up Eric Church as this forward-thinking force in country music. But just because you take a bunch of ill-fitting parts and slap them together—as Eric does in numerous songs, and with the overall song selection itself—doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being “artistic.” It’s like people who want to be known as “weird” might dye their hair strange colors, get strange piercings or tattoos, or wear shocking clothing. But this is all superficial. The question is, is this something that is truly groundbreaking, or has it never been done before because it’s ill-advised and doesn’t work?
I don’t even know if the music on this album matters. Eric Church has put his back into cultivating this “Outsider” persona, and the music just seems to be a vehicle to the cultural identity he wants to convey, and his fans want to identify with. The music is almost an inconvenience to Eric Church. As he’s said many times, he hates writing songs. Aside from a few songs that seem to come from the heart, The Outsiders is formulaic themes and sonic trickery. For a song to connect with an individual, it music convey a deep, human feeling. Are you telling me that Eric Church had 121 deep, original human feelings since his last release that he was able to translate into song? The human inspiration on this album was spread so thin across so much material, it was almost completely lost once these tracks were being zapped onto compact disk.
And back to the point of praising The Outsiders for not being “bro-country” or country rap, I’m not sure if those people’s review copies are missing tracks, but I am hearing both these elements, as well as EDM electronic wankery make an appearance on the album. Is it to the degree of some of Eric Church’s mainstream male counterparts? No, but the song “Cold One” is a total bro-country beer song, and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” features multiple stanzas of rapping. You listen to a song like “Talladega,” and it’s straight up pop country. Leadership? Boldness? The songs that could be accidentally identified with having these qualities are the album’s worst tracks because they’re simply a bunch of ill-fitting parts slapped together.
There are some decent songs on The Outsiders though. But to grade the album fairly, you have to break it down to the individual songs. The songs themselves are too disjointed to critique collectively. As for the album itself, I would give it:
1 1/2 of 2 guns DOWN.
Individual Song Reviews
1. “The Outsiders”
Beyond my original review for this song, I’d like to point out how we were told some of the strangeness of the music and message of this song would all resolve and make sense when put in the context of the entire album. Of course, as always with theses promises, this wasn’t the case whatsoever. In the context of the album, this song comes across as even more ill-advised. There really was no “Outsiders” theme holding the work together.
âThe Outsidersâ is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format itâs downright laughable. (read full review)
Two guns down.
2. A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young
One of the recurring themes of The Outsiders is that “sounds familiar” feel. Eric seems to always shine in the stripped-down format. His pretentiousness is what keeps most from his music, and in his unguarded moments is when he draws you in. And so even though “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a song that has been done many, many times, this is one of the albums better tracks.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
3. Cold One
For the people proselytizing that The Outsiders as the anti “bro-country” epic, this song is a problem. It’s not your typical laundry list, dirt road and tailgate song, but it’s pretty close, with its premise beginning and ending with beer. Though it’s arguably the most country track on the album, there’s some pop and rock elements here, like the harsh, purposely-ugly guitar part meant to mimic the blurred mind of a beer binge, and the record skipping near the end that refers to the new school, EDM influence creeping into the country format. These things aren’t Eric Church leading, they’re Eric Church following. Yes, the sped up bridge in the middle of the song is pretty fun, but again is a borrowed, often-called upon element. The story is nothing special, though the wit of the “Cold One” double meaning is appreciated. Not bad, but not as good as some will sense at first listen.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
4. Roller Coaster Ride
Folks, this isn’t a pop country song, this is a pop song pure and simple. From the storyline, to the sonic elements, this song was built to be the soundtrack to a future Lexus commercial. Church’s “artistic” touch is to add an unfortunate synthesized sound bed that comes streaking in and out throughout the song. Picture yourself as Atreyu riding on the back of the Luck Dragon through the wispy clouds of Fantasia. Church fans may fall in love with this song, but hey, that’s the allure of pop music; it’s instantly catchy in lieu of delivering long-term substance. I guess Church thinks he makes up for at all at the end when his synthesized sounds turn sinister. Laughable.
Two guns down.
Ha! This song has been done a million and one times, and yet again for all the “epic” and “artistic” praise this album has received, here is another placid and predictable, straightforward pop country tune. It’s a nostalgic, reminiscent song built mostly around the power of the word “Talladega”, but there’s a decent sense of story here, and the song works, mostly because Church resists the urge to add some ill-advised guitar solo or electronic interjections like he does on other tunes. He should see if Rascal Flatts wants to cut this on their next record.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
6. Broke Record
Listening to the song was one of numerous times I kept picturing Sheryl Crow circa late 90′s when listening to this album. This is a catchy little rhythm-based tune that adeptly slides its fun lyrics in between the starts and stops and gets your foot tapping just fine. Aside from a very short moment heading into the bridge and a pretty good acoustic guitar solo, this is a silly little roots pop song that is harmless, but certainly nothing special; quick to grab your attention, but soon to be forgotten.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
7. Like A Wrecking Ball
Not bad at all. Could have done with a little less reverb on Eric’s vocal signal, but this is one of the few songs on the album that seems to come from a personal, inspired story from Eric Church himself instead of an easy-to-fall-back-on trope of modern popular music. At the same time, there’s really nothing special here. For once, some of Eric’s studio wizardry may have helped give this song a little something to make it memorable. Like virtually every song on the album, there’s nothing country about it whatsoever. But it works I guess.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
8. That’s Damn Rock & Roll
It was at this point in the album when I wondered why the hell I was even listening to this. What type of aberration of the term “country ” allowed this album, and this song to come into my life where I would be forced to give my opinion on it?
Between the Duran Duran tone of the electric guitar, rapping, the Annie Lennox banshee screams (which by the way, in the appropriate context would be awesome), and the general bellicose grandstanding about the format Eric Church wish he was in instead of the industry that is promoting his music, this song is ill-conceived on just about every single level. Some of the lyrics and the sentiment behind the song will get some people’s blood pumping, but this is all a derivative of pushing sonic buttons and pandering to constituencies instead of some original expression or the delivery of any true substance.
This is out generation’s “We Built This City” from Starship. Marconi plays the Mamba.
Two guns down.
9. Dark Side
Finally everything comes together. Where the rest of the album generally takes the form of ill-fitting parts, with Church matching up audio features that he wants to play with, with songs and themes that they have no business being in, here a progressive, stripped-back, and tasteful approach is the perfect texture for the story that you can tell has a truly personal meaning to Eric. This song is nothing short of excellent.
Two guns up.
10. Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)
Pure marketing and pandering to Eric Church’s Outlaw/Outsider manufactured image with no redeeming value. A farce. Bullshit. An insult to the intelligence of every listener.
Two guns way down.
11. Give Me Back My Hometown
To the mainstream country ear, âGive Me Back My Hometownâ must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3â˛rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously…Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format….All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, âGive Me Back My Hometownâ is not bad. The song works. (read full review)
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
12. The Joint
I don’t know. A stupid amalgam of sound to let you know how awesome and creative Eric Church is.
One gun up, one gun down.
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