- Ralph Stanley and Grandson Making Gospel Album
- George Jones' widow wants fans to see tribute (video: autoplay)
- Funny: Honest Billboard Country Airplay Chart
- Scott Biram Announces New Album, Releases New Song
- Watch Loretta Lynn Being Awarded Medal of Freedom
- Good Read - Shopping for Hits: A Look at Music Row's 'Pitch Lists'
- Download Free Sample from Sturgill Simpson on NoiseTrade
- Stream "Foreverly" Norah Jones and Billy Joe Tribute
- Galleywinter Reviews Cody Canada's New Live Acoustic Album
- Bottle Rockets Reissue First Album and "Brooklyn Side"
- John Prine has operable form of lung cancer
- Shovels and Rope Documentary Captures the Life of an Americana Couple
- Loretta Lynn: 5 reasons why she earned Presidential Medal of Freedom
- If You Missed It: Nikki Bluhm on Conan
- Kellie Pickler Debuts in Top Five On Top Country Albums Chart
- Shovels and Rope to Reissue First Album. Listen to Revamped Song
- Ricky Skaggs Revisits Country Hits During Hall of Fame Performance
- The World's Highest-Paid Musicians 2013
- Justin Timberlake's Dreams of Country Music Stardom 'Still Alive'
- Ry Cooder Featured In The New Yorker, New Live Album
- Jello Biafra Likes Larry and His Flask!
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
So this weekend we were reading the June edition of Playboy Magazine. You know, for the articles. And lo and behold, Saving Country Music is cited in a feature on Eric Church entitled “The Badass” that proclaims the performer from North Carolina the “new face of country music.”
You know, I could almost like Eric Church if he would quit so doggedly pursuing his persona as product, and Playboy helps perpetuate this persona by writing a puff piece that portrays Church as the edifice of badassery, and plays to the well-worn and indolent stereotype about how country music’s “traditionalists” don’t want country music to change.
“I don’t believe country singers should make the same fucking music over and over.” Eric Church is quoted as saying in the piece.
Well who in the hell is proposing or promoting that? Is Saving Country Music? You can comb through the 2,500+ article archive of this site and not find a single place where this theory is forwarded or implied. There may be a few traditional country fans who feel that way, but I don’t see this “make the same music over and over” theory commonly cited in “traditional” country circles or anywhere else. So why are “traditionalists” perpetually having to fight this assumption every time they say they don’t prefer a certain artist, song, or sonic direction?
Saying that people don’t want country music to evolve is a preconceived argument to a position that doesn’t exist to attempt to couch “traditionalists” as hard-headed, out-of-touch, non-evolving old farts and jackasses. Yes, this is the same argument Blake Shelton has made; Church’s mainstream nemesis after Eric called Shelton out for his involvement in reality TV shows. Saving Country Music has gone out of its way over the years to champion the causes of artists who are specifically attempting to evolve country music in a way that respects the roots of the genre, many of which who are regularly ignored by the mainstream country music industry.
But what exactly is Eric Church doing that is so new? “We’re further into rock and roll than anyone else, and that’s why a lot of traditionalists have a major problem with me…. [It's] not even close.” Oh Jesus Eric, you only wish. Hell, I’ve said many times myself that Eric Church is the last male in the mainstream country music hierarchy that has any sort of creativity to his sound. The problem is he keeps letting his persona get in the way of allowing intelligent listeners enjoy his music, like when he swore off calling himself an “Outlaw,” while at the same time selling Outlaw-branded merch online. But is there some appreciable rock difference between Eric Church, and other country rock acts like Keith Urban or Florida Georgia Line?
And what is so new about mixing country and rock and roll anyway? The Maddox Brothers & Rose were doing it in 1940′s, half a century before Eric Church was even born. Country and rock and roll evolved parallel to each other, and were bred out of the same sound. Ever heard of rockabilly? Elvis was playing it before he was playing rock. Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers were mixing country and rock back in the 70′s. Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt, and Marty Stuart were doing it in the 80′s and 90′s with just as much of an edge as anything Eric Church is doing right now. That’s not a knock on Church’s music, but to act like mixing rock and country is something Eric Church innovated, and that he’s the only artist taking it to the edge is just another example of his self-aggrandizing pap that tarnishes the appeal of his material.
But if Church is so enamored with rock and so dismissive of country, why is he even be pushed on country radio and winning country awards? “I didn’t grow up listening to Hank Williams Sr. or Earnest Tubb,” Church told Playboy. “I grew up with rock and roll.” If this is the case and his sound is so rock, why is he surprised when country fans come out and say he doesn’t belong?
Something else interesting in the Playboy article is how it references the rampant outbreak of fights at Eric Church concerts in a positive light. Performer Kip Moore cites a show in Battle Creek, MI where he opened for Church and says that “half of the crowd was fighting.” I’ve been to some of the craziest punk and heavy metal shows, and never seen anything like this. Despite entire venues descending into mosh pits, if someone crosses the line and starts fighting, they tend to be ostracized from the crowd immediately. A concert where half the crowd is fighting is the outcome of this type of shallow, surface machismo that the current new Outlaw country artists attempt to brand into their music.
And make no mistake, this Playboy article and the Eric Church persona are not at odds with the country music establishment as they would like you to believe. It is a purposeful marketing campaign to attempt to re-integrate disenfranchised country fans who left the genre when the likes of Taylor Swift became the country norm.
The Playboy article goes on to specifically cite Saving Country Music (but without using our name), saying:
In the old days, the photo of the 10 top country singers would look like a convict lineup. These days it might look like an Ambercrombie & Fitch catalog shot. Among hardcore traditionalists, this change hasn’t been popular. One highly trafficked country website routinely erupts in insults aimed at handsome singer Luke Bryan who’s apparently perceived as too feminine. The blogger who runs the site referred to Bryan as a woman, claimed the singer has a vagina and alluded to Bryan as gay.
Oh man, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The above quote is citing a year-old article clearly marked as “fake news,” both in the tags, and in the sarcastic tone of the content. Hopefully Playboy understood this, and was simply using it as an example in the stylistic change country has endured over the last dozen years, and the vehement opposition it has stimulated from certain sects of fans. But Saving Country Music would never accuse someone of being gay or transgender if it wasn’t in a clearly sarcastic light, and wouldn’t in any way characterize the frequency of our off-color commentary on Luke Bryan “routine.”
But as for Eric Church, if he wants to be considered a badass in the same breath of true country badasses like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, and David Allan Coe, then he should take a que from them and not participate in self-aggrandizing cult-of-personality building in glossy magazines. Instead, he should do like they did—let the music speak for itself.
The rapping grandson of Waylon Jennings, one Will “Young Struggle” Harness, or “Struggle” as he prefers to go by now has a new album out called I Am Struggle, that doesn’t just borrow heavily from Waylon’s catalog, it is downright built from it. 7 of the 9 tracks on the country rap record directly incorporate samples and structures of Waylon tunes in an unprecedented intrusion of rap into the country music format and its catalog of legendary recordings from one of its most legendary artists.
What is the legacy of the sons and grandsons of country music royalty? It is of them getting a break in the music business because of their name, but then immediately rebelling against what the music world wanted them to be, which were living facsimile’s of their predecessors. Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III, Shooter Jennings, Justin Townes Earle, and on and on, and stretching to the daughters of country music like Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash; they sweated blood and made deep sacrifices to divest themselves from familial expectations and industry shortcuts bestowed by their names to stand on their own two feet as artists.
With Struggle and this album, the approach seems to be the exact opposite, despite whatever words of explanation may accompany the project. It is taking from the Jennings family legacy and riding it as far as it will take him—so much so that it is hard to tell where Waylon’s music stops, and Struggle’s music begins. With the prohibitive costs of permissions in music these days, I Am Struggle would be impossible for anyone to make that didn’t have a direct line to the Waylon estate. Waylon’s primary estate executors Jessi Colter and Shooter Jennings actively participate in I Am Struggle, with both making appearances on the album. I Am Struggle is nepotism on steroids.
The use of Waylon’s songs in I Am Struggle brings up all sorts of ethical questions. Is it right to do this with a dead man’s songs? Does anyone have the right, beyond the legal aspects, to deem this practice appropriate with any deceased artist? What would Waylon think about country rap, and what would he think about his songs being turned into it? Would Waylon approve of Struggle’s style, and the free flow of iniquitous themes and vulgarity that accompany his music (and now Waylon’s by proxy)?
And that takes us to the actual content of I Am Struggle. Taking Waylon songs and incorporating them with dance beats or even adding rap verses to them is one thing. Taking a classic Waylon song like “Are You Ready For The Country” (originally written by Neil Young) and adding lines like, “Show me what is was and I’ll a show you what it will be. I got my hand on my nuts, can you feel me?” is something else entirely. Struggle’s lyrics commonly touch on criminal activity; a world he knows of first hand, having been indicted on federal drug trafficking charges and served time.
The precursor to I Am Struggle was a country rap single built from Waylon’s song “Outlaw Shit,” a slower, newer version of his classic “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand?” The irony is that in the original Waylon song, Jennings espouses his disdain for the marketing of his music and persona as “outlaw,” and blames it for his own legal troubles. Struggle on the other had embraces this persona, with the words “Gangsta II The Bone” tattooed across his breastplate, and infusing his songs (or Waylon’s) with bellicose, urban gangster jargon and threats. The day Struggle’s “Outlaw Shit” was released as a single, he was incarcerated in a Davidson County jail. Many believe this was a marketing ploy to promote the song.
One thing we can assume is that Struggle has nothing less but undying respect for Waylon and his music. Struggle was not just some distant relative to Waylon that barely knew him who is now riding his name. Growing up, Struggle would spend summers on Waylon’s road crew, and his mother worked for a while as one of Waylon’s backup singers as she pursued her own career in music. However, Struggle has no blood relation to Waylon. His mother is the daughter from Jessi Colter’s first marriage to rock & roll guitarist Duane Eddy. Waylon only became Struggles named grandfather after the Jessi Colter / Duane Eddy divorce.
Something else worth pointing out about Struggle is that he is no Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean, and his songs are no “Dirt Road Anthem.” As I’ve also said about fellow Southern white rapper Yelawolf, Struggle has talent. He has a lot of talent. As offensive as I Am Struggle may be to the legacy of Waylon and to Waylon Jennings fans, some of the songs on the album are quite catchy, and some of the lines are infused with tremendous wit. The problem is with the way they are presented.
Hank didn’t do it this way, and neither did Waylon. Nor did Shooter, Hank Jr., or Hank3. How did we get to this point in country music when taking the life’s work of a country music legend and regurgitating it into vulgarity-laden country rap did not result in downright outspread public outrage? With the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams project, there was protest, and a fundamental feeling that those songs were not anyone’s to do with what they pleased; a feeling shared by the executors of the Williams estate.
Would Waylon approve of this being done to his music? I can’t answer that question. Nobody can answer that question. That is why caution, and deference to the deceased should be used in these instances.
When Taylor Swift won her first CMA for Entertainer of the Year there was outrage because of the sense that country music was living too much in the present moment. I Am Struggle‘s use of Waylon songs is almost an audio version re-writing the past.
One song is one thing. But Struggle has too much talent, and the songs of Waylon are too important, and the subject of country rap too polarizing to make an entire album without the originator of the material being present to voice his pleasure or dissent. I Am Struggle leads country music down a very slippery slope where the catalogs of other country music greats could be opened and re-interpreted by country rappers or for other commercial purposes, forever soiling or superseding the original versions, and eroding their legacy.
Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks.
The Mavericks are like some strange Central American fruit you purchase in South Texas that once you cut open the rind a bounty of greatness starts gushing out. Its taste is both exotic and warmly familiar, and its supple membranes are revitalizing to both the body and spirit.
Some bands like to espouse themselves “defying genre,” when many times this is just a front for lacking a musical compass or an original sound, hoping disparate elements will meld together simply from the uniqueness of the experience. That is not the case with The Mavericks. Every one of their songs is a country song. Every one is a Latin song. And every one is rock n’ roll, all the way through. It’s because their influences overlay each other in parallel layers instead of being haphazardly mixed together. They aren’t a blend of genres, they’re every classic genre all at the same time. The Mavericks’ sound means something to such a wide range of people by being able to tug at the music roots of listeners from a myriad of diverse backgrounds.
Looking at this album on paper, you almost don’t want to give it a chance. How much more could the Mavericks have left in the tank? Sure they did some good stuff in the 90′s, but then there was the 2004 split, and frontman Raul Malo’s solo career that has seen 6 albums no less. At some point every artist reaches their limit for creative output, and it’s not hard to surmise that a band like The Mavericks had their best days in the past. And In Time was released by the Valory Music Group, which is an imprint of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records and the home of Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc. etc. Good, cool music can’t come from that barn, can it?
If In Time is any indication, yes it can, and it can still come from The Mavericks as well. This album isn’t just a good album from The Mavericks, it might be the best album in their nearly 25-year history, and its one of the best put out so far in 2013.
Back in the mid 90′s, The Mavericks were winning CMA Awards and putting out platinum-certified albums, despite not having one top 10 single and not really fitting in with the regular country crowd. But to get there they still had to somewhat play the game. Now The Mavericks have nothing to lose, nothing to prove to anyone, and this latitude allows the original idea behind the band to fully blossom. Raul Malo’s songwriting has never been better, and his voice never more laden with character. Where their 90′s material might feel somewhat dated to the modern ear, In Time feels timeless, with a classic sound, and a warm, analog patina enveloping the entire project.
This is not just a great album for The Mavericks, it is a great addition to the American songbook as an example of the melting pot of cultures that have come together to birth some of the most vibrant and compelling music heard by man.
Two guns way up!
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
I’ll be honest with you, it makes me chuckle a little bit when I see some traditional country fan get hot and bothered over Kenny Chesney. It’s not that Kenny Chesney and his flowery shorts and flip flop songs don’t deserve a spirited berating every once and a while, but the exercise seems so out-of-touch with the current trends in popular country music. Chesney may still be one of the few country acts who can consistently sell out stadiums, and maybe he has a song tickle the Top 10 every so often. But his tenure as one of country’s top influential artists has long since passed.
It was Taylor Swift who broke Chesney’s streak of four CMA “Entertainer of the Year” awards in five years when the young songstress shocked the world in 2009, stimulating real country fans to take to the internet en masse to proclaim country music dead. The man behind Taylor Swift’s success was the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta, herr führer of Big Machine Records; the same man behind the success of the sizzling hot pop country duo Florida Georgia Line. Similar to Taylor Swift, the Florida Georgia Line sensation has sprung out of nowhere, and threatens to downright dominate the popular country music landscape for the near future.
These dudes are on the mother of all tears. Their song “Cruise” threatens to be the biggest country song in 2013, and has already set multiple records, including spending 12 weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart—the first time this has happened by a duo in the 69-year history of the chart. It’s also the first time a song has spent over 12 weeks on the chart since Buck Owens “Love’s Gonna Live Here” did it in 1963-64. “Cruise” has charted for a whopping 43 straight weeks stretching back to 2012, and has hit #1 on three separate occasions. It hit #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart as far back as December 15th of last year, and the song is still going strong, now with a remix featuring hip-hop’s Nelly allowing the song to re-enter Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart at #8.
“Cruise” has already been certified triple-platinum, and is showing no signs of slowing down, and Scott Borchetta and Big Machine have already released the second Florida Georgia Line single “Get Your Shine On,” which has also been very successful, hanging steady at #5 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and having spent a total of 31 weeks on the chart so far.
And the scariest part is, these may not be the biggest singles from Florida Georgia Line’s Here’s to the Good Times album. The record is jam packed with catchy songs ripe for radio. Florida Georgia line can’t just be laughed off as some flash-in-the-pan overnight sensation, or some gimmicky country-rap outfit riding a trend. Current songs competing with “Cruise” like Jason Aldean’s “1994″ or Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” reek of desperation, and just downright reek as songs. As much as it pains me to admit it, Florida Georgia line’s Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have an ear for catchy melodies, and make writing popular country hits look easy. Will it last? Time will tell, but right now they are positively dominating the mainstream country format.
And it’s not just country purists who seem slow on the uptake to Florida Georgia Line’s success. The country music industry seems a little lethargic to recognize that they have their next superstars on their hands. At the ACM Awards in April, the duo was only given one minute to perform “Cruise.” They reside on a subsidiary imprint of Big Machine Records called Republic Nashville, usually meant for smaller, developing bands, but there’s a good chance in six months they could be selling out arenas. Or maybe this is a sign that Music Row still doesn’t know about the long-term viability of this band, worried that there’s not enough substance to sustain their success moving forward. If this is the case, I think they’ve underestimated the shallowness of the mainstream country fan base.
Either way, Florida Georgia Line is here, and will be eroding the purity of the term “country” and terrorizing the ears of traditional country fans potentially for years to come. When the next round of CMA Awards come around next February, it may not be Taylor Swift winning the Entertainer of the Year award over Kenny Chesney, it may be Florida Georgia Line winning it over Taylor Swift.
We all know them and we all hate them, those ubiquitous and ridiculous pop country songs that make us hang our heads in shame, embarrassed to call ourselves country fans, constantly making us having to explain that no, we don’t listen to that type of country. They pursue us doggedly, on the radio, over the speakers at the grocery store, blaring from a car full of high school kids at a red light.
Please note that this list has a few ground rules, namely that a song must have been released as a single to qualify (i.e. no Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”). Also, songs that may have been classified by radio as “country” but were classified by artists or their labels as pop (principally Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) will not be dignified by being included on this “country” list either.
Positively nothing more than a pop dance song with a banjo, Luke Bryan commands country girls to “shake it” for the birds, the bees, for the crickets and the critters and the catfish swimming down deep in the creek, for the gerbils crawling way up his rectum to massage his prostate… oh wait, he left that line out, but you get the point. This song is like a frozen sledge hammer to the balls of anybody who has any sort of musical taste or dignity.
Yes my friends, this song actually exists, and was even released as a single. How do you out cornpone your corny competition? Make a pun about corn and insert into a sexually-charged urbanism, aka the Honky Tonk Badonkadonk songwriting formula. The writers of this song Jeffrey Steele and Shane Minor are not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you for buying into this worthless piece of drivel. If you think “Corn Star” is funny, then the joke’s on you.
13. Stuck Like Glue – Sugarland
This song sounds like it was made with a bubble machine. I don’t know what I hate worse in this song, the reggae breakdown, or the way Jennifer Nettles sings way on top of every note making this song especially unbearable to listen to. At least Sugarland’s cries for relevancy were answered by the song reaching #2 on the country charts, and eventually being certified double platinum. However since then, they have yet to have another hit single, and both Sugarland members are pursuing solo careers.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list pap. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich. Punctuating how pathetic “Cruise” is, is the fact that these two dudes apparently don’t know how to use punctuation. The first line of the song goes, “Baby you a song,” instead of, “Baby you’re a song.” But what else can you expect when the title of their first EP was It’z Just What We Do. Yes, it’s one of those albums, blurring the lines between Ebonics and idiocracy. (read song review)
11. Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy) – Big & Rich
Big & Rich may think they’re saving horses with their fringe-lined parasols, dandy top hats and prancing midgets, but it is at the expense of our hearing. “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” acts like a good healthy turn of a corkscrew right after it’s been inserted in one’s earhole. “Save A Hose” has the the shelf life of a knock knock joke. Hear it once and maybe it makes you smile. Hear it twice and you can’t reach for the radio dial quick enough. This song is the reason fans of other genres think all country music sucks.
Boy, little did we know back in 1999 that this machination of mixing sex and farm machinery would become such a prevailing trend in country music. Chesney should’ve just stuck to figuring out what to rhyme “coconut” and “flip flops” with in his idiotic and incessant beach songs. What Kenny and his sexy tractor cohorts lost sight of is that the beauty of country living is in its simplicity.
9. Brown Chicken Brown Cow – Trace Adkins
Some songs we call “a joke” figuratively. This one is a joke, literally. No really, they took a punch line and figured out how to build a song out of it. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” mentions corn fields and slopping pigs, but since these days less than 2% of Americans actually live this type of traditional farm lifestyle, he is not using these things to relate to people, but to disguise the fact that this really is a hip-hopish rock song, and that he isn’t singing to country folks, he’s singing to suburbanites that like to listen to this kind of smut as a form of escapism. Trace Adkins has become one of the kings of gimmick songs, with his super hit “Honky Tonk Bandonkadonk” being his most well-recognized hit. But even Trace had to admit later that”Brown Chicken Brown Cow” went too far, saying, “I guess I went to that well one too many times.”
8. Red Solo Cup – Toby Keith
That’s right ladies and gentleman, raise your red solo cups high, and let’s all toast the onset of idiocracy! This is not only one of country’s worst songs ever, it was possibly the first song written to be a video first and foremost. Make a stupid viral video for an even more stupid song and you have the spoon fed public eating out of his hands. And just because Toby Keith admits this song is stupid, doesn’t mean it’s still not in fact stupid.
A creatively-repressed Tim McGraw finally breaks free from the 20-year-old bounds of Curb Records, and like an out-of-control Catholic schoolgirl unsupervised, releases this scandalously ill-advised attempt at country rap, forever soiling his reputation. Realistically speaking, this may be one of the worst, if not the worst song on this list. But since it’s creative depravity is so heinous and obvious, it petered in the charts, and its impact was marginal compared to the Frankenstein-like super hit McGraw and new label partner Scott Borchetta were hoping to score.
“Achy Breaky Heart” is country music’s version of waterborading. The song itself was not as awful as the machine gun frequency and pandemic-like omnipresence it terrorized society with throughout 1992, until it and Billy Ray Cyrus’s atomic mullet rose to the level of becoming a national embarrassment that America will likely never absolve.
5. I Wanna Talk About Me – Toby Keith
Yes, you forgot about this little bit of mullet-era Toby Keith awfulness, didn’t you? Before there was “1994″ and before there was “Dirt Road Anthem,” there was this wretched piece of pseudo country rapping released in 2001, written by Bobby Braddock of all people. The song was supposed to be a hit for a young, emerging Blake Shelton, but his label turned it down as too risky. “I Wanna Talk About Me” wasn’t even Toby Keith’s first country rap. He had another single “Getcha Some” in 1998. But it isn’t just the rapping that makes this song awful, it is the self-centered arrogance of the lyrics.
4. Honky Tonk Badonkadonk – Trace Adkins
The title says it all. No really, it does.
3. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton
Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. It is the worst combination of both mainstream country rap and laundry list songwriting. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut. Though Jason Aldean’s “1994″ may be a worse song, “Boys ‘Round Here” might be more dangerous as because it is a chart-topper.
This song seems rather innocuous now compared to the newest wave of country rap that has given rise to songs like “1994,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” and “Truck Yeah.” But at the time, “Dirt Road Anthem” was the edifice of awful, the one that broke the doors open for country rap. As the best-selling song in country music in 2011, the impact of “Dirt Road Anthem” cannot be understated.
1. 1994 – Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean and his crack team of producers and songwriters were exhaustive in their efforts to compile only the absolute worst elements from every corner and crevice of popular music and then assemble them together to compose this ode to the decay of Western Civilization. At their dispose are hip-pop, wiener rock, laundry list country, Auto-Tune, and the general douchebaggery awfulness caused by a complete lack of self-awareness that Jason Aldean is a exemplary specimen of. These ingredients are then extruded into a feces-like industrial slurry that is injected into the hollow, mulleted, cop-mustached corpse of 90′s country semi-star Joe Diffie’s dwindling career.
In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from Jason Aldean’s unholy bowels. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum. (read full review)
In yet another landmark deal, Big Machine Records founder and CEO Scott Borchetta has commenced a joint venture in the songwriting realm with the pop world’s Dr. Luke. A songwriter and producer, Dr. Luke’s publishing company boasts 30-40 big names in the pop world–names like Katy Perry and Ke$ha. The objective of the joint venture is “to allow the two companies to co-publish songwriters with the goal of bringing country and pop writers into each other’s realm.” In other words, the deal will likely mean even more pop on country radio, as pop songwriters and producers collaborate more intimately with Big Machine’s growing roster of country talent.
The seeds of the deal were planted when Scott Borchetta suggested Big Machine artist Taylor Swift collaborate with songwriting producers Max Martin and Shellback on her latest release Red. The relationship resulted in two multi-platinum mega hits: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” As Billboard states about the deal:
The goal for both teams is to keep an eye open for the other, sending writers to L.A. from Nashville and vice-versa to fit the needs of the two teams. Naturally, both sides see the current landscape in pop music as receptive to the merging of the two cultures, evidenced by Swift’s use of various non-Nashville experts to assist with her music on her latest Big Machine release ‘Red.’
The new deal will mean that at the very inception of the creative process–the writing of songs–pop writers and producers will have more input in country music. It will also mean that since Dr. Luke’s pop songwriters will be working under the same corporate umbrella as their country counterparts, the collaborations will be more financially lucrative for the parent companies. The deal could also erode the genre integrity of the pop world, as country producers and songwriters from Nashville swap their tastes with LA-based pop acts. Similar to Clear Channel monopolizing radio markets and offering less choice to consumers, the Borchetta/Dr. Luke deal could mean the erosion of choice and contrast between country and pop.
The reason Saving Country Music often refers to Scott Borchetta as the “Country Music Anti-Christ” is not because of the way he handles his Big Machine roster. Compared to many Music Row CEO’s, Borchetta offers incredible creative latitude and financial fairness to his talent bin; a bin that now includes names like Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Florida Georgia Line, Reba McEntire, and The Band Perry. But Borchetta might also be the most responsible party for the erosion of the term “country” in the history of the genre, as he continues to market songs and artists that are either pop or mostly pop through country channels.
Most of all, the new deal reaffirms Scott Borchetta as one of the leading minds in the music business. Country fans can hate on him all they want, but Borchetta has proven himself to be smarter and more shrewd than his Music Row brethren time and time again.
Last Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards were set up to be Taylor Swift’s night. She was the artist with the most-dominant, most commercially-successful release in country music, and in the entire music world overall. But Taylor didn’t even win one award on the night, not even the fan-voted Entertainer of the Year that she’s taken home the last two years from the support of her massive fan base. Taylor Swift is arguably the most-popular artist in all of music, yet she didn’t even perform at the ACM’s except in an accompaniment role with her record label’s new toy Tim McGraw. The most significant development from the 2013 ACM Awards might not be Luke Bryan’s Entertainer of the Year win or the country rap performances, but Taylor Swift’s 0-fer with the awards and lack of significant participation in the presentation.
So what is going on with Taylor Swift and country music in 2013? For years the droning, tiresome argument of whether Taylor Swift is country or not has raged on incessantly, with the obvious answer from an observance of her music being “no,” but with country radio, country awards shows, and the country media and industry welcoming Taylor and her huge fan base in with open arms. But something has changed since the release of her last album Red in October of 2012, hinting that Taylor Swift herself may be wanting rid of the rigid country format that has firmly ensconced her in the crosshairs of country criticism for years.
Taylor Swift did not feel the need for a solo performance at the ACM Awards, but she scored the opening performance at this year’s Grammy Awards in early February. At the Grammy Awards the year previous, Taylor Swift won two Grammy’s for her song “Mean,” arguably the most country song she’s ever cut. She also performed the song on the Grammy presentation in a very country setting with shards of old wood as her backdrop, wearing a simple country dress and playing a banjo.
At the Grammy Awards this year, one whose underlying theme was the dominance for roots music with Mumford & Sons taking home Album of the Year honors, Taylor performed one of her most pop song to date–”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that included the most grandiose, ultra-pop live production possible. And even though Taylor Swift didn’t bother with a solo performance at the ACM Awards that were held in Las Vegas, she’s announced she will be back in Vegas for the Billboard Music Awards in May, where she will be contributing a full performance.
And then there’s the business of all of these Taylor Swift pop singles she’s been releasing one after another to Top 40 radio, while country radio goes virtually ignored. During the production process of Taylor’s album Red, at the prodding Big Machine label head and executive producer Scott Borchetta, Taylor Swift brought in pop hit producers Max Martin and Shellback to co-write and produce songs for the album. The collaboration resulted in only three tracks, but the three most pop tracks out of Red‘s 16 total songs. And despite being a small percentage of Red‘s content, the Max Martin / Shellback songs have comprised all of the album’s first major singles–”We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “22.”
The tepid “Begin Again” was released to country radio, but it felt like a token afterthought to the more dominant “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” whose primary mix was purposely labeled “pop.” The “country” version of the song was the remix instead of the primary mix–an unusual reversal for a country artist–and was only available to radio upon request, not to consumers. 7 months into Red‘s album cycle, and country radio has yet to see a substantive single from Taylor Swift, even though the 16 tracks of the album include many songs in the same vein that Swift has found success with on country radio before.
And as to be expected, those pop songs have been massive commercial successes. “We Are Never…” has been certified triple platinum, and “I Knew You Were Trouble” quadruple platinum. And Taylor Swift is said to already be recording new material for a new album. With the overwhelming commercial success from the Max Martin / Shellback collaboration and the virtual ignoring of Red‘s more substantive, more country-palatable tracks, what are the odds of what the direction of her new material will be? Taylor does have a single with her name on it climbing the country charts, but once again it is the “Highway Don’t Care” song of Tim McGraw’s that she appears on.
Sure, as the album cycle of Taylor Swift’s Red continues to elongate, she may make a move back to the more country side of the world, but at this point, why would she? Though a wide view of Red still reveals Taylor’s propensity to be a pop star with substance, the way she’s navigated releasing the singles and handling the award show performances for the album seems to hint that she’s no longer concerned with participating, or even paying homage to either the country format that gave rise to her stardom, or the singer/songwriter depth that created not just a big fan base, but a loyal one; one that would never let a fan-voted award go by without a Taylor Swift win.
So if Taylor Swift is truly attempting to extricate herself from country, when will the country charts catch on and quit including her in their country rankings? And when will the country award shows quit nominating her? And however big of a fish Taylor Swift is, will she be gobbled up by the much bigger pop scene that doesn’t offer as much grass roots support as country? And how does Taylor’s move of not wanting to be perceived as a role model anymore factor in?
The tiresome arguments back and forth of whether Taylor Swift is country or not may soon be coming to an end, but not because one side or the other will win. It’s because Taylor Swift herself seems to be wanting to tell the world she’s no longer wants to be considered a country music artist.
Think what you want about Kacey Musgraves, her recent album Same Trailer, Different Park, or even her blockbuster hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but it’s hard to view her story as nothing less than an illustration of the resounding power of song. Whatever depths of shallowness Nashville’s major labels might be mired in at the moment, one song from an independent-minded artist did the unthinkable. It wound up with a whopping 30 weeks on Billboard’s Country Songs chart and won her a nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year at tonight’s ACM Awards, even before the song’s parent album was released on March 19th–an album that debuted at #1 in country, and #2 in all of music.
Beyond “Merry Go ‘Round” and a few other select songs like “Silver Lining,” some distinguishing country music fans have felt there was a little more hype than substance to Same Trailer, Different Park. But nothing can re-write what “Merry Go ‘Round” has done and continues to do. According to Musgraves who appeared on CBS’s Sunday Morning show, she hopes her success ushers in a changing mindset in country, one that offers an alternative to the male-dominated laundry list divel infecting country radio’s airwaves. What kind of alternative?
Just a widened acceptance of subject matter, I don’t know — the realization that you don’t have to sing about trucks and tailgates to be a country artist.
Kacey also talked about a “younger mindset coming in,” and why this was a good thing, but how just being younger doesn’t necessarily mean being better. Though Kacey was coy, she seemed to allude that even though Taylor Swift had made country “cool,” this doesn’t mean she’s made country better.
I do think people like Taylor Swift have opened our genre up to people who wouldn’t necessarily ever listen to country, and it’s made it in a sense more cool. So I do think there’s an influx of a little bit of change. But I want there to be more.
Tonight is the annual Academy Awards, arguably the biggest, most important night in all of American entertainment, if not in the entire world. And during the presentation, and in the list of nominees and winners, you will not see a parade of the movie industry’s most flashy personalities. You won’t see anybody judged on looks or popularity. You will not see the most commercially-successful endeavors given exclusive billing and opportunity for accolades. No, what you will see is the best and the brightest of the industry highlighted based mostly on the creativity and artistic integrity of their works.
It’s not that The Oscars completely ignore commercial viability or success. When a movie like Titanic or Lord of the Rings emerges, the industry recognizes the importance of these legacy films and gives them the proper nods, but not without regard to the artistic integrity of these movies or the talent displayed by the actors in them. Film understands that the most financially-successful movies have their legacy cemented by the strength of their box office numbers, and don’t need to be buffered by accolades better suited to those films that did not enjoy as much commercial attention. And this does not just go for The Oscars. From The Golden Globes, to Cannes, to a myriad of smaller film festivals all across the country and world, in the film industry there is an insistence on finding the most important works in a given year, and shining the spotlight on them.
Contrast this with the music industry, especially the country music industry that is flush with award shows now to the point of being redundant, and the differences are nothing short of embarrassing. In the film industry, low-budget and artistic films regularly find their way to the very top of the award show itinerary. In music, low-budget and independent albums, songs, and artists are completely shut out in favor of the same cloistered group of franchise-caliber names on an annual basis.
A perfect example is country music’s dilemma of finding a 5th female for the “Vocalist of the Year” category at both this CMA Awards and the ACM Awards for the 2012 cycle. The CMA’s, struggling to find a name of similar caliber to the top 3 ladies of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift, reached completely outside of the country world to nominate Kelly Clarkson. The ACM’s also drew a blank beyond Martina McBride as a 4th candidate, and gave the nod to Kacey Musgraves, who despite being an interesting up-and-coming name, hasn’t even released a major album yet.
Meanwhile in 2012, a consensus built throughout music–from The Rolling Stone, to CMT’s editorial chief Chet Flippo, to right here on Saving Country Music–that Kellie Pickler’s album 100 Proof was an album worthy of accolades that balanced artistic integrity and commercial sensibilities. But Kellie and 100 Proof went completely ignored by the award shows, even though they were actively looking in the ranks of unknowns and outside the genre for a female name to fill out their candidate list. Along with the disparaging current outlook this paints for females in country music, it also illustrates the pull the industry has on what are supposed to be independent awards. The reason Kellie Pickler was not nominated is because she enjoyed no support from her label; a factor that is virtually superfluous in the movie world.
The point of awards is to promote the industry they cater to, and if they only consider commercial success, they become a self-fulfilling prophesy and feed a cloistered, creatively anemic environment. When the Academy Awards “Best Picture” nominees are announced, each film gets a sizable boost that helps re-focus the industry on the artistic integrity of the medium. A couple of years ago, The Oscars increased the amount of “Best Picture” nominees for this reason and others.
The Grammy Awards of the music world tend to include a bit more focus on artistry compared to the genre specific shows, but Oscar night every year is a reminder of how behind the music industry is compared to its peers in putting its best foot forward, and promoting the brightest talent.
Since music no longer holds any intrinsic value to the American consumer and they’d rather steal a song than have it be sold to them for less than a pack of gum, merch, MERCH is where all the money is now. Major labels manufacture merch in the textile industry’s version of puppy mills somewhere in southeast Asia, and then mark it up 700% at the arena concert you paid $185 from a scalper to get into. You can expect pilling fabric and peeling graphics after the 3rd wash, but that’s okay because 7 cents of each sale goes to the artist you love.
Here’s some country music T Shirts you won’t see for sale anytime soon.
Sunday night is the most important night in music of the year as the 55th annual Grammy Awards will be transpiring in Los Angeles. Independent-minded music consumers can go back and forth about just how important Grammy night is, but regardless if you like the winners or even care to pay attention, what transpires Sunday night will have effects on the entire music world.
And in 2013, the effects on roots music could be greater than they have ever been before, with artists like Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, and The Lumineers up for some of the night’s most prestigious awards. Sunday night could be the crowning of “roots” music as the most influential force in popular music right now, whether roots fans like it or not, or feel the artists who will be bestowed with awards truly represent the essence of the modern roots world is all about.
Another primary interest will be the Taylor Swift performance that will start the show. Rumored to be her smash bubblegum pop hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor will once again test the will of country-dom to continue to number her amongst their ranks despite the parade of pop songs she has released from her latest album, including her latest single, “22.”
Oh, and then there’s the ever-present possibility that Taylor Swift bombs the performance like she did New Year’s night. But on Sunday, Taylor will not benefit from half the press core vomiting into toilets while the other half holds their hair back. All eyes and ears will be on Taylor, with vivid memories of her awful 2010 performance on these very Grammy Awards very much front of mind.
Here’s some observations, and half-cocked predictions.
Best Country Album
If you need any more evidence that the Grammys do their best to reward not just commercial success, but artistic substance, look no further than this list of Best Country Album candidates. The Time Jumpers? The Jamey Johnson Hank Cochran tribute? Sure, it wouldn’t be my list. I would have Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof on here to start, but it’s certainly interesting. Zac Brown would be the pick for an album that both performed well commercially, and has some good points artistically. But this is a peer-voted award, and the sheer number of collaborators on Living For A Song, and the friends of those collaborators might put it over the top. I believe this is how the Guy Clark tribute won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. Despite Hunter playing most of the instruments on his album, he would be the commercial pick.
Uncaged — Zac Brown Band – 2nd
Hunter Hayes — Hunter Hayes – 3rd
Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson – 1st pick
Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers
Best Country Solo Performance
Okay, all those nice things I said about the Grammys and rewarding substance? Strike that. This list is awful. Jason Isbell claimed in the past that Dierks Bentley stole “Home” from him. Once again we see Hunter Hays has powerful friends. Blake Shelton might win another award based solely on his reality show celebrity status from The Voice. And however powerful “Blown Away” is, it’s in no way country. Ronnie Dunn should probably win, but does he have enough buddies in Grammy land to pull it off? I’m fearing a big night for Hunter Hays.
“Home” — Dierks Bentley
“Springsteen” — Eric Church
“Cost Of Livin’” — Ronnie Dunn – Let’s hope
“Wanted” — Hunter Hayes
“Over” — Blake Shelton
“Blown Away” — Carrie Underwood
Best Country Song
We should all hope that Will Hoge finally gets recognized for the brilliant songwriter that he is. This list isn’t nearly as bad as the “Best Solo Performance, but Eric Church’s “Springsteen” summer anthem, though catchy, doesn’t belong being nominated for anything. It wasn’t even the best song on his own album.
“Blown Away” — Josh Kear & Chris Tompkins, songwriters (performed by: Carrie Underwood)
“Cost Of Livin’” — Phillip Coleman & Ronnie Dunn, songwriters (performed by: Ronnie Dunn) - One to root for
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Will Hoge & Eric Paslay, songwriters (performed by: Eli Young Band) – One to root for
“So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” — Jay Knowles & Adam Wright, songwriters (performed by: Alan Jackson)
“Springsteen” — Eric Church, Jeff Hyde & Ryan Tyndell, songwriters (performed by: Eric Church)
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
I was surprised “Safe & Sound” didn’t win at the CMA’s. It feels like a strong contender here, but with The Civil Wars on indefinite hiatus, voters may want to give their nod to a project with a brighter future. Even if it doesn’t win, Don Williams’ “I Just Came Here For The Music” already scores a victory for simply being noticed. An excellent song, and an even better performance by Don and Alison. “Pontoon” is a borderline joke song, and it is an embarrassment to country music it was even nominated. Are The Time Jumpers the 2013 Grammy sleeper? With all these nominations, they could rise up and be one of the big winners of the night.
Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Eli Young Band
“Pontoon” — Little Big Town
“Safe & Sound” — Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars
“On The Outskirts Of Town” — The Time Jumpers
“I Just Come Here For The Music” – Don Williams Featuring Alison Krauss – Feel Good Story
Best Americana Album
This is the toughest to handicap. By sales, impact, and influence, Mumford & Sons should walk away with this easily, like them or not. But since they are the favored for the more prestigious (and televised) Album of the Year, will voters favor another candidate here? The runner up would be The Lumineers, but they are up for the “Best New Artist” as well. Meanwhile there sit The Avett Brothers who were actually making this type of music when Mumford and The Lumineers were still going through puberty, and it wasn’t cool or commercially successful. And don’t count out Bonnie Raitt. She has a lot of friends with Grammy votes. John Fullbright is a real feel good story, but I’m not sure he stands a chance in this strong of a field.
The Carpenter — The Avett Brothers – Deserve it way more than the Johnny Come Lately’s
From The Ground Up – John Fullbright – The Underdog to Root For
The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Babel – Mumford & Sons
Slipstream – Bonnie Raitt – Powerful friends and many of them
If you’ve found you’re eyeballs affixed to these very words, you’ve likely found yourself at some point trying to explain that you like country, but not that type of country. Once certain artists get to the very top of country pop, they seem to lose all self-awareness and begin to make fools of themselves, and by proxy, the genre that holds the same name as the music we love. It never ceases that when quotation mark “country” takes center stage, true country fans get embarrassed. He are some of the worst offenses.
Ironically, KISS is still the most country band on the stage. And where is that one dude’s hand? (with Lady Antebellum at the 2012 ACM Awards).
Don’t panic folks! No endangered cheetah’s were injured in the making of Shania’s outfit, just the integrity of country music!
A hip-hop artist rapping with Jason Aldean at the 2011 CMT Awards? That’s Ludacris! (hardy har, har!!)
Nothing says country like suspending yourself over a stadium of 70,000 people. Eat your heart out Sandy Duncan! (Garth at Texas Stadium circa 1993).
Just take a moment to sit back and really contemplate what the dude on the left is wearing. (Taylor Swift)
Does it really matter if Tim McGraw was trying to be funny or serious? (for the launching of “McGraw” cologne)
I have no idea what is going on here, or what is supposed to be going on. And frankly, I’m not sure I want to know. (Sugarland)
Yeah, there were no warning signs before Blake Shelton’s recent quotes. None!
This story has been updated (at bottom).
For years as a reactionary Taylor Swift hater, one of the main arguments that was made against my stance was that Taylor Swift was a good role model. My rebuttal was that being a role model was not a sonic element, so it could in no way refract the fact that Taylor Swift wasn’t country, and couldn’t sing. And by the way, is it too much to ask that our role models at least be able to fulfill their roles in whatever discipline they’re endeavoring in to even some average level of competency? Isn’t that what a role model is, someone who inspires us by exemplifying the extreme of human abilities while not losing sight of themselves and how the world perceives them? For gosh sakes, Taylor Swift couldn’t even sing.
Where the Taylor Swift role model identity was realized for me was in her 3rd album Speak Now. Maybe an average effort of music, but for a pop album in a world of mediocrity, average immediately becomes exceptional. And hey, Taylor Swift wrote all of those songs, by herself, and produced the thing too. At 19, she was calling the shots. She was separating herself from the common pop cycle of becoming product. This my friends was inspiring and exceptional to say the least. And this all transpired in a period of renewed attention to her vocal limitations and some honest progress in that direction, paralleled by underwhelming, nondescript relationship news in her personal life. After her 2010 Grammy fiasco, Taylor Swift had righted the ship, and made her critics eat their words. Including this one.
But there’s a reason the most successful among us are the few, and why there seems to be celebrities and role models falling from grace on any given day. Human nature is so starkly cyclical, and success so many times breeds overconfidence and the blinding to oneself. Speak Now was yet another wildly-successful album for Taylor, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Sales could have been a little better, and radio could have been a little more lucrative. That’s the problem with money–you can always have more of it.
So the formula that had propelled Taylor Swift to one of the most successful, if not the most successful musical act of our generation, needed to be revised. The small, but effective team of Taylor, producer Nathan Chapman, and for Taylor’s earlier albums, co-writer Liz Rose, was scrapped for a dream team of 8 producers and co-writers, including ultrapop moguls Max Martin and Shellback. And the need to do this was not deemed by Taylor herself focusing inward, but by her label president Scott Borchetta. But hey, it’s really only 3 songs Swift is being asked to sign on to that weren’t her original ideas. That’s mostly harmless, right?
Next thing we know Taylor Swift’s public persona is being completely re-shaped and blotted by these 3 songs and how they sully what originally made Taylor Swift ferociously appealing to the masses: being herself, writing and performing her own songs. Yes, those Max Martin / Shellback songs were only 3 out of the 16 tracks on Red, but they constituted 2 of the first 3 singles. And word is, the 4th single will be the last Max Martin / Shellback song “22,” once again a song that resides out of her nature, beyond her vocal abilities, and completely out of her character.
Oh, and Taylor Swift is already in the studio again recording. What do we think she’s learned from the commercial success of the songs primarily written by others? I doubt they’ve taught her how to better be herself. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of Red‘s substantive songs are left on the shelf, and new Taylor Swift dance pop material is made available to the public quicker than anticipated.
This feels like a tragedy. Sure, a first world tragedy, but nonetheless. I find myself resisting the urge to hatch a plan of how to reach Taylor Swift and tell her that the success of these ultrapop songs is fool’s gold. I hear you can sometimes catch her going to get coffee from her suite in Nashville when she’s in town. On second thought, this feels like a plan of how to get tazed.
Whether it was from gross overconfidence, serious self-doubt, or bad counsel from her confidants, Taylor Swift fell during her Red album project like the neckline on her People’s Choice Awards dress (I’m told “falling neckline” is how that style is described). But how is she supposed to realize this? She’s surrounded by #1 hits and overwhelming financial success. Look, I’m no prude. However that dress was wickedly symbolic.
In an interview on 60 Minutes last year, Taylor Swift said, “I definitely think about a million people when I’m getting dressed in the morning…It would be really easy to say, ‘I’m 21 now, I do what I want, you raise your kids.’ But that’s not the truth of it. The truth of it is that every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation.”
But when she got dressed for the People’s Choice Awards, Taylor Swift only thought about one person. And are we surprised with all of this loss of self identity that Taylor Swift bombed her New Year’s performance, reversing years of work to erase her pitchy past? Or that all of a sudden and out of character Taylor Swift starts hop scotching from one torrid love affair to another, not just making surface scratches to her grounded, good girl luster, but removing large chunks? The question is not if Taylor’s now old enough to dress more scantily or to be more promiscuous. The question is does she want to continue to be perceived as a role model or not?
I don’t give a shit how many people Taylor Swift dates, who they are, or how long she’s with them. It’s none of our damn business, and if you think that Taylor’s dating practices are any different than most 23-year-old young women, you’re a fool. Yes, the stock of men she gets to choose from gives new meaning to the term “the world is your oyster.” But possessed with the same opportunities, we would all take them, and make similar, shallow mistakes. That’s not the point here.
The point is Taylor Swift is exhibiting all the classic signs of losing herself, and through that, America is losing one of its most important role models. And if being a role model is the metric that allows us to overlook some of the otherwise compromising elements of her music, we’re losing one of America’s greatest musical performers too. America has never had a positive pop role model like Taylor Swift. And America has never needed a positive female role model more than now.
Taylor Swift taught millions of little girls that you can be exceptional even when you’re average, and that you achieve this by being yourself. This is the lesson that hangs in the balance.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
UPDATE (8-25-13): At tonight’s MTV VMA Awards, Taylor Swift was possibly caught mouthing, “Shut The Fuck Up” in response to boy band One Direction thanking the Brooklyn crowd. Taylor Swift once dated One Direction’s Harry Styles. Below is a GIF of the incident, and a video of the incident in context.
In fairness, some are also alleging that Taylor is actually saying, “Sorry for my arm,” or “Sorry, that’s my arm,” as she pulls her arm out from behind pop star Selena Gomez.
The Mono-Genre Theory in short states that all popular music is coalescing into one big genre where influences and styles from country, rap, rock, blues etc. coexist without any true lines defining their differences. As the mono-genre forms, micro-genres pop up, and the popularity of independent music rises as disenfranchised consumers seek out choice. The good thing about the formation of the mono-genre is the breakdown of musical prejudices. The bad thing is the death of contrast and diversity in popular music, a lack of choice, and the bleeding of regional influence out of popular music.
In recent years when the end-of-year sales numbers are released by Nielsen Soundscan, it has revealed evidence of this mono-genre coagulation. 2012 was no different. NPR even got in on the game, calling 2012 The Return of the “Monoculture.” Every genre except for the two super-genres of rock and country saw sales decreases in 2012.
- Alternative – down 4.3%
- Christian/Gospel – down 3.4%
- Classical – down 20.5%
- Dance/Electronic – down 12.0%
- Jazz – down 26.2%
- Latin – down 17.6%
- Metal – down 0.3%
- New Age – down 12.9%
- R&B – down 10.2%
- Rap – down 11.4%
- Soundtracks – down 5.2%
Rock sales were up 2%, and country sales were up 4.2%.
With all these declining numbers, it may seem like the music industry is still in the tailspin that plagued it in music’s lost decade of the 2000′s, but overall music sales were only down a very moderate 1.8% in 2012. 2011 will go down as the year the music industry finally righted the ship and stabilized from the fluidity the move to digitization caused. 2012 may go down as the year that a lack of substance stalled this upward trend.
(chart from Glorious Noise)
Rock has always been the most dominant American genre in regards to sales because it is America’s “catch-all” term for music. But as time goes on, country is acquiring some “catch-all” attributes as well, accounting for sales from artists that sonically are much more akin to mainstream arena rock than country. Meanwhile looking into the sales numbers for rock, many bands at the very top could just as well be called country, and are considered country, Americana, or “roots” by many fans and industry types. Babel by Mumford & Sons was 2012′s 4th best-selling album and artist, with 1,463,000 units sold. Sales by other Americana artists like The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers also accounted for rock sales despite their heavy roots influence.
Within the mono-genre theory is the idea that aside from rock, the two most dominant sonic influences in its formation would be country and rap. However rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see either a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Meanwhile country dominated the top tiles and artists for 2012, with Taylor Swift coming in as the 2nd-highest selling album and artist, and Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Carrie Underwood all securing top 10 spots; the first time country has accounted for 5 of the top 10 spots in the history of SoundScan tracking. It’s also worth noting that Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Red was only given 10 weeks at the end of 2012 to tally up sales for the genre.
|2012 Top Ten Selling Albums||2012 Top Ten Selling Artists|
(Combines All Album Sales)
|Title/Artist||Units Sold||Artist||Units Sold|
|1||21 / ADELE||4,414,000||1||ADELE||5,167,000|
|2||RED / TAYLOR SWIFT||3,107,000||2||TAYLOR SWIFT||4,062,000|
|3||UP ALL NIGHT / ONE DIRECTION||1,616,000||3||ONE DIRECTION||2,978,000|
|4||BABEL / MUMFORD & SONS||1,463,000||4||MUMFORD & SONS||2,149,000|
|5||TAKE ME HOME / ONE DIRECTION||1,340,000||5||JUSTIN BIEBER||1,897,000|
|6||BELIEVE / JUSTIN BIEBER||1,324,000||6||JASON ALDEAN||1,855,000|
|7||BLOWN AWAY / CARRIE UNDERWOOD||1,203,000||7||WHITNEY HOUSTON||1,789,000|
|8||TAILGATES & TANLINES / LUKE BRYAN||1,105,000||8||MAROON 5||1,540,000|
|9||TUSKEGEE / LIONEL RICHIE||1,071,000||9||CARRIE UNDERWOOD||1,497,000|
|10||NIGHT TRAIN / JASON ALDEAN||1,024,000||10||LUKE BRYAN||1,432,000|
Once again the sales numbers hint that the mainstream music public seems to be yearning for substance. While super hits like Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” dominated the download numbers, Adele’s 21 was the best-selling album in 2012. That’s right, an album that was released in February of 2011, and was 2011′s best-selling album, retains its crown in 2012 as the industry continues to labor to find legitimate titles and artists that can deliver both substance and commercial viability.
Of course physical sales were down once again, with CD sales declining 13%. But vinyl continued its upswing, accounting for 4.6 million in sales, breaking the previous record of 3.9 million in 2011. Even more interesting, 67% of that vinyl was purchased at independent music stores. These numbers parallel the point that the mono-genre’s formation will cause a flight to independent music by independently-minded consumers seeing choice.
Looking from a broad perspective, the 2012 music sales numbers continue to corroborate the theory of the formation of a mono-genre, with the one important addendum being the possible decline of the rap influence, and the rising dominance of the country and roots influence; a trend that promises to be carried in part into 2013 by the continued commercial success of Taylor Swift’s Red.
This year in popular country music, there were some glimmers of hope. Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” found some surprising traction and success, and Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof may go down as one of the best mainstream country albums in years. But of course this was all counter-balanced by a gaggle of the worst songs “country” music has ever seen. At this point we probably should just resign that each year the crop of bad songs will get worse as Music Row runs out of ideas and continues to appeal to the least common denominator and stretch for relevancy.
Something else to note about this year’s crop of “Worst Songs” is half of them, including the top three, are the responsibility of The Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label and it’s associated tentacles. Songs were picked through a proprietary algorithm that considers not just how awful a song is or sounds, but that also takes into consideration cultural significance.
8. Little Big Town – “Pontoon”
Little Big Town does its level best to shipwreck country music by jettisoning off any and all country roots and twang and inviting on board the most unabashed pop culture imagery and materialism in this stupid summer lake song. The only time a pontoon like this should make an appearance in country is when a bass boat is trolling by and its redneck occupants drop trow and moon these martini-sipping elitists. The eardrum-raping “tings” that make up the idiotic hook for this song sound like the noise that Satan would evoke when perpetually pulling out your pubic hairs one by one as the punishment for eternal damnation.
I hear mention of “motorboating” but unfortunately none of the sea hags in Little Big Town are endowed fully enough to pull the trick off. No, it’s not the choppy water, it’s this song that is making me want to blow chunks overboard.
7. Kip Moore – “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck”
You know your song is lame and unimaginative when Mother Goose is suing you for royalties and mechanicals. There’s something about a truck? There’s something about some pop country douche in a backwards baseball cap ripping off the nursery rhyme “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” accompanied by Richie Sambora-style stratocaster guitar that makes me want to insert a corkscrew into my earhole and start turning.
Apparently this song is about getting laid by some shallow chick. “On one occasion, [my car] broke down, so I asked my dad, ‘Pop, I need your truck.’ He said sure, so I took it to pick her up … It was like I picked up a whole other human. She was vibrant and all about me; she was all over me from the beginning of the date.”
6. Thomas Rhett – “Beer with Jesus”
Jesus may have turned the other cheek, but he also overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple where they didn’t belong. Just like the Romans of biblical times, these pop country fart tards are foreign occupiers who need to get the hell out of country. I don’t pretend to know what Jesus would do, but if I were him, I’d shove my sandal straight up Thomas Rhett’s ass and tell him he could keep his Michelob Ultra. Somewhere in the Bible it must say that the worst lies are the ones you tell yourself, and if Thomas Rhett thinks this song is anything other than marketing, he’s committing a cardinal sin.
Besides, wasn’t Jesus more of a wine guy? (read song review)
5. Craig Morgan – “Corn Star”
I’d rather have to clean up the corn-laced leavings of a sumo wrestler or have my poop shoot violated by a serrated corn cob than subject my ear holes to this abomination.
Yes my friends, this song actually exists, and was even released as a single. How do you out cornpone your corny competition? Make a pun about corn and insert into a sexually-charged urbanism (aka the Honky Tonk Badonka Donk songwriting formula). I can just see songwriters Jeffrey Steele and Shane Minor high fiving each other in the BMI building on Music Row, hoping this is the hit that takes them out of the cubicle farm to the corner office. But they’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you for buying into this worthless piece of drivel.
If you think “Corn Star” is funny, then the joke’s on you.
4. Shooter Jennings & Bucky Covington – “Drinking Side of Country”
Shooter takes the ‘O’ out of country and pulls a Benedict Arnold by teaming up with pop country also-ran Bucky Covington (aka “The Nickeback of Country Music”) in this positively awful pop song. Shooter has his Kool-Aid-drinking apologists selling out every one of their principles to defend their country music savior while he ca$hes in by the elevation of his cult of personality.
How pop is this video and song? Well it got over 2 million hits in 72 hours, but if you check out the like to dislike ratio on this video, it is phenomenal. This song has a double digit lead on the like to dislike ratio on all the other songs on this list, on the worst country songs of all time, or virtually any song released in popular music, only outpaced by Rebecca Blacks of the world. You could make a serious case that this song is the most polarizing ever released in country music.
Oh and let’s not forget they changed the “Outlaw” lyric in the song so Shooter wouldn’t look like a hypocrite since he called out this practice in his song “Outlaw You.” But all of that’s okay, because he played my band’s song on his satellite radio show on Sunday afternoon at a time slot they give to pseudo celebrities because barely anybody listens. Or he smoked me out backstage one night, or took me out for a drink and said he loved my blog.
I’m just glad I’m on record calling Shooter the Svengali of country music before this song and video were released. As Jules in Pulp Fiction once said, “If you want to play blind man, go walk with the shepherd. But me, my eyes are wide fucking open.” (read song review)
3. Florida-Georgia Line – “Cruise”
Yet another entry on this list originating from Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, which is ironic seeing how these two douchebags met at Borchetta’s cross-town rival’s namesake–Belmont University’s “Mike Curb College of Music.”
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list bullshit. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” in 2012 combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich. Punctuating how pathetic “Cruise” is, is the fact that these two dudes apparently don’t know how to use punctuation. The first line of the song goes, “Baby you a song,” instead of, “Baby you’re a song.” But what else can you expect when the title of their EP is It’z Just What We Do. Yes, it’s one of those albums, blurring the lines between Ebonics and idiocracy. (read song review)
2. Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
There’s positively nothing country about this song, which should really disqualify it from the competition. But because of Billboard’s new chart rules, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” went from being #21 on the country charts and faltering, to being #1 for 9 straight weeks, breaking the record for a female country artist that had been held since 1964 by Hall of Famer Connie Smith. It spent 3 weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s all-encompassing “Hot 100″ chart, the first country song to accomplish this feat since Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” released 33 years ago. It also set the record for the biggest digital sales week ever for a song by a female artist, and has now been certified triple platinum.
All of this is despite the fact that the song was only released to the public in a pop mix, with the “country” mix being the other version of the song, and only available to country radio upon request. I’ve got nothing funny to say here. I guess it is an okay pop song, but this song coupled with Billboard’s new chart rules caused possibly the biggest sonic and statistic erosion to the foundation of country music in its 70 year existence.
1. Tim McGraw – “Truck Yeah”
“Truck Yeah” picks up where Jason Aldean’s country/rap “Dirt Road Anthem” left off, blurring the lines between country and rap until you’re left with “crap.” With the first single from the Big Machine Records-era of Tim McGraw, the country music mega-star pulls off the biggest sellout move of his career, and one of the biggest sellout moves ever seen from an established country music franchise name. “Truck Yeah” is an embarrassing, overt outcry for relevancy and commercial acceptance. Somewhere Mike Curb–who McGraw won a court case against to release this song and join Big Machine–is sitting behind a desk, maniacally stroking a cat sitting on his lap and cackling.
There’s no story. Instead the song just spews out stereotypical artifacts of culture while hanging on one single monotone vocal note with minor variations. This song is a product of the mono-genre. It’s a club dance song. Countryisms and urbanisms are belted out by McGraw with no delineation between the two. He talks about crew cabs and clubs downtown. DJ’s and rednecks. And then there’s the line, “Got Lil’ Wayne Pumpin’ on my iPod.” And add on top of all of that the stupid cornpone title lyric and the fact that it’s yet another mainstream song about trucks and you have a super-fecta of pop country suckitude.
The worst country song ever? Quite possibly. It’s certainly the worst of 2012. (read song review)
On New Years Eve, Taylor Swift was one of the exclusive, marquee performers for ABC’s Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve hosted by Ryan Seacrest. And for a performer who has a history of off-key performances, Taylor delivered what might have been her worst live performance since her now notorious duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammy Awards. Singing two of the most pop songs from her new album Red–“I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”–the singer who is labeled country looked way more like a pop star, sporting black leather pants and a lipstick red microphone.
The performance was spotty throughout, but got slightly better from the beginning of “I Knew You Were Trouble” where Taylor was clearly struggling to stay in tune. The camera at one point found a Times Square reveler who looked like she has just swallowed a lemon in reaction to Taylor’s singing, while scores of watchers of the broadcast that boasts over 23 million viewers worldwide took to Facebook and Twitter to voice their displeasure–displeasure in Taylor’s singing, and confusion of why she is labeled country.
Meanwhile comedian Kathy Griffin on the CNN broadcast with Anderson Cooper went on an anti-Taylor Swift rant saying, “Can she stop complaining about her perfect life?” while throwing paper at Taylor performing on stage. She also called Taylor a “skinny whiner” who needed to “shut her mouth and count her money.” Griffin also accused Taylor of lip syncing and “using some sort of Auto-tune” but apparently Kathy wasn’t listening, because it would be hard to lip sync or use Auto-tune and be that out-of-tune at the same time. Similar misguided accusations of Taylor Swift using Auto-tune live have always been flatly denied by Swift.
Swift’s latest album Red released in October included 3 songs out of the 16 produced and co-written by the pop hitmaking duo of Max Martin and Shellback, but those songs constituted 100% of Taylor’s New Years Eve performance, and 50% of the singles released from the album so far. In November of 2011 I declared that I and other Taylor Swift critics had been wrong about the performer, but ever since the released of Red, Swift has done a complete 180, running away from the substance that made America fall in love with her as a sincere person and a good songwriter.
Swift has weathered these storms before. After her poor Grammy performance in 2010, she took inspiration from reading her critics and wrote the song “Mean” that became an anti-bullying anthem and won two Grammy awards. But this is starting to feel different. First off, Taylor says that she no longer reads her criticism or press. And second, if she continues only emphasize the more pop songs from her album, she will not have any substance to fall back on.
Kathy Griffin’s comments about Taylor Swift can be seen in the video below (mostly after the 13-minute mark).
Yes, yes we all know nothing about this is country, so let’s not waste any time rehashing old arguments. What intrigued me about this video is its boldness and its breadth, and how it perfectly illustrates the greater Taylor Swift paradox.
The video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” is heavy in concept, story, and mood. It starts off with Taylor waking up in a dystopia landscape in the form of the leavings of a drug-infused rave. Quickly characters are introduced that are completely counter-intuitive to the prim and proper Taylor Swift persona we are all familiar with, while Taylor herself is dirtified in a hipster punk getup with disheveled, pink-tipped hair, dark eyes, and her subtle overbite captivating the eye like Jennifer Grey’s pre plastic surgery sniffer.
Bar fights, cheap hotel rooms, Misfits T-shirts, bad tattoos, and the general trappings of a downtrodden, transient life create a backdrop for a tragic story that our sweet Taylor gets so unfortunately wrapped up in. The vision of the “I Knew You Were Trouble” video is beyond ambitious, and through the intelligent and creative use of light, setting, character, and costuming, they accomplish the most craved effect for a 5 to 6-minute piece of film: transporting you to a different place.
The “love as drug” storyline is enthralling, and the moral about losing who you are is both stimulating and well executed, helped along by Taylor’s reflective and contrite dialogue bookending what should really be characterized as a cinematic short as opposed to a simple music video.
Are you feeling the mother of all “but’s” coming on? Because that’s what hits you at the 2:03 mark when the actual “I Knew You Were Trouble” song gets piped into this post-Apocalyptic panoram. The effect is the utter destruction of any fantasy or mood this video conveys. The ultra-sacchrine, clean, ska-esque power pop opening guitar riffs, followed by the hip-hop cadence of Taylor’s bubble-gum dance club lyrics are like pouring a gallon of white paint on a Rembrandt, or serving caviar on a Cheeto.
Taylor Swift, the sweet little curly-haired girl that wrote all her own songs about romance is who America fell in love with. If she wants to become a dance club diva, she will quickly become a small fish in a big sea. Sure, the short term success will be (and has been) grand, but it will be at the expense of the long term acceptance as a substantive artist that Taylor Swift covets.
The video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” is about losing yourself, and ironically, that is exactly what Taylor Swift does with this song. Co-written by the pop hitmaking duo of Max Martin and Shellback, the dubstep-inspired tune is Taylor Swift uncharacteristically losing sight of what made her America’s greatest pop star: being herself.
Taylor has built her persona around being the anti-party girl. By putting out a party song, she’s off message, and out of her element. The song says, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in,” alluding to the antagonist entering somewhere, like a club where you would hear the type of digitally-manufactured dance music that “I Knew You Were Trouble” is synonymous with.
But in the video, Swift encounters the antagonist in an open space, and hangs out with him at a concert with a real band playing real instruments. She is also seen hanging out with him in a run-down diner, and bedding down with him in a dirty room. None of this creates contrast, it creates compromising confusion of mood and setting, in both this video and in the Taylor Swift cult of personality. I understand Taylor Swift is playing a character in the video, not being herself. But when it comes to the song, this is being presented as all Taylor.
No doubt in Taylor Swift’s brain, signing on with Max Martin and Shellback to do a gaggle of songs for her latest album was a stroke of brilliance. She has called them “heroes.” But just like the overall experience with Taylor’s album Red, the Martin/Shellback influence comes at you as completely out-of-step with what is otherwise a pop record filled with a curious amount of depth. We all make mistakes. The alarming part is that in this case, the mistakes are being rewarded with commercial successes and tremendous attention, possibly taking these songs from a trial balloon, to a pattern of behavior to stretch into the foreseeable future.
The most critically-acclaimed song in Taylor Swift’s career happens to also be her most country song ever, that being the double Grammy-winning “Mean” inspired by her critics. Taylor Swift says now that she no longer reads her criticism. She doesn’t want to be part of that negative experience, yet her personal life seems to be a torrid foray into high-profile flings, with the payoff being the inspiration for songs such as “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Now that Taylor is sequestered from the critical world, all she has is Mediabase numbers and YouTube plays to determine the success of her work.
You can’t have wild, short-term dance club success and keep your reputation as an artist of substance at the same time. Taylor Swift must choose. And with “I Knew You Were Trouble”, Taylor chooses poorly. Her “trouble” is not an antagonist cast in the role of a video, or a previous lover who jilted her. It is the denizens of the pop industry who would sell her long-term substance for their short-term success.
There is no morning after pill for that poor decision.
1 gun up for a brilliant video concept.
1 gun down for an awful song.
Well I can tell you this. No matter what you were expecting from this album, you’re probably going to be surprised.
I’ve never thought of Joe Buck as one to pay too much attention to the artistry of the recorded format. His discography consists mostly of slapped together CDRs with little psychotic scribbles for cover drawings, all home recorded, many with multiple versions of the same songs. I’m not complaining. They’re cool in their own right, like little pieces of evil folk art that contain more meaning than a mass produced glass-mastered silver disc in a plastic jewel case ever could. But it would be a stretch to say that a lot of refinement went into them. Joe Buck is a live performer.
Then about two years ago he released Piss & Vinegar, a proper studio album produced by Jack Endino (Nirvana’s Bleach) reportedly to be put out with heavy metal label Century Media before that deal went south. It included the prime cuts of Joe Buck’s previous albums done in a proper studio. For some of Buck’s core fans who’d been used to hearing the rough versions for so many years and watching him morph into a one man monster live, Piss & Vinegar felt somewhat tame. But Piss & Vinegar wasn’t for them necessarily, it was to reach folks who’d never heard Joe Buck before, to create a high-quality archive of his songs.
Joe Buck’s song craft has always been under-appreciated. People pick up on the primal experience of his show and many times miss the wisdom in his music. He once told me he could write songs for Taylor Swift (after telling me also that he “gets her”), and with one of his signature songs “Bitter Is The Day”, Joe Buck has given us a glimpse of what he’s capable of.
Who Dat is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even Piss & Vinegar. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst.
Just as with all of his albums, Joe Buck plays everything: guitar, drums, and bass. The instrumentation on Who Dat is more fleshed out than on most Joe Buck works, with good separation and engineering in the recording by Twin Oak’s Jason Dietz. Joe Buck plays his leads on an acoustic, again keeping you on that creepy edge from the understated approach. The words are more clear, making the conveyance of Joe Buck’s madness more coherent, while in places his writing leaves the messages a little more veiled.
Joe Buck’s song craft works in a circular pattern, spiraling into a moral about the descent of mankind that some may misunderstand as iniquitous or anti-religious. In truth it is the opposite. It is the Dante approach as apposed to the Gospel approach to pointing out the wayward trajectory of man. The acoustic-only “Jesus Is Dead” may be the best example of this, and one of the best Who Dat songs from an instrumental standpoint. In spots Who Dat is very personal, like the sweet and straightforward “Tied at the Hip” about Joe Buck and his wife. At other times it’s playful in a wicked way, like in the “Tango of Death”.
I don’t want to say Joe Buck has reinvented himself. I’m sure the stage show will be very similar to what we’ve seen from him in the past. And those who are familiar with Joe Buck’s work with Captain Sean from Throwrag may warm up quicker to this more subtle Joe Buck approach, that at times sways towards that Capt. Sean lounge-like feel.
What Joe Buck does with Who Dat is keep his music fresh. So many of his signature songs have been played for so many years with the same exact arrangement because they work so well. Now he has a new crop of excellent songs to work in as core standards, as well as a new approach to older songs if he wishes. This isn’t Joe Buck growing old with his music, it’s Joe illustrating tremendous self-awareness for a now almost 50-year-old performer; to be able to pull back, evaluate, and evolve to something new that at the same time is exactly what he’s always done.
Joe Buck will always be misunderstood by the masses. But when you look at the greater music world, his contributions are stout. To having a significant role in the #1 and #3 albums on SCM’s Greatest Underground Country Albums of All Time, to when you watch the new TV show “Nashville” on ABC and see Layla’s Bluegrass Inn featured—a place that Joe Buck bought back when lower Broadway in Nashville was virtually abandoned and help bring up along with that whole part of town–it’s plain to see that the music world would be a lot more plain if it wasn’t for Joe Buck’s musical madness.
Two guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Who Dat is only available on MP3 format and at Joe Buck live shows.
Over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a topic more beset with assumption, conjecture, and sometimes, idiocracy. Whether Taylor Swift uses Auto-Tune in either the live or recorded formats is not an opinion. Either she does, or she doesn’t, and the evidence we have to make those conclusions in many cases is obvious.
The most confounding, and unfortunately, one of the most common arguments I’ve seen made is that Taylor Swift must use Auto-Tune because she can’t sing. Unfortunately though, a symptom of using Auto-Tune would be that your pitch is perfect. That is the point of the program. So Taylor Swift singing out-of-tune would point to Taylor Swift not using Auto-Tune, not vice versa.
And some folks so willing to disbelieve all evidence even go as far as to say she purposely includes mistakes in her live routines to throw our Auto-Tune noses off the scent, or say that maybe she uses an alternative pitch correction program that allows her to officially say she doesn’t use Auto-Tune, when she still relies on pitch correcting software. But that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories. You don’t have to prove anything, you just have to create doubt.
The first thing you need to understand is that Taylor Swift has denied for years using any pitch correcting aids. These days, the battle to keep the use of Auto-Tune as a stigma in American music has been completely lost. If you are listening to an album meant for mass consumption, it very likely includes pitch correction. At the same time it’s probably not fair to assume that all artists use it. Taylor Swift has spent her career adhering to and articulating certain principals that allow her to be portrayed as “real,” and her stance of refusing to use Auto-Tune has been steadfast.
Taylor Swift is the “good girl,” and using Auto-Tune would not fit in in the “real” persona she portrays to the public. If she was ever caught using it, the facade around her persona would crumble, just like it did when Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his wife, instantly and dramatically devaluing Taylor’s name as a brand. The risk/reward is not worth it for Taylor to lie about it. Auto-Tune is socially acceptable in 2012. People would forgive Taylor for using it. But they probably wouldn’t forgive her for lying about it.
But you came here for a simple yes or no answer to if Taylor Swift uses Auto-Tune. So what is it?
Does Taylor Swift Use Auto-Tune live?
Absolutely not. And there’s such an overwhelming, insurmountable mountain of evidence pointing to that as being the truth, and that mountain continues to grow with every live Taylor Swift performance.
Aside from hundreds of live performances where Taylor Swift clearly sang out-of-tune, the other major piece of evidence we have is a personal exchange she had with music industry guru/critic Bob Lefsetz back in November of 2009. At that point, Bob Lefsetz was mostly known only by music industry insiders. When Lefsetz became the frontrunner for who Taylor Swift’s song “Mean” was about, that is when he became more of a pop culture figure. The legacy of Taylor Swift’s “Mean” actually didn’t start with her singing out-of-tune on the 2010 Grammy’s like many people think. It actually started a few months before, when Bob Lefsetz accused Taylor Swift of using Auto-Tune.
Appreciating the influence of Bob Lefsetz, Taylor Swift called him up personally, twice, from London, to vehemently deny her use of any pitch-correcting software. Swift went to great lengths to explain herself, and even invited Lefsetz to come to one of her live shows and inspect her gear to confirm it. Then Taylor had the head of her gear and lighting setup personally email Lefsetz and explain further. Here was Taylor, already having to deal with the criticism that she couldn’t sing, and at the same time having to fight off an Auto-Tune controversy. As Bob Lefsetz said at the time:
Said she could handle being criticized for having a bad voice, for missing notes. But she couldn’t live with being criticized for being inauthentic.
In short, there has never been one credible shred of evidence pointing to Taylor Swift using Auto-Tune live. And in fact all evidence points to the contrary.
Does Taylor Swift Use Auto-Tune recorded?
Ah ha. This is where it gets a little tricky. And if we are to believe the same Bob Lefsetz / Taylor Swift exchange that helped corroborate that Taylor does not use Auto-Tune live, the answer would be, “Yes.” In Lefsetz’s portrayal of his phone calls with Swift, he says:
Taylor got into it. How she didn’t even know how to use auto-tune, had never used it. Then again, she admitted to fixing some mistakes in the studio.
In other words, though Taylor has never and would never use Auto-Tune in the live context, in the studio, she’s admitted that she has used it, however sparingly.
Does this make Taylor Swift a liar? Seeing how the biggest piece of evidence that she does use Auto-tune in recordings is when she was fessing up to it to Lefsetz back in 2009, it’s pretty hard to call that a lie. The reason that pitch and Auto-Tune are such a constant thread of discussion around Taylor Swift is because of her issues singing in concert, so maybe this is the context that is most important. But then again, denying its use without being more specific may have not been the most forthright way for Taylor to handle the issue.
And then you can get bogged down in discussions on the use of Auto-Tune as an “effect.” Taylor clearly does this on numerous songs on her newest album Red. Is this breaking the no Auto-Tune rules, or no different than using reverb or a bullhorn to augment vocals?
The Real Issue
All of this talk is completely missing the point about what makes Taylor Swift so appealing to the American public. It’s what the people on the outside looking in don’t get, and the thing that I admittedly didn’t get for years. Taylor Swift detractors can talk until they’re blue in the face about how she can’t sing, or how she uses Auto-Tune, but they’ll never change a mind because people don’t love Taylor Swift despite her flaws, they love Taylor Swift because of her flaws. She personifies the beauty of American imperfection. Though some of her loyal fans will never admit it, we all know deep in our hearts Taylor is an average singer at best. Taylor Swift is flawed, clumsy, and in many ways, uncool. She’s a flat-chested, pencil-thin, pale and awkward little girl with perpetual neurotic love drama brought on by self-esteem issues.
In other words, she’s fucked up, just like the rest of us, which makes her real. And in a world where the food we eat is fake, the stuff we buy is fake, the jobs we work are fake, and most of the people we meet are fake, “refreshing” is not a strong enough word to describe the reason why the Taylor Swift phenomenon has transpired in popular culture. Little girls and their mothers look at Taylor Swift and they see themselves, and that trumps all concerns about singing or genre.
And that’s why Taylor Swift’s biggest problem is not singing. It’s Max Martin, Shellbeck, and The Country Music Anti-Christ, Scott Borchetta. Because they are the ones getting in the way of Taylor being herself by trying to make her perfect.
- Trigger on Spike TV Airs Episode Featuring Bar Where Wayne Mills Was Killed
- Acca Dacca on Don’t Give Up The Term “Country,” Be Positive About It
- blah on Luke Bryan Loses “Male Video” Award for Having a Vagina
- Mark N on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville
- Alabama Mike on Circumstances of Wayne Mills’ Death Leave Many Questions