Why Kelsea Ballerini’s #1 for “Love Me Like You Mean It” is a Shallow Victory

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Welp, problem solved right? There is no longer an issue of gender equality in country music since pop starlet Kelsea Ballerini has just secured a #1 spot for her current single “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and did so in a historic fashion.

Or is there?

The #1 on the Mediabase country radio singles chart marks the first time a debut single from a female artist has crested the chart since Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel” in 2006. Or if you consider that Underwood also released a “Coronation Song” as part of her American Idol victory, then it’s been since 2004 and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night on” and Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” were also recent debut #1’s, but “Love Me Like You Mean It” tackled the difficult obstacle of a solo female #1 debut.

However is this really the substantive victory we were looking for that would symbolize inroads into the sausage fest at the top of the country music charts? Unfortunately the story about the “Love Me Like You Mean It” #1 is more about radio politics, a specific and calculated push by connected people, and frankly, a pop song on country radio. Though the diversity is welcomed, the result is circumspect.

Taylor Swift was the first to give “Love Me Like You Mean It” a serious nudge up the charts with her early support of the song on social network. It probably doesn’t hurt that Ballerini’s father is a radio station sales manager, and probably knows the in’s and out’s of the business. But more specifically, recent spins on the massive Bobby Bones syndicated radio show were likely what put “Love Me Like You Mean It” over the hump. And isn’t it interesting that the Bobby Bones comedy band The Raging Idiots just signed to Ballerini’s label, Black River Entertainment. Yes, Bobby Bones has a record deal (and your favorite band still doesn’t), and Ballerini could have been a beneficiary of some home cooking.

But we don’t need to float any conspiracy theories here. In the aftermath of SaladGate, where radio consultant Keith Hill recommended country stations scale back their female representation, there has been a movement in the opposite direction by some program directors, and an artist like Kelsea Ballerini is the beneficiary. She became the artist they could point to and say, “See, we support women.” “Love Me Like You Mean It” didn’t shoot up the charts, it was pushed there by a bevy of forces.

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But is this about equality, or is this about quality music? Because if it’s about the latter then Kelsea Ballerini’s victory is a shallow one. It also may give us a false reading on just what an uphill battle most female artists still need to climb, while others will point to the #1 to say gender equality has now returned to the mainstream and let their guard down once again.

The insistence in country radio should be for each song to be judged on its own merit, regardless of the sex of the artist. But in the case of Kelsea and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” this is a pop song that shouldn’t be played on country radio anyway.