Kane Brown is not the worst thing happening in country music in 2018. It’s important to draw that distinction. Though many traditionalists and independent country fans love to lump anything emanating from a major label into the same refuse pile, it’s not only unfair, it’s unhelpful to the cause of lobbying for better music to permeate and thrive in the mainstream. You can’t save country music while completely avoiding the most popular arm of the genre, or burying your head in the sand to the problems that persist there, or failing to recognize the positive takeaways that can be had.
Sam Hunt, Mitchell “Bitches” Tenpenny, Walker Hays, and a host of other B-team country music pseudo stars with multiple #1’s on radio that 95% of Americans couldn’t pick out of a lineup, they form a line to the left of Kane Brown when it comes to the worst possible thing country music has to offer.
But that’s about where the compliments one can construct for Kane Brown give out, at least from an objective, informed viewpoint. That doesn’t mean that Kane Brown’s music isn’t any good. Clearly the guy has fans, and quite fervent ones. So there is something to the mass appeal that has put him in the position as the hottest thing in “country” music at the moment. But those fans aren’t fans of country music, at least not most of them. They’re fans of Kane Brown, and are fans of country only due to false association.
As crazy as it might sound, Luke Bryan’s latest album What Makes You Country is leagues better, and more country than Kane Brown’s Experiment. Same goes for Blake Shelton’s Texoma Shore. Jason Aldean’s Rearview Town? It’s still better than Experiment, and more importantly, the singles from these respective releases are better, and more country. Put Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” against anything Kane’s released, or Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It,” or Jason Aldean’s “Drowns The Whiskey.”
Give Kane Brown and his handlers credit for being more savvy than most. They know how to deftly slip just enough country signifyers into the mix to throw otherwise intelligent journalists and even some smart fans off the scent of what’s really going on here, allowing Kane Brown to slip past the gatekeepers of the genre like sliding a guard dog a bone. The songs that will make it on the radio and in playlists, and the bulk of the music on Experiment is nothing more than fleeting, vacuous, unimaginative, safe, pallid American mass consumer generic entertainment, unremarkable and inconsequential to the greater culture aside from aiding its continuing slide and homogenization.
Yes, there’s a song on Experiment called “Short Skirt Weather” that’s surprisingly twangy and country. But it’s just one song, and far from the “traditional” offering some are making it. “Short Skirt Weather” is early 2000’s refried Blake Shelton at best. And not to be a prude, but the song figures out how to be more objectifying than most of the worst offenses of the entire Bro-Country era. You weigh this with the big radio single “Lose It” that works like the recitation of a date rape, and Kane Brown immediately raises the stakes as one of the most misogynistic artists in mainstream country at the moment.
The other false signifyer on the record is “American Bad Dream,” which of course has won vociferous praise from the politically-incited media for its progressiveness and anti-gun stance. Granted, it finds Kane going off the script quite a bit, which in itself is refreshing. But it’s 100% a hip-hop song, and Kane himself has said this song is not about gun control, it’s simply about awareness. That hasn’t stopped certain media members from using it for their own devices, similar to how they’ve recently twisted the words of Eric Church to make him an anti-gun Bernie Sanders supporter, misinterpreted the message of Carrie Underwood’s “The Bullet,” and other offenses. Brown sings, “Is it this messed up, or is it really reality?” in “American Bad Dream.” In this media environment where both sides skew the truth for their own selfish purposes, that’s a very good question.
“American Bad Dream” is probably not the best song on the record. From a written standpoint it’s “My Where I Come From.” This is more what we expect from country music, and even though Kane’s cadence kills the melody, and Dan Huff’s terrible production buries the magic, the spirit of the track endures. But “Where I Come From” doesn’t symbolize the overall style of Experiment either. The true story of the record is one generic, sappy, and subservient love song after another. The primary inspiration of Experiment was not to mix country and modern sounds like the explanation of the title reads, it was to record a love letter to Kane Brown’s new wife.
From “Good As You,” to “Homesick,” to “One Night Only” and “Live Forever,” Experiment is one maudlin love song after another. It’s just a shade away from Luther Vandross screw music. And if you wonder why Kane Brown concerts are 70% women, and 100% women in the front row, it’s because that’s who he’s singing to, as are many of “country” music’s newest male stars. If you want to know why there’s a dearth of support behind young female stars, look at the crowds and comments sections for anything having to do with Kane Brown.
The reason Kane Brown holds such appeal is because women want to fuck him. It’s Beatlemania. Dudes love to razz Kane Brown for being fuggly, but he has that bad boy appeal, and that’s what has won him such a wide and dedicated following. Kane Brown is a social media star with music as the side hustle. While most actual country artists were out there refining their chops in clubs and honky tonks, Kane Brown was hanging on Facebook and Instagram, posting videos where he could have been singing his ABC’s, and girls still would have clicked “like.” Add on top of that the spurious nature of his ascent, and you have yourself a social media superstar.
The media continues to attempt to interject race into the Kane Brown narrative, but if there’s one positive takeaway from Kane Brown’s success, it’s that it verifies that race won’t necessarily hold an artist back in the country mainstream of today, especially as fellow African American artist Jimmie Allen is finding success at the same time. But this idea that Experiment is “90’s country” as some have described, or a “mix of traditional country and R&B,” is patently false.
As Kane Brown endangers the traditions and sound of true country music, he does the same for the legacy of African Americans in the genre, who were important to formulating the roots of the music an artist like Kane Brown is ripping out of the ground by his reductive argument that his music is anything more than R&B with some buried banjo. Kane Brown isn’t an asset to the African American legacy in country music, he’s a danger to it, while working to undermine the attention and support for actual country music artists of African American descent.
What constitutes country music? To producer Dan Huff and other high-nosed media socialites who only know country from the outside looking in, a little bit of banjo and fiddle here and there does the trick. But how much of these things did you hear in the songs of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, or Johnny Cash? Instrumentation can help turn a song country, but what comprises country music boils down more of a feel, and it’s one that Kane Brown only has in fleeting moments at best.
If you want to broach a discussion about what is not country, one easy instrumental marker is the present of electronic drums. In the final song of Experiment called “Lost In The Middle of Nowhere,” Kane Brown mentions in the first stanza, “808’s and pounding hearts.” The term “808” is slang for the Roland TR-808 drum machine that became the industry standard in the 80’s. Throughout Experiment, it’s not the occasional banjo or fiddle sound that makes it country, it’s rapid ticks of the drum machines, the hip-hop cadences, and the R&B style that make it conclusively not country. Rhythm and blues are not entirely foreign to the sound of country, but only when they’re incorporated with respect and country is still the predominant influence should it still be considered country. Otherwise, it is mislabeled.
Kane Brown is not country, and by insisting that he is, unnecessary conflict is created. Understand that many country fans would rather listen to a hip-hop, R&B, or pop record as opposed to Kane Brown, because at least that music will be authentic and honest, and genuine about its nature, as opposed to an aberration of the truth. That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with Kane Brown’s music as a whole, it’s just that it’s being misidentified, leading to dissension and avoidable criticism. This is why Taylor Swift made the switch from country to pop. She was tired of deceiving about the nature of her music, and the significant and fair criticism this lent to.
Taken simply as pop music, Experiment is not terrible, and any troublesome elements are fleeting. Kane Brown can also be a good singer. We saw that in some of his early videos. But his delivery is regularly off here as style gets in the way of allowing sincerity to flow.
Despite theories to the contrary, true country fans don’t want conflict. They don’t want to wake up on Monday morning looking something to hate on. It’s just that country music means something to them beyond a simple form of entertainment. It’s their way of life. It’s how they find meaning in themselves, and stay grounded to their roots and ancestry. Kane Brown doesn’t just embody bad country music, he symbolizes the searing off of those roots, and the declaration of their irrelevancy, including for the African American artists in country and their fans. That’s why many oppose Kane Brown so vehemently, like they have Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line before.
No offense to Kane Brown, but he doesn’t belong. And for both country music and Kane Brown to grow, both should be honest about the nature of his music, and move on from each other. Then country can be free of Kane Brown, and Kane Brown can be free of the harsh criticism of his music of not being country.