It can’t be expressed vehemently enough how rare to downright non-existent actual criticism of music from country music “critics” and journalists is in the marketplace at the moment. Sites like The Boot and Rolling Stone Country are nothing more than a promotional arm for the industry, publishing puff pieces for their publicist buddies and sucking up to artists due to fawning fandom and hopes for opportunities to premier exclusive content.
It’s all a mockery of true artistic criticism, and more of a kinky sex quid pro quo system presenting a facade to the public of impartiality as opposed to feeding country fans fair and objective news and perspective. Country music right now exists in a vacuum of critical thought, resulting in the creative malaise the mainstream is currently in the midst of, and relegating anyone who dares object to the direction of country music to a bully outlier, discredited and admonished for sharing critical feelings that are portrayed as nothing more than knee-jerk hatred, jealousy, if not outright racism and misogyny—anything to isolate and impugn objective thought.
But there is one artist who has inexplicably brought out a surprisingly critical consensus among country music “critics” that the carpetbagging of pop stars in the country genre has gone too far, as has the presentation of worn-out platitudes and misogyny in lyrics, and the reliance on the outmoded Bro-Country approach. It’s also someone who you would normally expect to woo the fawning country music media as a famous individual able to elicit nostalgia and starry eyes.
It’s AJ McClean of the Backstreet Boys, and specifically his first “country” music single “Back Porch Bottle Service.” Against all odds, it has broken the moratorium on critical perspectives in country music for everything but politically-motivated goadings by blue checkmark Twitter trolls who’ve embedded themselves within country media to attempt to shame artists into shifting their long-standing and ingrained political alignments to become unwitting pawns in political propaganda.
Writing for The Boot, Carena Liptak’s take on “Back Porch Bottle Service” is:
“McLean’s version of country, however—a catch-all collection of influences from a wide roster of musical styles, so eclectic that the songs are hardly recognizable as country tracks—opens up so many boundaries and breaks down so many walls that listeners are left with an amorphous piece of music that is only country because he says it is. Expansion of the genre walks a fine line; Florida Georgia Line themselves have been at the forefront of the push to open up country tropes and allow for rap breakdowns and cross-genre cameos. However, FGL—despite a sizable faction of country fans who don’t consider the duo ‘real country’—broaden the genre from the inside.”
This is true, and true of many of the pop incursions plaguing mainstream country music in 2018. As much as traditionalists want to shake their little fists at Florida Georgia Line’s success, it’s still understandable why they’re labeled as country, and they reside and emanate from within the country industry, like them or not. If we can’t draw sonic distinctions around country music anymore, how about at least limiting the term “country” to artists who’ve committed themselves to be a part of the country music industry?
Joseph Hudak writing for Rolling Stone Country also had a critical view on “Back Porch Bottle Service,” and specifically zeroed in on the song’s depiction of women.
“But while the Nineties nostalgia of the Backstreet Boys may be a fun and even needed diversion, the bro-country nostalgia of AJ McLean’s ‘Back Porch Bottle Service’ – which has all the pop of a flat bottle of cheap champagne – is not. With warmed-over production and lyrics that take pains to shoehorn in even the most absurd of summer imagery – ‘citronella’ and ‘tiki torches’ rub shoulders with ‘McGraw’ – the song’s most egregious sin is that it sets the depiction of women in country songs back about five years.”
Radio Dorian writing for The Bull 100.3—a mainstream pop country station—had a scathing take as well.
“I am a fan of taking chances … but this being a big miss is an understatement. The production of the song itself is terrible, co-workers listening to it from a distance as I listened to it on my computer wondered if it was playing though headphones and not the actual speaker, while others thought it was a commercial. They were both wrong. The vocals come next, they are also not very good at all … I am in shock that this was deemed good enough to release …
“Crossovers are fine by me … Even the Backstreet Boys as a group taking a crack at it didn’t bother me, LOVE those guys, the collaboration with Florida Georgia Line led to probably one of my favorite performances in a long time … I am not trying to spark a negative conversation, however I am slightly bothered with the fact that people (regardless of who they are) think that they can put out a bad product because they think that by “Country Music” standards, it will be considered good. This is not the case.”
Even journalists and DJ’s who love pop country and crossover collaborations are crying foul, and this is just the start. Vulture decreed AJ McLean’s “Back Porch Bottle Service” the “Country cookout banger you never wanted,” reviewer Grady Smith also slammed the song in a reaction video, and other journalists and outlets have spoken out.
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AJ McClean started his breach into country music by crashing the red carpet at the ACM Awards in April and declaring he was going to “disrupt” country. Instead, he’s single-handedly done something we thought was impossible in today’s country environment, which is create a consensus among critics to criticize an artist. Saving Country Music could complain about “Back Porch Bottle Service” all day, but it would be seen as par for the course. But apparently there is a rock bottom, and there is a line that can be crossed where DJ’s, critics, and journalists alike from across the genre will speak out. And AJ McLean has found it.