Now that the 2018 CMA Awards nominations have been announced, the people who care about the awards can pour over the lists and find things to complain about, while the people who complain about the awards can pour over the lists while professing to not care. This is the way of things, and what happens every year.
The 2018 CMA nominations certainly offer a few head scratchers, such as how Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” got nominated for Song of the Year again, how Lauren Alaina was deemed a “New” artist when she released a debut album seven years ago that sold 300,000 copies, and why Keith Urban’s Grafitti U is anywhere near the conversation for Album of the Year. The truth is these are the same tired discussions that occur every year, just with different names.
But one of the things the CMA Awards got right this year was not nominating Kane Brown for a damn thing. Though Kane is the hot name when it comes to who got snubbed the hardest by the 2018 CMA Award nominations, this was a smart decision by CMA voters to be on the right side of history, and not give Kane Brown any more agency than he deserves.
Country awards are for country artists, and though Kane Brown may have a small handful of songs fawning fans may classify as country, much of his output could be classified in every other major American genre before you get to country, including his current single “Weekend.”
Give Kane Brown all the credit in the world for being a very commercially successful star. But this in itself is not what earns you CMA Awards, or nominations. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the CMA put its foot down when it comes to categorically handing out awards due to commercial achievement, and start to award critical acclaim.
The Brothers Osborne had no business winning the CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year in 2016, or 2017. They’re not even in the same universe as Florida Georgia Line when it comes to sales, chart success, and touring purses. Yet by awarding Brothers Osborne over Florida Georgia Line, the CMA voters were sending a message. The era of Bro-Country was over. And substance, and the degree in which your music is grounded in the roots of country, counts for something.
This is the same reason Sam Hunt has never won a CMA Award despite his massive commercial success. He’s been nominated, because voters had no other choice but to recognize the record-breaking achievements of a few songs. But they also recognized the fuzzy math behind those records, and how they’re due to Billboard’s new regime of skewed chart rules as opposed to the true measurement of a song’s impact.
Another reason there may be reluctance to nominate Kane Brown for the CMAs is due to the fuzzy math behind his ascent. Sure, now that Kane Brown is established, few are questioning his past to see how he got here. But trust me, it’s not pretty. We’re living in the asterisk era in music, where false chart records predicated on fake streams and favorable placement on major playlists due to greased palms is how some artists first make it in the business. Better to be prudent on who you’re handing out awards and nominations to as opposed to regretting those decisions in the future when the books get opened, and the records get recalibrated.
Some will cite Kane Brown’s ethnicity as the reason for the snub by the CMA, and say that it was a missed opportunity to bring some diversity to country music. But if there was any discrimination against Kane Brown, it was due to discriminating ears. Kane Brown doesn’t symbolize diversity in country music, he symbolizes the death of diversity. As just another pop star pushing R&B singles through the country industry, Kane Brown is on the bleeding edge to instituting a homogeneous regime across all popular music platforms where no matter what radio station or streaming playlist you pull up, it all sounds the same.
There are plenty of African American country artists that the CMA and the rest of the mainstream country music industry could and should be recognizing and paying attention to. It’s artists like Kane Brown who create the guise of diversity for the industry, while artists who’ve devoted their lives to country music—including African Americans like Valerie June, Mickey Guyton, Tony Jackson, Rhiannon Giddens, and many others—get shaded out by artists such as Kane Brown who belong more in pop or R&B.
Kane Brown is probably not the worst artist the mainstream country music industry has to offer these days. Perhaps that’s a worse commentary on the industry than a compliment to Kane Brown. But he’s just a kid, and possesses a compelling voice that could be good, and at times has been good in country music if employed in the right capacity. If he keeps on his current commercial course, Kane Brown probably will be nominated for CMAs in the future.
But in an extremely competitive field of top contenders in country where only one or two new artists per year can be chosen to enter the tier of CMA nominated stars, Luke Combs probably was the smarter, and better choice for country music as opposed to Kane Brown. If you want gaudy sales numbers, there’s short cuts to achieving that in the mainstream, and arguably Kane Brown has taken those short cuts more than any other artist in country history. But if you want consideration for the highest achievements the genre hands out, you have to earn them, and think more big picture, and long-term. You have to bring something unique, and powerful to the genre. You have to breed an appeal beyond high school girls and frat bros. You have to respect the roots of the music, and all of country music’s fans, despite their age.
Kane Brown still has plenty of time to earn the distinction of his peers, especially if you can be nominated for New Artist of the Year seven years after releasing your debut album like Lauren Alaina just was. But for now it’s probably better Kane Brown is on the outside looking into the CMA nominations. You can’t take these nominations and awards back once they’re announced, like some CMA voters probably wish they could for Florida Georgia Line.
Many devoted country fans love to tell you the CMA Awards don’t matter. But this is just their way of insulating themselves from the annual heartbreak they often deliver. Of course the CMAs matter. They create a historical record for future generations to look back upon and determine who was the best according to peers and industry in a given year. There will always be warts, and things to second guess over time. But nominating Kane Brown before he was ready will not be one of them. Because he doesn’t deserve a CMA nomination, at least not yet.