It should be the insistence of everyone, everywhere, in every sector of the economy, in every segment of culture, that everyone receives equal treatment and opportunity, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religious, or political affiliation when it comes to their worldly pursuits. Of course this is more of an ideal than a reality, which is the reason equality should always be insisted upon, and roadblocks to equality should continue to be identified and ferreted out of the system.
But that shouldn’t mean that individuals who happen to be in a minority class should be free from criticism, or that criticism of a minority class should only be chalked up as bigotry or racism, especially since criticism is a necessary and healthy exercise for both artists and the public in the artistic realm. Excluding an artist from criticism is inequality.
Whenever an artist releases a new record, their handlers often work with the press to craft what the narrative behind the release will be. In most modern instances, this has less to do with the music, and more to do with an artist’s personal life or background. With Kane Brown, the narrative has become how oppressed he’s been, and the supposed uphill climb he faced to get to the top of mainstream country, and specifically because he’s of mixed race. For example, Rolling Stone Country coined Kane Brown country’s new “Outcast King.” Now that Kane Brown’s newest record Experiment has topped all album charts at #1 upon its debut, this seems like an especially inappropriate label.
The truth of the matter is that nobody has benefited more from the slanted and insular mainstream country system, the fuzzy math of the streaming era, and the political bias pervading all entertainment media at the moment than Kane Brown, and to the tune of becoming arguably the hottest artist in all of “country” music, despite the media still trying to cast him as outcast, an underdog, and the victim of oppression.
Similarly, despite the media’s insistence to the importance Kane Brown has to country music as a symbol of diversity, there is also nobody currently more responsible in mainstream country music for homogenizing the format than Kane Brown. The wide popularity of his music that is decidedly more R&B and pop than anything else isn’t the presence of diversity in country music, it’s the death of diversity across all popular American music formats as everything devolves into the same pop/R&B/EDM sound profile regardless of genre, or the spot on the radio dial.
In a particularly fawning, slavish, and politically-bias puff piece composed by Marissa R. Moss for Billboard, any opposition to Kane Brown and his music is couched as nothing more than Trump-era fear by country fans who don’t like Kane Brown for the way he looks. The article starts off as a slice of life vignette as Kane Brown prepared to appear on the faulty and oft-forgotten American Music Awards in October.
It’s the night of the American Music Awards (AMAs), and Brown, nominated in three categories, sits nervously at a desk while CT, his barber, scuffs around on the beige carpet in a pair of Gucci slides…
Brown shrugs. “I can’t really talk right now,” he says, pointing to the whitening strips on his teeth, though he is able to comment on some mozzarella sticks he had last night at The Nice Guy, a hot spot in West Hollywood. “They’re the best I’ve ever had.”
Yes, this is what music journalism has devolved into in 2018. Then the article goes on to become fiercely political.
As many fans as Brown has, there are plenty of folks who wish he would stay out of country altogether. To them, he symbolizes an almost deep-state-like assault on tradition … Those people are pretty easy to find online. They’re also nothing new. There’s always a segment of country fandom that wants things to stay the way Hank done it. But with Brown, the language is of a particular school: They’re quick to point out his “hip-hop” or “urban” influences as a reason they don’t like his fans or what he has to say. They credit his success to artifice and insist he’s a product of the industry. You might as well say “Make Country Traditional Again.”
In other words, if you oppose Kane Brown, you are racist. “Hip-hop” and “urban” are simply code words. And you must also support Trump if you don’t like Kane Brown, apparently. It can’t have anything to do with someone thinking that perhaps Kane Brown’s music isn’t any good, or doesn’t belong designated in the country format. Billboard also says that the CMA’s “shafted Brown this year — he wasn’t even nominated — it certainly felt political.”
But if the CMAs shafted Kane Brown due to politics, why have the CMAs now passed over Florida Georgia Line three years in a row for Vocal Duo of the Year, and instead given it to the much less commercially-successful, and much more politically outspoken Brothers Osborne? Kacey Musgraves has been political in the past, and won the 2018 CMA for Album of the Year for Golden Hour. Meanwhile, has Kane Brown offered any political opinions or affiliations? Not that can be found. And of course the Billboard piece also spends no time on why people credit Kane Brown’s “success to artifice,” which is the true reason the CMAs gave him the cold shoulder.
The CMAs and much of the country industry has steered clear of the highest praise for Kane Brown because of the spurious nature of his ascent. In an investigation Saving Country Music published in October of 2015, it was exposed how Kane’s manager at the time, Jay Frank, used his position as the Vice President of Global Streaming Marketing at Universal Music Group and a service called Digster to artificially inflate Kane Brown’s streaming numbers by giving him preferred placement on playlists. Before this October 2015 investigation, individuals within the country music industry were already questioning the validity of Kane Brown’s streaming numbers, with Kane telling the Times Free Press at the time, “A lot of the people in Nashville think the numbers are fake, but they can’t prove it.”
Kane Brown was also able to rack up bloated numbers due to Facebook’s lax video rules, which were first exposed in early 2016, and since have even been even more ridiculed and demoted as advertisers en masse have said the social media network misled them and the public with deceptive statistics. Kane Brown has also been the beneficiary of the massive and questionable Red Music playlists on YouTube, which among other dubious activities, helped Bebe Rexha get to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, where she has been now for 50 weeks and counting despite little to no support from radio or the public.
We are living in the asterisk era of streaming music, where managers who are savvy at gaming the system can launch superstars and major label careers without having to go through the arduous effort of creating fans the old fashioned way, which is touring and performing. Even Florida Georgia Line was forced to go on club tours to pay dues and prove their worth, but Kane Brown used social media followings and spurious streaming numbers to hopscotch the competition. These aren’t just the murmurings about Kane Brown throughout the country music industry, they’re a roar.
Ahead of the release of Kane Brown’s Experiment, he came out promoting an anti-bullying campaign. Articles ahead of the release talked about the racism he’s faced, and the uphill climb he’s endured, even though the argument can be made nobody has enjoyed an easier climb to the top of country than Kane Brown in history. This is all an attempt to insulate Kane Brown from criticism by blaming it all on implicit racism as opposed to the underlying controversies, or the poor quality of the music itself, or the efficacy of it as country.
Race has no more to do with the concern with Kane Brown’s success in country music than it did with Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, who received similar, if not sharper criticisms from country fans. The biggest concern is that Kane Brown’s music is not country. Brown has become a favorite of politically-motivated and politically-biased journalists because they feel like country music needs more diversity. They champion him exclusively because he’s biracial, with his music being almost an ancillary concern.
“With songs that are meant to slide into a playlist between Khalid and Carrie Underwood, Brown’s closer to what the average American actually looks like, in a generation where identity is more fluid — and crucial, and debated — than ever,” the above-mentioned article in Billboard states, proving they know his music is not really country, but that’s okay because he’s half black, and country needs more ethnicity. They are judging Kane Brown off the color of his skin, as opposed to the content of his musical character.
Granted, Kane Brown’s music does not represent the worst mainstream country has to offer, whether that is from the subjective standpoint of critical taste, or more measurable benchmarks upon the age old question of “What is country?” That distinction would still fall to artists such as Sam Hunt, or Walker Hayes. But Sam Hunt is semi-retired at this point, and Walker Hayes is still an up-and-comer whose popularity and commercial prowess are still to be determined. However Kane Brown happens to be the one making huge waves in popular country music at the moment, and those waves are moving country more in the direction of sounding like everything else in popular music, whether it’s pop, R&B, hip-hop, or EDM. This is not diversity. This is the death of diversity, and the ushering in of the monogenre where every bit of popular music sounds the same regardless of genre or format.
Kane Brown has tokens to country culture of course, in an effort to slide past gatekeepers. You can’t get away from people telling you about his song “Short Shirt Weather,” but like the banjo buried beneath an electronic drum and synthesizer bed, that’s not what makes an artist like Kane Brown country, it’s what proves culpability that they know he’s not, and they need to add something to make up for it. Banjo in an R&B song, or one country tune out of 13 doesn’t make you country.
“‘Experiment,’ however, contains one of the most “country” songs from a male artist on Music Row this year: “Short Skirt Weather,” a bit of Alan Jackson-era tongue-in-cheek pop/honky-tonk,” Billboard says. But the song is basically Bro-Country with a fiddle, and fair to label as objectifying and misogynistic to boot, concluding with a sex whistle that would get you fired and your career ended and your name besmirched these days in corporate America. Marissa R. Moss who wrote the Billboard article loves to call misogyny at the most minuscule slight, but looks the other way for Kane here, because his minority status puts him in a protected place on the sliding scale of competitive victimhood—sort of like how Nelly was ignored when he was accused of raping a woman on a country tour. All of a sudden if you voiced concern, you weren’t speaking up for women, you were being racist against a black man.
However we got here, the ship has sailed with Kane Brown. He is now the future of country music, even if many true country fans, and quite a few artists, bemoan that fact. Kane Brown has won. Despite his spurious beginnings, his success and appeal is most certainly real now, and worthy of spirited criticism from concerned fans, media, and industry who have a right to wonder if he’s country enough, or a quality performer, like any artist. They also have a right to make those criticisms without being considered racist unless racist tendencies present themselves.
Of course there are racist elements embedded within the country music populous. There are also scores of African American country artists that play actual country music that are going unnecessarily overlooked—along with women artists and other minorities—because an artist like Kane Brown cheated the system, and cut in line. If people truly cared about the diversity of country music, artists like Tony Jackson, Aaron Vance, Mickey Guyton, and others would be superstars. These artists can also bring unique perspectives to country music, which is the real reason you clamor for diversity in the first place. In fact an artist like Kane Brown hurts the prospects for getting people to question their prejudices because he’s not country, and he manipulated the system to get here.
Diversity isn’t driving out authentic country music culture to replace it with hip-hop/pop/R&B. It’s allowing authentic country culture to thrive right beside R&B, hip-hop, and pop, which should also be allowed to thrive and not be encroached on by country, to make up the vibrant tapestry of American culture with varied and diverse styles of expressions all celebrated in their most authentic state. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with genres other than country. There is everything wrong with trying to make every genre sound the same under misguided notions of diversity. That’s also why there’s everything wrong with calling the music of Kane Brown country without qualifyers.