It remains stupefying why pop star Maren Morris continues to be portrayed as a leader, feminist, and groundbreaker, etc. in country music by fawning media members who’ve been rendered starry-eyed simply because they’re find guilty pleasure in some of her tunes. The steel resolve and moral compass you seek out in someone with leadership skills clearly escapes Morris, and this speaks nothing to the creative depravity of her music that is so transparently using the country industry as a stepping stone, alarm bells should be sounding as opposed to obsequious praise being lumped upon her.
Praise for Maren Morris is born not from her moral certitude or musical output, but her willingness to be on the right side of certain social issues, making her a useful accomplice in the attempt by some journalists to infiltrate the country music sphere and reshape its political alignment by using artists, music, and issues as springboards and wormholes.
The latest praising comes for Maren Morris criticizing country radio’s gender disparity, but earlier this year and beyond, Maren Morris was anything but a critic of country radio’s approach to women. Not only was Morris unwilling to speak up on the matter, she willfully painted the inaccurate picture that things were improving for women despite the insurmountable evidence to the contrary. While things for women were never worse, Maren Morris told popculture.com on February 27th,
“I think that it’s a slow process but I think it is getting better. I look at people like myself and Kelsea [Ballerini] and Carly Pearce, who just had a No. 1 a couple months ago. And Cam has this bad ass single out now, and Lauren Alaina. There’s been a lot of people coming into the fold now that are getting noticed.”
On the same day, Taste of Country ran a story titled “Maren Morris Is Hearing More Diversity, Women on the Radio,” where Maren asserted again, “It’s a slow process, but I think it is getting better. There have been a lot of people coming into the fold that are getting noticed.”
What was the occasion of Maren Morris speaking to multiple members of the media? She was celebrating her single “I Could Use a Love Song” hitting #1 on radio. This would have been the perfect time for her to address the gender disparity on radio, and not use her #1 as a token excuse of why radio was improving, but a forum to speak upon the underlying issue which had never been worse.
In fact the reason media members were asking Maren about radio is because of her portrayal as a leader, and as a tough and outspoken artist. They were likely looking for juicy headlines, seeing how radio was in a historical malaise for women at the moment despite Maren’s token #1. But instead, she side stepped, and fed the media quotes that relieved pressure on radio for its gender disparity, and incorrectly portrayed the environment as improving.
And this isn’t an isolated event. Maren Morris has a history of defending radio’s handling of women artists. When speaking to Glamour in July of 2017, Maren Morris said,
“I think [women are] more authentic and original, and I think [women] get recognized more than a new male country artist coming to the radio, even if [men] get played more. Because there are so few women’s songs still, they get the most attention in the outside realm even though they’re not getting as many spins as the dude next to them a week.”
There are a few interesting things to dissect from this quote. First, Maren is once again side steps the issue of country radio not playing enough women instead of meeting it head on. And this is different from refusing to answer the question at all, let alone answering it in the negative, which would not only be a true sign of leadership, it would be the truth.
In the Glamour quote, Maren inadvertently explains why she doesn’t feel the need to challenge radio. It’s because Maren Morris isn’t a victim of country radio’s gender disparity, she is a beneficiary of it. As one of the few women country radio will actually play, she’s given extra attention by the radio, and by the media. And one of the reasons radio will actually play her is because her music isn’t country. It’s pop, and fits mainstream radio’s flavor profile more than artists like Miranda Lambert for example.
Maren Morris also says in the same Glamour interview, “You should keep your relationships with radio positive, but also honest. I kind of kick back at not being played enough — but, for instance, Miranda Lambert, didn’t have a number one song until her third album.” And now radio barely plays Miranda Lambert at all, and her singles struggle due to the pop infiltration into country by artists such as Maren Morris, and despite strong sales.
There is an element to modern country that Maren Morris is willing to speak out on, which she did in her well-circulated op-ed in Lenny Letter called Moving My Beloved Country Music Forward. Here Maren’s big beef was that women in country are only allowed to sing about certain subjects, hemming them in creatively. Certainly this is a fair concern, but something that seems more an issue possibly of what songs Maren’s label is letting her record as opposed to a mark on the genre itself, either historically or present day.
“Like most humans, I don’t listen to one type of music, and I don’t write about one type of feeling,” Maren says. “I write about sex and the self-inflicting pain of being the asshole at the end of a long relationship, being young and drunk with your girlfriends, or just having a meaningless but fun (and sometimes necessary) fling. Things that don’t always make me look like a puritan saint, but they’re unflinchingly honest, and I couldn’t write it down on paper or sing it unless I went through it personally.”
But country music of the past and present is full of these types of songs from women. From Rose Maddox’s “I’ll Make Sweet Love to You” in the 40’s, the Tammy Wynette’s “Good Girls Gonna Go Bad” in the 60’s, to plenty of bawdy material in the present day. That’s not to diminish Maren’s underlying point. Of course artists should be able to write and record whatever they want, and women shouldn’t be held to different standards than men. Country radio is a family-friendly format, and that needs to be taken into account as well. But there’s a good chance what Maren Morris was talking about here wasn’t really about some rigid parameters she’s been put under by her label or radio, but not being able to participate in a duet with Wheeler Walker Jr. that her label axed last minute. If Maren’s sexuality is being oppressed, you surely don’t her that in her own music or public persona whatsoever.
And Maren Morris’s defense of music’s male-dominated landscape that she’s supposed to be raging against extends beyond country radio. On February 17th, speaking to the Associated Press about the flap the Grammy Awards and President Neil Portnow were receiving for a lack of female winners and Portnow’s own comments about women needing to try harder, Maren Morris was one of the few artists, and one of the few women artists, who came out in defense of the Grammy process.
Maren Morris said, “I think the person that’s won the most Grammys is Alison Krauss so I don’t know. I mean, there’s obviously some things that need to be looked at, I think, and maybe it’s just voting members. Maybe we need to like expand on that.”
Alison Krauss is actually tied for second with Quincy Jones for most Grammy Awards, while Hungarian composer Georg Sorti holds the record with 31 wins. But once again Maren Morris side stepped an important women’s issue and even offered a mild defense. And why? Because Maren Morris has been a beneficiary of the Grammy process, just like she’s a beneficiary of country radio. Maren Morris won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for “My Church” in 2017, and was nominated for three other awards, including the all genre Best New Artist.
Another example of Maren’s lack of leadership was at the ACM Awards in April. One of the big reasons to watch was to see how the ACMs and the country music community would remember the tragic shooting that occurred at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in October of 2017. The biggest massacre in modern United States history which claimed 54 lives and injured 851 others occurred right down the street from the MGM Grand where the ACMs transpired.
Country music’s return to Las Vegas was a big story line leading up to the 2018 ACMs. The Academy of Country Music itself, and its President Pete Fisher (formerly of the Grand Ole Opry) helped build the anticipation of how the presentation would honor the victims, survivors, and first responders. But except for an awkward, 80-second cold open to start the event (in which Maren Morris participated), the tragedy was mostly avoided. There were no performances to coincide with the rolling of names or faces of the deceased, no teary-eyed moment for country fans to remember the 2018 ACM Awards by. The policy of the ACMs appeared to be to give a quick mention of the tragedy at the beginning to get it out of the way, and then forget about it.
The next morning, Saving Country Music shared its concerns about the lack of reverence from the ACM Awards, but focused mostly on the complete lack of a In Memoriam segment for passed away country artists, of which there have been numerous important ones in the period between the last ACM presentation. A mention of the lack of any real subsnative remembrance for Route 91 Harvest victims was also given.
Rolling Stone Country‘s Jonathan Bernstein decided to go deeper into the matter and published a dedicated article on the concern, saying in part,
The show’s most direct address of the October 1st tragedy came during its 80-second cold open, in which Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris spoke about “the healing power of music.” But the opening came across not so much as a cathartic, emotional tribute as a focus-grouped explanation as to why the show would be avoiding any such overt tribute.
Rolling Stone Country and everyone else who showed fair concern for the lack of effort for a proper tribute was correct. Bernstein’s criticism was fair and measured, and while Rolling Stone Country‘s music coverage here recently has been veering more into the political realm, Bernstein clearly avoided issues of wanting artists or the ACM to speak out against gun control, or politicize the tragedy in any aspect, and instead focused on the presentation’s lack of heart, or wisdom to roll the sorrow of the moment into a compelling and memorable moment.
Nonetheless, this stimulated Maren Morris to snap back on Twitter, “Honestly, this is so unnecessary. Artists who want to talk about Vegas HAVE talked about it and everyone just wants to exhale … I think the ACM’s WERE respectful. I get that everyone has an opinion, but if you weren’t there and they aren’t YOUR fans who were taken, maybe don’t judge a show that’s trying to help everyone move on.”
But “moving on” is the exact defense many who want to brush the tragedy under the rug and not address its underlying cause want to do. Once again Maren Morris wasn’t taking the leadership approach of being on the right side of an issue or challenging prevailing thought like the media loves to portray. She was showing her fluidity to want to be on whatever side of an issue worked for her in the moment since she participated in the ACM’s cold open tribute.
On June 10th, The Tennessean posted an article going in-depth about how the disparity for country women on radio has not improved now here three years after Tomatogate—the controversy sparked when radio consultant Keith Hill said if radio wants better ratings, take women out of playlists. Maren Morris came out and said,
UGH. I had a program director tell me 2 years ago “Don’t release I Could Use A Love Song as a single. People don’t want to hear sad women..” It was my first #1 a year later. If you don’t give us the chance to be heard, potential fans will NEVER hear us … I hate even saying I’m “lucky” I got airplay on my first single. Yes, there were some amazing PDs and FANS that helped me, but I’m also proud as hell of writing those songs, and know anyone who puts their art on the line to be great deserves the same shot men get.
It’s great that Maren has finally decided to speak up on this issue as opposed to side stepping it, mischaracterizing it as improving, or even like she said to Glamour, can be used to some artist’s benefit. But once again this is because it’s expedient for Maren Morris to do so.
Maren’s current single “Rich” has stalled at country radio. Released on February 12th, the hope was it would become one of 2018’s hot summer songs. Instead it sits at #35 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart at the moment, and down two spots from the previous week. With the slow burn country singles enact these days, there’s still a possibility it could end up improving, but for the first time in her career, Maren Morris is staring at adversity as opposed to upside potential at country radio. And only now she has decided to speak up about country radio’s woman troubles, and still only within the frame of her own perspective, and putting her success at the forefront as opposed to the underlying issue at hand.
– – – – – – –
This is not meant to be a take down of Maren Morris. She is a young artist who’s seen a lot of success, who has a right to make mistakes, and evolve ideas and principles over time. It’s questionable if its even her place to criticize country radio, the Grammy Awards, or the ACMs for their actions. Her job is to perform, and do what she can to make sure her music is the most successful. Crossing swords with radio and awards shows isn’t always the best way to do that.
The problem is the obsequious and inaccurate portrayal of Maren Morris as a leader. As she said to Glamour, with so few women in mainstream country, the media tends to obsess and harp on the ones that do exist to an unrealistic and unhealthy degree, and this is often at the expense of country women who actually play country music, do exert leadership even when it’s not in their best interests, and play music that is empowering by stimulating thought and sharing perspective as opposed to shallow narratives centered around buzzwords like Prada and Diddy in a bid to be popular in the pop world.
One of the reasons “Rich” and certain other singles by country women under perform is because they’re not very good. Is there inherent sexism persistent in mainstream country radio? Perhaps there is, but simplifying the issue to a one word answer will never solve it. Praising artists for mild output or empowerment qualities that either don’t exist, or not nearly to the degree with which they’re being praised for only crowds out other women artists, and sometimes ones who would find more traction and reception for their music if just given a chance.
When true country fans hear an artist like Maren Morris or a song like “Rich,” they tend to be repulsed. So if that’s your one representation of the modern women of country music, you’re discounting other country women systemically. The lack of women on the radio needs to be broached as a complex problem as opposed to boiling it down to simple “sexism.” That’s also why you will never solve it simply by demanding radio play more women. Because if those women are like Maren Morris, and the songs are like “Rich,” you will never build wide appeal behind their music on country radio, because Maren Morris doesn’t belong on country radio in the first place. Maren Morris is a pop star.