Does something really exist until the popular American zeitgeist gives it a universally-recognized nickname? That’s the question many people asked when the term “Bro-Country” was coined by writer and journalist Jody Rosen in 2013. The list-tastic, hip-hop-infused, shallow, and male-dominated style of country music had been around for a few years before the term was adopted en masse. It was referred to around these parts as “checklist country” for years previous, but apparently that term didn’t roll off the tongue just right. It wasn’t until Rosen wrote the Bro-Country term in an article that it was adopted wholesale by the public and music industry alike. Meant somewhat as a pejorative initially, Bro-Country eventually was adopted by some as a term of endearment. However you feel about the term or the music itself, when someone mentions “Bro-Country,” you now know what they mean, and there’s no doubt that its time dominating mainstream country will go down in history as defining era in country music, for better or worse.
“Bro-Country” may now be solidified in the annals of popular culture, but the music itself has definitely been on the wane for a number of years. This can be verified by the fact that many artists that helped usher in the Bro-Country era weren’t even in attendance at the 2019 CMA Awards. Jason Aldean’s massive 2011 country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” set the stage for the proliferation of Bro-Country. Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” is what sent the subgenre into overdrive, and was the direct inspiration for writer Jody Rosen coining the phrase. But despite the continued success of these acts as touring performers and radio stars, they are no longer defining the era as they did a few years back. Chris Stapleton helped drive a nail in that coffin when he shocked the world during the 2015 CMA Awards, and now the emergence of Luke Combs and more country-sounding artists who don’t include rapped verses or drum machine intros in their songs are the ones dominating the awards and airwaves.
But as we’ve seen time and time again in popular country music, one trend gives way to another in the copycat conveyor belt culture of Music Row. Bro-Country in many ways was the backlash to the proliferation of pop in country symbolized by the popularity of Taylor Swift in the years before. Metro-Bro with EDM-inspired artists like Sam Hunt and Walker Hays tried to sweep in and dominate, but didn’t quite solidify into a more widespread movement. Actual country music is actually starting to emerge as a serious trend in mainstream country today with Jon Pardi, Cody Johnson, Luke Combs, Midland, and others finding success, but we still need to see more widespread adoption before we declare ourselves in the midst of another neotraditionalist resurgence. Instead, the new trend that has begun to emerge and is looking to dominate popular country music in the years to come is the one now being described as “Boyfriend Country.”
In the last couple of years, the duo Dan + Shay has emerged as one of the most popular acts in country, with now six #1 singles. Their current single “10,000 Hours” with Justin Bieber has been on top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and the just won the CMA for Duo of the Year. If you want an example of what Boyfriend Country is, Dan + Shay is a good place to start. Kane Brown is another good example. As Saving Country Music said in the review of his latest album Experiment in late 2018, “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. It’s just a shade away from Luther Vandross screw music.”
And this is true for many of the albums and singles of many of country music’s current male stars, including former Bro-Country proprietors such as Florida Georgia Line, and even the more traditional-style artists like Cody Johnson and Luke Combs. Thomas Rhett is another easily-identifiable Boyfriend Country artist. It’s their sappy and sentimental songs slanted towards singing the praises of women that are being selected as singles. Even Chris Stapleton could be accused of being part of this broad-based movement with his recent hit single “Millionaire.” Everywhere you turn in country, men are espousing their love, devotion, appreciation, and admiration for their women, and that is what is resonating with the mainstream’s predominately female listenership. Instead of EDM and hip-hop influences being fused with country like we saw in the Bro-Country era, Boyfriend Country favors R&B styling, though it can also blend with more country and rock influences like we see with Luke Combs.
So the next question is if this new Boyfriend Country trend is something to be alarmed about. Compared to Bro Country, Boyfriend Country is certainly a much better alternative for the mainstream to get obsessed with. Where Bro-Country angered the blood, Boyfriend Country just blends into the background. Rhythm and Blues have always been a more integral partner to country compared to EDM and hip-hop. Boyfriend Country may not be good, but it can’t possibly be as bad as Bro-Country. Florida Georgia Line had you fighting mad. Dan + Shay just puts you to sleep, unless you have a boyfriend, and fall for this fawning style of inoffensive and overly-sentimental songwriting.
But one big concern is the emergence and prevalence of Boyfriend Country is elongating the continued trend of male performers dominating in the mainstream. As Saving Country Music said in previously-referenced review of Kane Brown’s latest record Experiment, “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 same goes for Dan + Shay and many others that are currently comprising the top tier of popular country artists. These are men singing directly to women in music that is written and marketed to appeal to women. In January, Saving Country Music posted an article speaking about this deepening lyrical trend, though at the time we didn’t have a name for it like we do now. The observation was shared,
In many cases these lyrics aren’t just sharing romantic notions, they specifically go out of their way to say that the man is inferior to the woman, and even that the man needs to be taught how to be better in life by the woman. Whether it’s Jimmie Allen’s “I’m not the man I was before you,” or Kane Brown’s “The way you’re taking care of me … I want to be the man you want me to be … I just wanna be good as you,” these ideas begin to veer into the territory of men expecting their partners to be more like mothers than lovers. Where some women might find this trend burdensome and off-putting, many female country radio consumers find it appealing as men play to women’s romantic notions of commitment. Songs from women just can’t compete with all of these songs telling women how perfect they are from gorgeous men.
In an article posted in Billboard on November 13th called ‘Boyfriend Country’ Brings Sensitivity to the Genre, writer Tom Roland observes, “Female voices have been woefully underrepresented on playlists since the dawn of the bro-country era, though they matter as much as ever in the storylines of the male artists who dominate the charts. The current Country Airplay list is loaded with songs by men extolling the value of their wives or girlfriends. It’s a development that some music industry and radio insiders have dubbed ‘boyfriend country.'”
This not only means that the industry is recognizing this trend itself and catering songs and artists to it, they also now have a name for it. And as Billboard observes—just like Saving Country Music did previously—it comes at the exclusion of women performers, even though in some ways Boyfriend Country is made to be country music’s answer to the current political environment. As Billboard’s Tom Roland says, “Indeed, the rise of the MeToo# movement and the record-setting number of women running for president reflects a shift in female power. Plus, songs that encourage cooperation between the sexes help soothe some of the rancor that stems from the current sociopolitical environment.”
But that’s not necessarily true when it comes to folks complaining about the lack of women representation on country radio. “Boyfriend Country” just sounds like another rich excuse of why women can’t get played, and why men are receiving most of the attention. But for some reason, these voices of dissent continue to refuse to acknowledge that women are comprising a large portion of the audience behind these popular male artists, and some even go further to label anyone who would assert that women are helping to drive these trends is sexist, or “blaming women.” In general, men are not listening to these sappy songs from Dan + Shay, nor a lot of the selections from artists like Kane Brown. Nor is the music written, recorded, and marketed for men. They are speaking directly to women who make up a majority of country radio listeners.
There are exceptions of course, but “Boyfriend Country” is for listeners with boyfriends (or husbands). If the individuals and entities advocating for country women really want to address this continued dilemma head on, they must be honest about the economic forces behind these trends, and the obvious demographic appeal of artists like Dan + Shay, and so many of the radio singles by males dominating country’s charts. Country radio is a for-profit business, and will play whatever they believe will make them the most money. They have no vested interest in purposely excluding women performers. It is one thing to complain about the lack of opportunities that women are receiving at radio, witch is a worthy concern. But refusing to acknowledge that women are helping to drive this new “Boyfriend Country” trend is only refusing to be able to address it holistically by understanding the trend’s underlying drivers.
“Boyfriend Country” is here, and now we have a name for it that has apparently been adopted by the industry, and very shortly may be adopted by the public at large. You can’t control the whims of popular music, but you can work to acknowledge them, and study them if you wish to effectively engage and affect their influence and trajectories. Just how long, and how effusive this trend will ultimately be, we’ll just have to see. But there is no denying now that it’s here, for better or worse.