In the 2012 Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom, an adventurous 12-year-old Khaki Scout named Sam gets bored during a stage production of Noah’s Ark, and decides to go exploring the bowels of the building where the play is being held. It is backstage where he happens upon a group of six girls dressed as birds getting ready to take the stage. As the girls apply the final touches to their makeup in the mirror, Sam clears his throat to get the girls’ attention.
“What kind of bird are you?” he asks, singling out one of the girls dressed in black.
As one of the other girls begins to rattle off the respective bird species that each girl is supposed to be, Sam interrupts her. “No I said, what kind of bird, are you?” pointing at who would be Sam’s love interest for the rest of the film—a 12-year-old girl named Suzy.
The scene is a illustration, and a lesson on both romance, and how women, especially younger women and girls, are often grouped together almost as a habit, where their singular characteristics are many times seen as nothing more as a slight variance from the whole or menu items to choose from as opposed to seeing these women as completely independent and unique individuals. Or as the character Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame in the much less genteel film by Kevin Smith called Chasing Amy puts it, “There’s just one bitch in the world, one bitch with many faces.”
In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam flatters Suzy by making her feel special; by making her feel singular. Right now the big question on the minds of many country music journalists, label heads, publicists, and managers is, how do we get the proper attention for female artists who seem to be setting the pace for quality with their music, but are institutionally ignored by many fans, country radio, and other large swaths of the entertainment industry?
One effort has been to institutionalize media coverage of these artists through programs like CMT’s Next Women of Country, the Song Suffragettes, and other such efforts. In Billboard’s recent Nashville issue, there was a big roundtable discussion with some of the country music’s most important, but ultimately under-appreciated female stars of today, specifically Cam, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, Aubrie Sellers, and Maren Morris.
Some excellent insight is garnered, and points are put across in the roundtable conducted by well-respected country journalist Jewly Hight, just as often is the case with these stories and events that try to shine a bigger light on female country stars by combining them together. The Billboard roundtable was accompanied by an alluring photo shoot, with the six artists posing together, just as you often see at promotional events for female artists where six or seven songwriters or performers are put all in a row on stools with acoustic guitars and asked to perform.
Any effort to help promote female artists in the current environment, or to raise the issues facing them is a worthy one. Despite now being over a year removed from Tomatogate and some symbolic victories, female artists are still struggling mightily. But you don’t just have to look at it from a gender perspective. According to critics, new albums from Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna are a two of the best released so far this year. But commercially, they are struggling, while radio is a pipe dream for them. The effort to instill more support behind females has been a mixed bag so far, unless you’re willing to go pop like Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, but that opportunity has always been out there.
If someone is apt to not pay attention to female artists from the beginning, whether that’s a garden variety country fan or a major label executive, bunching female artists together is probably not going to garner their attention, it’s probably going to turn them off even more, especially if the premise of putting these artists together is an attempt to break through the perceived gender bias. Saving Country Music has made this point before, which should not be taken as non support of CMT’s Next Women of Country, the Song Suffragettes, or anything else. But each time I see these events or articles, there’s something about it that appears almost like we’re standardizing these artists as second-class, or unworthy of them being singled out.
Even though the effort is meant to instill more support behind these female artists, lumping them together in one setting almost speaks to the bias against them as much as anything else, like editors and producers can’t spare the expense to feature these artists one at a time and ask, “No, what kind of bird, are you?” Yet putting six or more of them together, that combines the respective fan bases and Facebook pages of each to garner enough attention to the media item to justify the effort.
As Cam says in Billboard’s roundtable, “But now there’s this excuse sometimes where if something doesn’t go 100% right, perfectly in your career, it’s like, ‘Well, we are trying to break a female.'” It’s almost as if we expect females to fail.
Sometimes we lump male artists together too, but it is usually in smaller groups, and it’s usually meant to call attention to their success, whether that’s Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, or even Bro-Country artists who get massed together due to their massive commercial success.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with the Billboard’s new roundtable or any of these other efforts. But each time a new one is rolled out, I find myself asking, “No, what kind of bird, are you?”—wondering where the coverage is singling each of these artists out, drawing readers and listeners deeper into each artist’s personal narratives, and going beyond the challenges female artists face to hopefully find some resonance with listeners that can morph into fandom.
This is not about female artists vs. male artists. This is about good music vs. bad music. It just happens to be that more often than not, the good vs. bad divide is drawn down gender lines in mainstream country at the moment. And to save country music, we first have to continue to make a serious effort to push female artists to the forefront in a way that doesn’t immediately turn the country music oligarchs off, but persuades them into paying attention.
Every female artists deserves her moment in the spotlight, the opportunity to be singled out, and have the question asked of her “No, what kind of bird, are you?” Sam the Khaki Scout understood this, and we should too.