On Sturgill Simpson Collaborating with Diplo

Look. You don’t want to be so rigid in your country music ideology that you completely disallow cross-genre collaborations, or don’t allow your favorite artists the latitude to do what they want. We’re all music fans first, then our loyalties split down genre lines or lean toward the love of specific performers.

But I would be lying if I said that Sturgill Simpson’s first emergence out of supposed retirement wasn’t a little disappointing, since in comes in the form of a dance track with the pretty scuzzy country music carpetbagger Diplo. That’s not a commentary on the track itself called “Use Me (Brutal Hearts),” which features Simpson as a character named “Johnny Blue Skies” along with singer Dove Cameron. As a dance track, it seems well-apportioned and put together properly, especially after having just listened through Shania Twain’s EDM-inspired monstrosity. But what do I know. I’m a country critic. What I can certify is that the track is certainly not country.

The song itself is not the issue. In fact, you have to give credit to the timbre of Sturgill’s voice infusing this song with a “cool” factor it would otherwise not include. The issue is that if Sturgill Simpson wanted to re-emerge as a featured artist, there were many better picks. Sturgill may not be flying as high as he was in 2015 and had everyone nearly universally singing his praises. These days he’s a much more polarizing figure, and this song collaboration certainly won’t help in that department.

But think of what it would have meant to the career of an up-and-coming independent country/roots artist to land a collaboration with Sturgill after nearly two years away. Think of what it would have meant for someone like Gabe Lee or Sierra Ferrell. It could help set their career on fire just like it did for Tyler Childers with Sturgill’s participation. It could have been Brit Taylor, who just released a Sturgill-produced album, Kentucky Blue.

But Sturgill Simpson singing with Diplo imparts the DJ further cred in the country music world that he doesn’t deserve as Diplo’s looking to use the country genre like a morality car wash, while the leering press gives Diplo a pass for previous misdeeds that they would skewer actual country artists for, while simultaneously giving credit to Diplo and his incursion into country as the future of the genre.

Troubling behavior by Diplo has commonly involved young Black and Brown women, and sometimes young women who are under the age of consent. From 2003 to 2008, Diplo dated British-born rapper M.I.A., who is of Sri Lanken descent. In 2017, M.I.A. accused the DJ of mental abuse, of trying to take credit for her career, of taking credit for songs that weren’t his, of cheating on her, and even of using an image of her as a dart board.

In October 2020, rapper Azealia Banks spoke out about Diplo, saying on her podcast“I used to have sex with Diplo when I was 17 (Diplo was in his 30s). Diplo definitely found me on f—ing Myspace. I always give him credit for f—ing launching my career off, but yeah, I had to give him some teenage pussy to do it. He’s always been preying on young ethnic girls.”

Diplo was also accused of rape by a woman named Shelly Auguste and another woman in 2019, though after numerous legal wranglings and mutual restraining orders, Diplo won a civil case against the woman for harassment.

Meanwhile, the press both inside and especially outside of country music continues to present Diplo and tracks like “Use Me (Brutal Hearts)” as country music’s future, often because they hate actual country music and its fans, and see Diplo’s involvement in country music as a positive development. This has also coincided with Diplo being booked on big country music festivals like Coachella’s country cousin Stagecoach, and the Two Step Inn festival north of Austin, taking important performance slots away from actual country artists.

But Diplo, nor “Use Me (Brutal Hearts)” have anything to do with country music, despite Diplo’s best efforts to use Sturgill’s voice as an avenue to country credibility. This is electronic music, and substituting Sean Penn for Sturgill Simpson in the video (see below) really illustrates that this whole exercise is more of a Hollywood flex as opposed to an effort towards real authenticity.

The cowboy hats and the mechanical bull in the video are just symbolism. It’s cowboy “chic”—a style motif to co-opt for its cool factor, just like the voice of Sturgill Simpson. It may be ultra cool, but it’s most definitely not real, or country. And it’s interesting that Sturgill was willing to lend his voice, but it was done originally under a pseudonym, and he wouldn’t sign up for the video.

It would have been more cool if they just let the audience figure out who was singing. But Diplo needs Sturgill’s name, and apparently Sturgill is not the only one for the independent country realm that will appear on Diplo’s new album Thomas Wesley: Chapter 2 – Swamp Savant out April 28th, just like Morgan Wallen, Thomas Rhett, and others have appeared on Diplo’s “country” projects before.

To prepare for the new project, Diplo said he “spent two years going to Stagecoach undercover as an EDM DJ to figure out what people were into … I tried on a lot of cowboy hats.” But sorry, that isn’t enough. The EDM world is through with Diplo, so now he’s trying on country like it’s a Stetson.

Again, I don’t want to make too much of this, like it’s somehow forbidden for country artists to cross genres, or vice versa, or that this collaboration somehow erodes Sturgill Simpson’s overall legacy, because of course it doesn’t. But Diplo taking away big performance slots at big festivals from country artists and siphoning oxygen away from performers who spent their entire lives devoting it to country music is not what we need in the country genre.

The future of country music is not EDM incursions in cowboy hats like Diplo. It’s actual country music, which continues to be corroborated more and more every single day, this collaboration notwithstanding.

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