On This Beyoncé Going “Country” Business

During a Super Bowl ad for Verizon that featured Beyoncé attempting to “break the internet” in various ways, the 32-time Grammy-winning performer released two new songs that for some, affirm prior suspicions that Beyoncé’s new album will be a country one. The songs “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” will be part of the singer’s presumed Renaissance: Act Two album due out March 29th.

Beyoncé didn’t break the internet with her commercial or the release of her two news songs. But she very well might break country music in the process. And that very well might be the entire purpose.

Whether these two songs released by Beyoncé are actually country songs or not—and whether her upcoming album is country as a whole—is a discussion that should be had, but is in peril of not happening in any sort of objective or thorough manner, because that discussion is difficult to impossible to have in this current media environment. The songs and album run the risk of being rubber stamped as “country” moving forward because the institutions tasked with making such assessments will fear the accusations of racism if they deem them otherwise.

Maybe Beyoncé’s new songs are country, or at least, they may be more country than they are anything else. But these are decisions that need to be determined irrespective of the noise already surrounding Beyoncé’s foray into country. The question chart managers have to grapple with is if the songs fit within the country format compared to peers. The question radio programmers and playlist curators have to ask is if they’re relevant to the demographics those playlists and radio stations serve. And what awards shows like the Grammy Awards have to decide is if Beyoncé’s new music is more country than it is any other genre.

Billboard already seems to be signaling that “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” will appear on the Hot Country Songs chart. In an article posted on February 12th titled “Beyoncé Lays Down Her Country Cards,” it concludes, “Before Beyoncé, R&B stars Lionel Richie and Ray Charles (another multi-genre aisle-crosser who’s also a Country Music Hall of Fame member) made their own popular, top-charting forays into country. So why not Beyoncé?”

We won’t know if the songs appear on the Billboard country charts until early next week. But simply appearing on country charts won’t be good enough. Regardless of how good, or how “country” Beyoncé’s songs and album are, they must be #1s. They must also win CMA and ACM Awards. They must win country Grammy Awards, and Renaissance: Act Two must win the all-genre Grammy Album of the Year. Anything less than this, and these institutions will be summarily and viciously attacked in the press, by the press, and in waves coordinated Stan campaigns on social media.

We know this will happen because that is what happened in part in 2016 when Beyoncé released what some claimed was a country song in “Daddy Lessons” off of her album Lemonade. At that time, Billboard did not deem the song country, and it instead appeared on the Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart. Strangely, this didn’t cause a stir, since at that time, there was strong consensus that the song might be country-flavored, but not country overall.

When “Daddy Lessons” ended up in front of a screening committee at the Grammy Awards made up of industry professionals, they deemed the song did not fit the country format either, setting off a firestorm against the entirety of country music for supposedly gatekeeping against Beyoncé because she was Black. The incident is cited regularly whenever race and country music are evoked, or Beyoncé and country music are evoked specifically.

A similar situation occurred when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was deemed to not be country by Billboard, and taken off the country charts. The entire country genre was blamed by name, with the viral headline from Rolling Stone decreeing, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.” In reality, it was Billboard alone who made that decision, and it was based off empirical and objective benchmarks that “Old Town Road” could not fulfill, and the admission that Lil Nas X had purposely mischaracterized the metadata of the track for it to show up initially as country.

In both of these cases however, Beyoncé and Lil Nas X were invited to participate in the CMA Awards. Lil Nas X won a CMA Award for “Old Town Road,” while Beyoncé performed “Daddy Lessons” as the centerpiece of the CMA’s 50th Anniversary Awards in 2016. Yet these honors are rarely cited to help contextualize Beyoncé’s and Lil Nas X’s experiences in country music.

Similarly, as we move forward with Beyoncé’s foray into “country” music, if any institution that is part of the country music community is at the center of any perceived offense—or even if it’s not—the entirety of country music will be characterized as being complicit in racism in the continuing effort to couch country music as a monolith by individuals uniquely unqualified to speak with any authority on the doings of the genre. In fact, even before any major decisions have been made about how to handle Beyoncé’s new songs, “country music” is already getting attacked.

Is the song “Texas Hold ‘Em” a country song? Similar to “Daddy Lessons,” any and all of the country elements to the song come in the form of performative and rather trite stereotypes of the country genre feeding off of tropes. “Texas Hold ‘Em” is a rhythmic-based, cussy, and frankly vapid ditty that says very little in regards to storytelling. Perhaps it could still be deemed “country” if a song such as “Fancy Like” by Walker Hayes is as well. But beyond any genre arguments, “Texas Hold ‘Em” is just not very good.

Beyoncé’s other “country” song called “16 Carriages” has a little bit more going on in regards to story and lyricism, but the lyrical cadence is not like anything you would ever hear in a country song, while instead the cadence is starkly indicative of R&B. Steel guitar supplied by roots music’s Robert Randolph is present on the track and appreciated, but is buried in an otherwise overproduced soup of wild and sometimes directionless mood changes throughout the song.

Chris Richards of The Washington Post who regularly lambasts country music as racist, misogynistic, and transphobic surprisingly has a similar take on these Beyoncé songs, saying, “both songs feel dull, dry, unimaginative, unnecessary, unconfident and uncool.”

Are these two songs really how we want the Black legacy in country music to be represented to the greater masses?

Much as been made of Rhiannon Giddens appearing on the “Texas Hold ‘Em” track playing banjo and fiddle. It’s cool that Giddens is included on the song, but this pairing is deserving of some greater context.

In 2016 when Beyoncé performed on the CMA Awards, Rhiannon Giddens did too. She had recently recorded a duet with Eric Church on an anti-racism song called “Kill A Word.” Not only did the song make it to #6 on country radio, and #9 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, Rhiannon Giddens and Eric Church performed the song on the CMAs.

Beyoncé’s appearance at the 2016 CMAs was criticized by Travis Tritt, and Alan Jackson reportedly walked out when Beyoncé was performing. But they were not the only performers who took issue with Beyoncé taking time and attention away from country performers on a country music awards show. Rhiannon Giddens did too.

“I’ve studied this music. You know what I mean?” Rhiannon Giddens said in a 2017 interview with the Associated Press. “I’m not coming from another genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Justin Timberlake did it last year, and that was a lovely moment … I just know what angered me about it was that it overshadowed two other performers of color who were kind of naturally there—Charley Pride, who’s a huge figure, and then myself as a guest of Eric Church.”

Rhiannon Giddens goes on to say in the interview, “[Eric Church] was making a really particular point having me sing on his song. His song was all about turning hate into love, and getting rid of these words of anger. That upset me that it was overshadowed. [Beyonce’s performance] turned into a flashpoint, rather than a moment of, ‘Yeah, this is awesome!’ Because it didn’t feel organic. It doesn’t matter who you are, if the moment doesn’t come from the inside, the moment doesn’t come from a genuine desire to inhabit the music.”

You can watch the interview below:

The words of Rhiannon Giddens still ring true today, and perhaps even more so now. It is without question that Beyoncé’s presence in the country music space will shade out other Black and Brown creators, as well as other women. And as who is estimated to be worth $800 million who is married to a literal billionaire in Jay Z, Beyoncé’s interjection into country music is patently unfair to country music’s native performers.

As a reminder, Chapel Hart still doesn’t even have a record deal. But Beyoncé fans are demanding full compliance by country music to facilitate her country move.

Did Beyoncé include Rhiannon Giddens on “Texas Hold ‘Em” to placate her? Perhaps. But no matter the motivation, it is cool that Giddens is part of this project. It’s also kind of cool that Beyoncé is wanting to dabble a little bit in country. You don’t get the sense that Beyoncé herself is here to stir chaos, division, and racist sentiments online, even if that will be the ultimate result. She’s just trying to express a creative part of herself that finds some sort of appeal in country sounds.

As many have pointed out, Beyoncé is originally from Houston. Being born in Texas doesn’t give you a birthright to country music. But it is plausible that Beyoncé heard country music growing up, and wants to express those elements in her music. Country music shouldn’t be so rigid that we make ourselves unwelcoming to artists from other genres, nor completely disallow a pop star from performing on the CMA Awards, which by the way, happens every year.

But we also don’t have to lie to ourselves and the public if what we’re hearing from Beyoncé doesn’t sound good, or doesn’t sound country. People are actively using whether you think Beyoncé’s songs are country or not as a racism litmus test. But this is just not the case. Neither is it racist if you happen to just not like the Beyoncé songs. Taste is subjective, and so is genre sometimes. Beyoncé’s songs certainly have some country elements to them. Whether they’re more country than anything else is fair to say can be up for interpretation.

And though you don’t have to be racist to think these Beyoncé songs are not country or not good, you also don’t have to be racist as a country fan, period. In 2016, Beyoncé’s CMA appearance was met with clearly racist sentiments that should have no place in country music or anywhere else. Though they represented only a small, but vocal minority of country fans, they represented country fans nonetheless, and were weaponized to mischaracterize the entire genre.

The media and Beyoncé fans are betting on a racist backlash to help promote these Beyoncé country songs and her upcoming album. The more actual racism that appears in the backlash against Beyoncé, the more it feeds the billionaire-class Beyoncé beast that is setting up country music like a set of bowling pins to strike it down for their ulterior purposes. The more they can couch Beyoncé as a victim, the better she will do. Don’t be their foil.

But in other respects, it doesn’t really matter what the people of country music do in this situation. It is a guarantee they will fail Beyoncé. Because with Beyoncé, there is one socially acceptable determination to come to: everything she does is absolutely perfect in every sense. This obsequious fealty being demanded for Beyoncé in certain circles is genuinely frightening, and has already reached a level of social contagion.

This is the very thing Saturday Night Live lampooned some years ago about Beyoncé’s fan base and its surrogates in the media. We’re seeing this transpire in real time. Bend the knee to Beyoncé, or risk serious social rebuke and isolation. We’re not even a week into this, and the demand to recognize Beyoncé as the greatest thing currently in country music is reaching a fevered pitch.

You could be inclined to laugh at all of this. But in this instance, the SNL skit is art imitating life. Friendships and relationships in the country music industry are going to be torn apart over this issue. People will lose their jobs over this issue. It’s likely the “Beyoncé goes country” narrative will dominate country music discourse throughout 2024, into the CMA Awards in November, and into 2025 with the Grammys.

It is a lose lose situation for country music, because the media and the Beyhive have already decided that “country music” is the enemy here. Country radio stations are already being attacked for not playing the “Beyoncé songs. But as RadioInsight confirms, country stations haven’t even been serviced the singles yet, they were originally marked as “pop” in the metadata, and “Texas Hold ‘Em” is not FCC compliant off the shelf.

The media, The Beyhive, and social media activists, they want country music to be racist. The more racist and regressive it is, the better their media brands do, the more viral their tweets go, and the more attention they get. This is why this same cohort is currently engaging in one of the most active Black erasure campaigns in country music history by falsely claiming the Black legacy in country music was removed. This has never been the case, while the true threat to country’s Black legacy is the academics and activists who have perverse incentives in making country music appear more racist than it is.

While accepting the Grammy’s Dr. Dre Global Impact Award on February 4th, Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z admonished the Grammy Awards for making his wife the most awarded performer in history, but never having given her the all-genre Grammy Album of the Year. This was setting the table for Beyoncé’s announcement a week later.

The fact that Beyoncé has more Grammy Awards than any other performer in history (32), and the Grammys are still seen as incredibly delinquent when it comes to honoring Beyoncé tells you all you need to know. If the CMA Awards don’t give Beyoncé every single award that she is plausibly eligible for, there will be holy hell to pay, even if she finally wins the all-genre Grammy Album of the Year.

So how do you play a game that is impossible to win? You don’t play it at all. In the immortal words of Admiral Akbar:

If you attempt to placate or appease the Stan armies behind Beyoncé, they will take it as a sign of weakness and use it against you.

Actual country music fans know what country music is. The forces touting Beyoncé will win every battle on the internet and in elite discourse, and just like they did with Morgan Wallen, Jason Aldean, Oliver Anthony and others, they will also lose the war.

Break the internet? Sure, that’s a cute meme. But country music is not just a refraction point for people’s virtue signalizing, nor is it something you can immediately become simply by putting on a cowboy hat, or adding a banjo to a track. It isn’t even just a genre. It’s the culture of agrarian people, who often happen to be poor and working class. Often those people are White, but they can most certainly be Black and Brown too.

Many are touting Beyoncé’s move into country as a necessary integration of the Black experience into country. But that is not what this is. It is the interloping of a pop/hip-hop/R&B star into the genre that will shade out country music’s current and previous Black contributors. We are already seeing this happen in real time. If true diversity in country music is ever going to take root, it is going to have to happen through homegrown, native country stars, not pop stars worth $800 million who want to use country music as a motif and a talking point for their next project.

Beyoncé going country? We’ll have to wait and see what materializes with the album itself, and be open-minded that there may be more true country elements than what we’re hearing on the first two songs.

But you have a right to think Beyoncé’s songs are not country, or to think her songs are not good. Taste is subjective, and you have a right to your opinions. It is going to be a very interesting and difficult next few months. But never, NEVER let anyone make you believe that your opinions don’t matter, or that you’re inherently racist for them if they don’t fall down certain lines.

Ultimately, it’s up to country fans to decide if Beyoncé’s music is country, not the press, not academics, and most certainly not the Beyhive. Country music belongs to the people of the country, and always will.

© 2023 Saving Country Music