With every popularity cycle, there’s a new threat to the integrity of country music. At the end of last year it was Taylor Swift. Earlier this year it was the so-called “new Outlaws” like Eric Church and Josh Thompson. Now Music Row has stopped trying to dress up pop music as country like they did with Taylor, or trying to capitalize on anti-pop country sentiment like they did with the new Outlaws, and are now going straight forward with pop, period, designed to sell out stadiums in the arena rock mold. No mandolins or fiddles buried deep in the mix like we used to bitch about; the country music fan has been so desensitized, the need for lip service has even evaporated.
At this is moment in time, right now, is where mass-appeal arena pop rock uses the term “country” and the infrastructure of country music to be disseminated. Almost a year removed now from Taylor Swift’s CMA for Artist of the Year, and Swift looks like a traditionalist compared to Sugarland, and their new unapologetically pop album The Incredible Machine.
Despite much controversy over this album and it’s single “Stuck Like Glue,” it is the #1 album in the country right now. One of the controversies is that some radio DJ’s are removing a horrific reggae breakdown in the single. This has caused some to warn about free speech issues, but some DJ’s are insisting they received the single pre-edited.
I could get the Kingsford out and roast this album all day, but y’all know that I am a biased hardliner. So lets see what some other critics say:
Most of us have by now come to accept that modern country music is more a state of mind than a particular sound, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Sugarland’s latest is essentially a full-blown rock album. If only it weren’t, more specifically, a Bon Jovi album. . . When having 15,000 fans wave their cell phones in the air goes from a nifty career aftereffect to the very reason for writing songs, it seems like something is amiss.
…subtlety, nuance and, most disappointingly, substance are checked at the stadium gate as the pendulum swings unmistakably toward sing- and sway-along anthems. The single “Stuck Like Glue” bursts with melodic, instrumental and lyrical hooks in a track as frothy as pop gets. Several other tracks show equally skilled production, but the appeal is all on the surface. . . The new stuff will most assuredly get audiences on their feet; whether it leaves them with anything beyond visceral thrill as they exit the arena is another matter.
Slant Magazine takes it even further, picking apart its substance as a country project, but also questioning its quality as a pop project:
Though its style alone makes it a sure bet to be hailed as progressive by those who only like country music that doesn’t sound a damn thing like country music, and just as sure to be reviled by country music purists, the real problems with the album are with its failures of execution and its inexplicable aesthetic choices. . . Many country fans are going to dismiss the album simply because Sugarland has gone pop, when the far greater issue is that The Incredible Machine is just awful of its own accord.
I’m sure there is a positive review out there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it … for the #1 album in the country! And what do we have to look forward to? Taylor Swift’s Speak Now which was released this week, and will surely claim the #1 spot and hold it for many months ahead. Even the one positive that critics are offering resistance, is counter-balanced by the majority of country fandom taking the Sugarland bait along with the sinker.
This is not John Denver and Olivia Newton John ruffling feathers by winning country awards like they did in the 70’s. This isn’t Garth Brooks flying over stadiums on wires. This isn’t Rascal Flatts rehashing classic rock songs, or even Taylor Swift playing with a fiddle player hidden in a dark corner. This is it. This is the bottom of the slippery slope, the payoff for years of desensitization and subtle creeping toward pure pop and arena rock where no more tributes to the traditions of country are necessary. Country is now the default term for any music with mass appeal made by white people.
Country is pop. Country is arena rock. And Sugarland’s Incredible Machine is country music’s ‘rock’ bottom.