The CMA Awards in 2020 are in the unenviable position of trying to compel the public to pay attention to their little annual beauty pageant not just while having to jump through the hoops of COVID-19 protocols while cases are spiking all across the country, but in the shadow of a contentious Presidential election in the United States that by the time Wednesday, November 11th rolls around, very well may be hitting peak madness, with the potential of political turmoil pouring out into the streets.
Why the CMA Awards did not try to put more distance between themselves and this very obvious black hole on the calendar is beyond me. Yes, normally the CMAs are held on the second Wednesday in November, as it is this year. But there is a reason there are virtually no albums being released in not just country music, but in music in general this week, nor are there many songs, movies, or anything else in entertainment that generally requires drawing large amounts of attention. It’s because we’ve know for many months that politics would be dominating the national narrative at this very moment.
Sensing the difficulty they may be facing, the CMA released a barrage of buzzy news on Thursday (11-5) to try and entice the public to pay attention next week. Some of it’s good from the true country music perspective, such as word that the presentation will start with a tribute to Charlie Daniels, while tributes to Kenny Rogers and Joe Diffie are also on tap. Some of the news was a bit more dubious, such as Dan + Shay making their network TV debut with Justin Bieber during the CMA show.
As part of their social media barrage Thursday morning, the CMA also released a series of “Top Reasons to Watch” in a sort of meme form. #7 was clearly informed by the obvious and undeniable concern that the CMA’s biggest adversary for getting folks to tune in will be all of the drama currently unfolding.
“No Drama, Just Music,” the graphic was titled, continuing with, “It’s been a year, y’all. But for three hours next Wednesday on ABC, this is a no drama zone. More than 20 one-of-a-kind performances will help you forget the weight of the world for just a little while.”
At no point did the CMA Awards say, and most certainly didn’t decree anything to the artists performing on the evening with this statement. In fact the statement wasn’t even directed toward performers at all, but at the potential audience. It was simply a piece of promotional copy intended to get people to tune into their event. It was an advertisement cast in colloquial language among a barrage of announcements about the 2020 CMAs. They labeled it the #7 reason to watch because there were at least six others in this group of social media memes.
But as if we didn’t have enough drama weighing on the minds of individuals at the moment, certain enterprising blue-checkmarked journalists on Twitter—and later, numerous artists—saw an opportunity to increase their social capital and receive a dopamine rush by seizing on the statement, mischaracterizing it as some sort of directive or CMA policy pronouncement as opposed to a simple meme, putting words in the CMA’s mouth, and creating drama not only where there wasn’t any, but where it was actively attempting to be avoided.
“I’m all for music & awards as escapism & we certainly need that sometimes,” freelance journalist Marissa R. Moss said. “But this seems like, once again, CMA prewarning folks not to talk about the election or BLM (which, by the way, is not ‘drama’ but rather democracy and justice). Stop hiding from ‘drama,’ country music.”
Again, the CMA graphic said absolutely nothing about artists at all, or what they could or couldn’t say. Their statement was aimed at the public. Nonetheless, the characterization started off a firestorm. This particular tweet was just where it started, and was not as outlandish and damaging as things became, which is common on Twitter when users see something that is resonating, and choose to ratchet it up to increase popularity in the algorithm, escalating the situation.
“Also pretty interesting that drama is usually a word we use in reference to women, and women in country are the ones speaking up these days, so kiiinda seems like telling women to Stand Still, Look Pretty,” Marissa Moss added.
Pop star Sara Bareilles then seized on these Marissa. R. Moss mischaracterizations, and expounded on them, saying to her 2.2 million followers, “This is the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears screaming ‘lalalalalalalalala’. Not every person feels comfortable to speak out, but NO ONE should be discouraged from doing so. I know many passionate country artists who should feel free to use ALL of their voice.”
Again, all of this was over an innocuous social media meme, not oriented towards artists at all, but simply aimed to get the public to watch the CMA Awards next week, embedded in over a dozen different posts also promoting the show posted in a few hour period. Now all of a sudden, the CMAs were not only being accused of discouraging artists to speak, their meme was specifically telling women to “Stand Still, Look Pretty.”
It’s worth pointing out that the CEO of the CMAs is a woman, Sarah Trahern.
Soon as multiple blue-checkmarked personalities got into the Twitter mob, Americana band American Aquarium posted their own meme on the matter, fueling the misinformation.
There may not be a more perfect example of how a simple piece of illustrative media run through the filter of severe ideology and social media craze can reach a level of such insanity, that the resulting permutations cement an idea in the minds of the public completely divested from its original form. They took a molehill, and made it into Mt. Everest. The CMA’s silly graphic telling folks they could escape the current drama for a couple of hours next Wednesday soon became the biggest news story in country music during the day, arguably even bigger than the announcement of Justin Bieber performing, with multiple news outlets including USA Today reporting on the matter.
The underlying implication from Marissa R. Moss and others was that the only way the CMAs could ensure the public there would be “no drama” is if they had demanded performers not to speak out about political or polarizing subjects, and received assurances from them. However, Marissa R. Moss did not check with either the CMA, or any performers to corroborate this assumption.
Saving Country Music did reach out to the camps of numerous announced performers and nominees at the 2020 CMAs, and though we only heard back from a few at the time of positing and none of them wanted to speak on record about the matter, numerous individuals confirmed that artists have not received any sort of directive, email, request, or anything else from the CMAs demanding they not speak on political matters, or any other subject.
Furthermore, the CMAs released a statement, clarifying their initial meme after the Twitter fracas.
“We look forward to an evening of incredible music and celebration at next week’s CMA Awards. While our intentions with our social campaign was to communicate to our fans that the show will offer a brief escape, we recognize that our phrasing did not convey that message. We welcome every artist’s right to express themselves.”
So this should have cleared the matter up, right? The CMA apologized for the misunderstanding, and clarified that the social media graphic was in no way demanding of artists to not express themselves. But as you might anticipate, it actually added fuel to the fire.
Marissa R. Moss did not accept the apology, she clapped back saying, “walking it back – “ooops!” – reminds me of a gaslighting technique not dissimilar to our current president.” She also posted a sarcastic meme of Madonna in response to their apology, as opposed to accepting it.
And again, there was nothing to walk back. There was never an edict to artists. There was never an ultimatum presented to anyone. It was simply a silly meme. And Marissa R. Moss and others throwing the CMA’s apology back in their face proves they’re bad faith actors, and an apology shouldn’t have been released at all. These individuals are bullies, and use any effort to find common ground or understanding by other individuals or entities as a weakness they can exploit. Furthermore, it’s the very type of hyper-polarized gaming of the American mind on social media that has recently been highlighted in multiple places—including the recent documentary The Social Dilemma—and emphasizes why people need escapes like the CMA Awards were attempting to offer.
Saving Country Music could list off a litany of grievances with the CMA Awards. And it’s not that posting the social media graphic in question may have been in some tiny version of poor taste, or at least perhaps it could have been vetted more properly. But the assertion the CMAs were trying to stifle voices is verifably false, and it’s irresponsible and unethical for individuals—especially journalists—to share this false notion simply because it aligns with their ideology, or makes for good social media fodder.
In fairness, the CMAs did cause a stir in 2017 when they requested of the media to not focus their coverage on politically divisive subjects in red carpet and backstage interviews—a request they later retracted and apologized for. But similar to this current issue, that news was also embellished by individuals, including Marissa R. Moss. The media was never told they could not bring up divisive subjects. It was simply a request they don’t focus on it, and one of the reasons for the request was the CMA didn’t want to trigger bad memories in artists who had performed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, and were victims of the tragedy themselves.
Regardless, in 2020, the CMA never said artists couldn’t express themselves, politically or otherwise. And the individuals perpetrating this verifiable falsehood are not advocating for free speech. They’re looking to stifle speech and that does not fit with their ideology, and trying to force compliance by using bully tactics and lies.
Unfortunately, this false characterization of the CMA’s harmless meme has now been shared thousands and thousands of times on Twitter, including by celebrities with millions of followers. Meanwhile, this clarification—like all clarifications—will not receive nearly the attention.
The truth is much less popular. That is why they lie.