Was It Truly a ‘Really Bad Year’ in Country Due to Morgan Wallen?

How was your year in country music? I know we still have six weeks to go, and there’s still a few more interesting albums to be released, hopefully a few new singles forthcoming from new albums in early 2022, perhaps a few more live performances you’re looking to catch. But with the impending close of the calendar year, what do you think?

My guess is you enjoyed some excellent new albums and songs from your favorite country performers, and discovered some new artists that will be your favorites for years to come. And perhaps most importantly, you probably enjoyed the return of live music, whether it was in a local venue, a festival in your area, or a destination festival that allowed you to finally get away and enjoy the re-opening of society after the onset of the pandemic.

If you were anything like me, country music allowed you to re-connect with old friends, make a few new friends, and helped get you through the hard times of 2021 that have seen an economic downturn, and the continued polarization of society. Country music likely played a role in some of the fondest memories you will take away from 2021, whether it was enjoying a particular performance at some live event, or a warm moment with your family or friends with country music playing in the background.

When all of the “end-of-year” lists start to populate the internet in the coming weeks, my guess is they will be chock full of songs and albums that stunned you when you first heard them, and went on to define “the soundtrack of your life” in 2021, as the cliché goes. Because that’s why you listen to country music. You listen to country music because it confers you joy. It’s a gift of life.

Economically, country music has done excellent in 2021 as well. Critically, mainstream country music continues to improve as we move away from the Bro-Country era, despite some notable exceptions (*cough* Walker Hayes *cough*). In the independent realm, we continue to see the rising popularity of important artists who are continuing to gain market share and support, and who are making sure the roots of country music are better represented in the modern context. And when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it was a banner year in country music as well.

Isn’t this how you look at country music in 2021, or do you look at it as being a “really bad” year, for whatever reason? According to Rolling Stone Country, it should be the latter. In fact, it is the latter, according to them. And why? Because one artist over 10 months ago used an undeniably damaging and racist word. And because of that, we must filter all of our opinions about country music through that one incident, we should put all of our joy, all of our memories, all the ground won for independent artists, for the roots of country, even for diversity in the genre aside, and be miserable. Because this is what much of country and music media wants. They want you to mope in misery just like they are. You must feel guilty about being a country music fan, even if you don’t like Morgan Wallen.

The aftermath of the CMA Awards every November always gives way to really bad takes on country music, often from individuals in the media decidedly outside of the country music fold who use the opportunity to pontificate on what they believe country music should be, and should do. Morgan Wallen was disqualified from the CMA awards in 2021 due to to the well-documented racial slur incident in January, but the CMA did allow his recent release Dangerous: The Double Album to compete in the album category in deference to the producers, musicians, songwriters, and other collaborators who participated in the project and didn’t drop a racial slur in front of a Ring doorbell camera—a prudent, and fair decision.

The point of disallowing Morgan Wallen from competing in individual awards was to punish him. To punish his collaborators seemed excessive, and unfair. And if you knew anything about the country music industry, you knew Dangerous was going to lose for Album of the Year. There was absolutely no way the CMA voters would allow it to win, and become the media narrative for the night. And ultimately, it did lose out to Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over. But that wasn’t enough for some.

Make no mistake about it, a win for Morgan Wallen is what much of the media was rooting for. It would have launched 1,000 think pieces, and would have been the perfect vector for media personalities to virtue signal into their echo chambers on Twitter. They wanted a Morgan Wallen win even worse than Morgan Wallen fans did. That is why even though Morgan Wallen lost for the one award he wasn’t disqualified for, he became the centerpiece of nearly all the media coverage of the 2021 CMA Awards.

The post CMA Awards coverage in The Washington Post included two paragraphs on the awards show itself, and then eight paragraphs pontificating on Morgan Wallen, and his greater implications on country music. 80% of the periodical’s coverage of the event was based around a guy who wasn’t there, didn’t perform, and didn’t win anything.

The centerpiece of the Washington Post recap was a cheer Morgan Wallen received when his name was read as an Album of the Year nominee (like all nominees receive, though apparently a bit louder), while the actual centerpiece of the presentation—Jennifer Hudson’s 6 1/2-minute performance of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” leading into “You Are My Sunshine” with Chris Stapleton—wasn’t even mentioned in the Washington Post article at all. “Inclusion at the CMAs?” the title of The Washington Post piece asks. And then the outlet erased the marquee performance of the night by a black woman to talk about Morgan Wallen, and more Morgan Wallen.

Rolling Stone Country did a much better job actually giving a play by play of the evening’s festivities, though once again, from a slanted and indentity-driven perspective. Granted though, that’s their right. But it was the title, and the premise of their recap that reads, 2021 CMA Awards: Country Music Tries to Forget a Really Bad Year that really got me to thinking.

This truly is the perspective of much of music media these days when it comes to country: absolute misery, seeing the glass always half empty, emphasizing the bad and demoralizing as opposed to the positive and uplifting, running everything through the filter of politics and identity, and making a man who wasn’t even there the marquee subject of an awards show that went out of its way to celebrate everything that isn’t Morgan Wallen using a swear word 10 months previous.

And ultimately, what has all this bellyaching in the media about Morgan Wallen actually accomplished? As I’ve said here at Saving Country Music a dozen times previous, it isn’t injuring Morgan Wallen’s continued success. All of the incessant and obsessive media coverage of an ugly, but passing incident is fueling Morgan Wallen’s landmark popularity. The media’s dramatic overblowing and mischaracterization of the N-word incident is very much a part of if not the primary driver of Morgan Wallen’s success.

In fact, in the Washington Post article on the 2021 CMAs, it states itself, “…because ‘cancellation’ tends to be great for business, there was also that colossal spike in sales and streams that kept his latest release, ‘Dangerous: The Double Album,’ at No. 1 on Billboard’s country album charts for 38 weeks and counting.”

Yet here is The Washington Post and other outlets focusing once again on Morgan Wallen and trying to cancel him, as opposed to all the other important things that went down at the 2021 CMA Awards, from Luke Combs ascending to Entertainer of the Year, to Carly Pearce breaking through for Female Vocalist of the Year, Carly’s performance with Ashley McBryde, Jennifer Hudson’s excellent performance, Jenee Fleenor’s win for Instrumentalist of the Year, and so on, and so forth. What an insult to these artists to either focus on Morgan Wallen, or run everything that happened on that night through the context of Morgan Wallen’s mistakes.

Even as someone who was disqualified from all but one of the awards and ultimately lost—even as the country music industry admonished and repudiated him—Morgan Wallen still won the 2021 CMAs. Why? Because this is what the media made as the prevailing narrative, while they simultaneously tongue lashed country music at large, and the CMAs specifically for not being harsh enough on Morgan Wallen. It’s the media, not country music, or the CMAs specifically, that continues to be complicit in Morgan Wallen’s popularity.

And why does the media continue to focus so much on Morgan Wallen, continuing to write one hit piece after another about him, decrying him as he makes his way back to live performance, as he releases a new single after his suspension from country radio, and as he doesn’t win at the CMA Awards? Why do they focus on Carrie Underwood liking a tweet, or Jason Aldean’s wife’s Instagram account? Why do we get more think pieces about country music’s lack of diversity than we get features on artists that help fulfill the diversity many in the media are clamoring for?

It’s because these people in music media want you to see this as a “really bad” year in country music. They want to drag you down in the pit of misery they’re in. They want you to obsesses over politics and identity, they want you to see someone’s identity before you see them as a person so they can shove us all into tribes, and then pit tribes against each other to keep us all engaged with the media to see who is winning, and who is losing. That’s why in an unprecedented year for diversity and inclusion in country music, the prevailing narrative is still Morgan Wallen. They need Morgan Wallen to be their boogeyman.

But that’s not what music is about—country music or otherwise. Music is a blessed gift that is one of the last things that can bring us all together and help us celebrate our shared experience. This was not a “really bad year” in country music, it was an amazing one filled with immeasurable joy, comfort, solace, and wisdom, as your soul was fed by the words and sentiments of artists who have the uncanny ability to put words and music to the things you feel, just like they’ve done every year before. That is why you’re a country music fan, and remain so.

Don’t ever, ever let anyone take that joy away from you.

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