When you live by the bit, you die by the bit. And Jerrod Niemann has just been bitten in the ass by a “Donkey.”
I remember when Trace Adkins released a song called “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” in late 2010. Adkins it can be argued is the King of modern day country music bit songs. He took “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” to the top of the country music charts in 2005, and it put him on the country music map. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” didn’t fare as well however. At the behest of Adkins himself, the song was released as a single. “I said, ‘Let’s just throw a hand grenade in the room right off the get-go.’” And it blew up in his face. A video was made for the song featuring puppets getting it on in a barn while farm animals watched. People were not impressed, and the song flopped. Eventually Trace was forced to admit, “I guess I went to that well one too many times.”
Jerrod Niemann was very much a middling country music star looking for his niche when he decided to release country music’s first outright EDM song “Drink To That All Night” in October of 2013. For a while it looked like the song might flop too. Maybe it was a little too fey, even for the wide berth country music is cutting these days. But with strong backing from his label and a moderately-successful video, “Drink To That All Night” eventually reached #1 on the Country Airplay chart on April 26th of this year. Niemann had taken a big gamble to be one step ahead of the competition, and that gamble had paid off for him. All of a sudden he was a trend setter, and when it was announced that a remix of the song had been made with Pitbull and a remix video was upcoming, it appeared like “Drink To That All Night” could become the “Cruise” of the summer of 2014: rising slowly, presenting a false fade, and then coming back strong on the back of a remix with a popular rapper.
A few days after the solstice however, and “Drink To That All Night” can’t be found anywhere, despite the release of the Pitbull remix, and the rumored remix video still in the offing. Part of the reason is because in lieu of continuing to push “Drink To That All Night” exclusively, Niemann’s label decided to double down on Jerrod’s new direction and release the ridiculous bit song “Donkey.” Like “Drink To That All Night”, the song has a very metro vibe, pseudo rap lyrics, and a ridiculous premise. But hey, it is a brave new world in country music. If “Drink To That All Night” can reach #1, why couldn’t “Donkey”?
But just like other candidates for country music’s worst song ever like Jason Aldean’s “1994”, Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah”, and the aforementioned “Brown Chicken Brown Cow”, Niemann and “Donkey” went too far. Even before “Donkey” was released to radio on May 19th, some radio programming gurus were sounding off. “I think we are already at a tipping point regarding ‘Bro Country’ and this song doesn’t help either way; it doesn’t advance Country music,” said Scott Husky of the influential Rusty Walker Programming Consultants. “My fear is that we have brought some new folks into the format lately with the appeal of newer music, this song might just point out why those folks didn’t listen to Country before. It will re-ignite the stereotype.”
Adam Jeffries, the Program Director at KJUG said to All Access, “I thought ‘Drink To That All Night’ was right on the line, but ‘Donkey’ is over it as far as being too rappy.”
Not according to Jerrod Niemann though. When talking to Rolling Stone Country, Niemann said, “If rap had never existed, nobody would say anything [about today’s rap-influenced country] because these songs already exist in our past and are classics. People are just looking at it in the wrong way,” Niemann said, alluding to spoken word songs such as “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “A Boy Named Sue”. “The people who are getting real upset maybe just don’t know as much about country music as they think.”
Huh. Maybe its Jerrod Niemann who needs the history lesson. As Saving Country Music once pointed out, Spoken Word is Not Rap: “Making the case that spoken word and rapping in music are the same thing is an insult to the artistic integrity and creativity of both spoken word and rap artists, and to the intelligence of anyone who that case is being made to.”
Nonetheless, “Donkey” still had its champions, apologists, and willful perpetrators in country radio, but early on when you looked at the amount of “adds” the song was getting on radio, it did not paint a very rosy picture for the song. “Donkey” was virtually dead on arrival despite a strong label backing, and this week the song went from #44 to #48 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Gimmick songs and comedy have always been part of the overall country music formula, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. But there is a point where the consumer’s intelligence is insulted, whether it’s by releasing a stupid song, or by misleading them that rap and spoken word are the same thing and telling them they’re stupid for thinking otherwise. As successful as some bit songs have been, like Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” for example, they arguably have also become many artist’s swan song. The defeat of “Donkey” is definitely a win for all things right and good in country music, but it could also be a much bigger defeat for Jerrod Niemann, and a lesson to other artists that even in this seemingly “anything goes” environment in country music at the moment, apparently there still are some limits and standards.