I don’t know when country music radio became such a damned unfriendly place for the backbone of its audience, but last week’s #saladgate is pretty incontrovertible evidence that it is. In case you missed the controversy: Programming consultant Keith Hill—a so-called expert—told Country Aircheck that radio execs should “take females out” if they want to make ratings in Country radio:
Finally, Hill cautions against playing too many females. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-no. “If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he asserts. “The reason is mainstream Country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females."
Hill has gotten a lot of flack for his tasteless salad remarks, but to me the really troubling part of that whole graf is his willingness to peg the dearth of female artists on country radio—just 18% of 2014’s Top 100 songs were voiced by a woman—on one simple explanation: “Women like male artists.”
This is bullshit for a number of reasons, primarily: Find me the woman who doesn’t think “Fancy” is one the best songs ever written. It’s also the kind of stupid argument that wage-gap truthers like to throw out. I’m a health-care journalist in my real life, and there’s a huge earnings gap between male and female physicians that’s actually getting worse instead of better. I hear this argument a lot: Female docs make less because they self-select for lower-paying specialties (like primary care instead of surgery, for example).
The problem with that argument is that it doesn’t necessary say anything about gender preference. Are women choosing lower-paying specialties because they prefer pediatrics to cardiology, or are they choosing lower-paying specialties because those are the specialties that are culturally open to them?
“Women like male artists” is kind of the same thing. Do women like male artists because, well, that’s what they’re exposed to and it’s catchy—or are women consciously choosing to listen to male artists over female artists?
Getting at the root of that question matters because if it’s the first one, that’s an injustice worth correcting, isn’t it?
The birth of bro country
The preference-or-bias question is hard to answer because once you get a little further downstream, it gets a lot harder to tell the difference. BBR Music Group EVP Jon Loba put it really nicely in a big report on this that Country Airtrack released in February:
A song-plugger friend was recently telling me how frustrated she is that her company only has one female staff writer and she was trying to get the president to sign more. She thought we need more female perspective rather than men writing for women or female artists trying to adapt a male song. And she said he told her flat out, there’s not as much solo female stuff being cut and none of it is connecting anyway. So, the shot of making money is diminished and I’m not willing to take that risk. Then it becomes self-fulfilling prophesy. [Ed: Emphasis added.]
It’s especially not worth taking the risk when there is already such a successful, albeit unfortunate, formula for pop-country songs by male artists: Put a truck in it and put a girl in it. There’s even a Brooks & Dunn song called “Put a Girl In It” (Oh, Kix, Ronnie: It took so much more to make Maria great than just putting her on the bench seat of an F150).
I won’t get into all the reasons this stuff is problematic for women. Suffice it to say the biggest condemnation is the reliance on the swinging-dick overuse of “girl” to stand in for a faceless swath of women who have been stripped of not just their names but any distinguishing characteristics whatsoever:
I blame the marketing juggernaut that was Toby Keith in the early 2000s for a lot of this redneck chest-thumping. (Sorry, Toby. I really do love I Can’t Take You Anywhere and all the other Scotty Emerick tracks, and I thought that song Clancy’s Tavern was the tits.) Pop country was already straddling a fine line when it came to celebrating the values of an authentically rural life—we all remember the travesty that was Joe Diffie—but 9/11 happened and suddenly the apotheosis of rural sensibilities became putting a boot in someone’s ass. It’s not a stretch to see how that kind of aggro-gression would translate into a friendly environment for drunk boys with big trucks.
Girls hung on for a while. Gretchen Wilson, with her big hoops and her four-wheeler, made a damn valiant effort and I commend her. But the kind of gentle objectification in “Skoal Ring”—a one-woman paean to the appeal of that hallmark of good ol’ boy sexuality—just doesn’t have the same broad-base appeal as a song about daisy dukes.
It all went downhill for girls from there. I want to like Carrie Underwood. I really, really do. But it’s hard for me to get behind a female artist whose public image vacillates between the virgin Mary and a slighted ex-girlfriend who takes a baseball bat to her lover’s car. That kind of petulance is more embarrassing to me than every plaintive emotion Dolly ever sang to Jolene. At least that was real. At least Miranda had the good sense to get out in front of the stereotype when she called her 2007 album “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” She didn’t just buy in.
“[My song-plugger friend] was also talking about... the fact that as a 28-year-old female, she isn’t hearing much music from solo females that moves her or says anything,” Loba said. “There’s always the discussion that radio is biased, but to Michael’s point, radio wants to play music that keeps their listeners tuned in. We have more forms of measurement now than ever before to see if that’s the case. There are taste-making programmers saying we need more balance in the format and they are actively trying to do that. But they play them, they’re not registering and that’s why we’re not breaking through.”
So is Hill right? Women artists are obviously not connecting, even with other women. Is it just that simple: Women don’t like women?
The mic drop
Bullshit. Women aren’t connecting because today’s cold-beer-guzzlin’, sweet-honey-nuzzlin’ narrative of country music is an enormously lucrative Potemkin village. The largely-imaginary world that Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan create in their ultra-catchy songs that even I guiltily listen to (although by the way, fuck you Luke Bryan, for reasons I don’t even have time to type out here but read this)—that fantasy is the fuel that country music’s engine runs on. It sells beer and concert tickets and Spotify Premium subscriptions. To introduce another voice into that narrative—the woman’s voice—would yank the foundations right out from underneath it.
Because what would the woman sliding across his front seat in her daisy dukes even say? Oh, boy, set down your spitter and slide on over here? Gretchen already tried that. It didn’t work. Blame cognitive dissonance: To give the other side a voice would show the puppet strings and as a species, we really, really hate that. Our brains will literally rewire to explain away the discrepancy—or reject it outright.
Country music’s women problem is really country music’s authenticity problem. We’re willing to suspend our belief long enough to believe it’s charming that good-looking boys in big pickup trucks can get away with murder, but it’s a lot less commercially palatable if we start to think about who they’re murdering. No wonder women aren’t connecting with female singers—if they sing about anything real, it contradicts an incredibly well-entrenched cultural narrative, but if they try to sing to fit the narrative, it rings false. It’s a catch-22, and the only people who have the power to change it are the radio programmers who claim their hands are bound by the demands of the market. Which, depressingly, I guess they are.
Meanwhile, those female country music artists that can’t make it on K95—guess what they’re writing about?
A playlist for the road
The year Wynona Judd’s hit “No One Else On Earth” came out on country music radio, I was five. My mom was campaigning for the Virginia state legislature in a very rural district, and I spent the hot summer months riding shotgun in her fire-engine red Chevy Custom Deluxe, while she went door to door in Louisa County convincing folks she was a better dose than the crooked incumbent. In between stops, we spooled through the stations looking for Wynona. Later, she would play me Mother Maybelle and Earl Scruggs Revue on scratchy 33s.
I tell you all this in the interest of full disclosure: In making a playlist of kickass female musicians for this post, I tried to tamp down my moony-eyed sentimentality for the good ol’ days of country music—but I fucking love country music, so I can’t promise I succeeded. This thing is weighted heavily towards Loretta and and Tammy, but there’s some Miranda and Reba on here too.