For God’s Sake, Can We Stop Talking About “Women” Country Singers?
The first commercial recording of country music was released in 1922. The first successful commercial recording of country music was released in 1923. It didn’t take long for people to buy into this music, and now, nearly 100 years later, we’re still listening to it.
May I let you in on a surprising fact: women have been writing and performing country music since it “began.”
The other day, someone asked me what the big deal about Brandi Carlile was, and I didn’t have much of an answer other than, “She’s writing good songs, and she’s a country singer, so people are astounded,” what I would have said about Kacey Musgraves, Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, or any of the women that were writing in the 70 years prior to them.
Is country music so boring these days that we have to manufacture controversy by asking radio programmers their opinion on the state of the industry? Last I checked, commercial radio programmers had no knowledge of the music; they merely checked ad revenue and ran focus groups, neither of which are particularly telling when someone decides that a song is suddenly meaningful to them because, oh, I don’t know, they’re in the midst of an unexpected breakup. Or because their mother passed away. Or because it reminds them of the awesome time they had Friday night with their friends at the bar. No amount of focus-grouping (see how I verbed my noun right there, just like a true business professional) will predict a song’s popularity or resonance with people. As such, why should we try to divide men against women, young against old, beer-in-the-back-of-a-pickup against sobbing-over-yet-another-boyfriend?
If there’s one thing that’s true about TomatoGate, it’s that if anything, women really are the tomatoes. At least they venture out and write about abuse, inequality, politics, and emotional trials, decorating the rather bland lettucey offerings of the bro-country heroes, who stick to safe (AKA profit-generating) subject matter of partying ’till the sun goes down. At least a tomato makes a salad taste good. And in this day and age of beet-and-goat-cheese salads; quinoa garnished with chick peas and caramelized pecans, how can we say we want lettuce?? It doesn’t even make it into a basic McDonald’s salad anymore. Pop culture is so clearly anchored on our over-valorized concept of diversity and individual taste these days that attempting to generalize, as the music industry machine so desperately tries to do by giving us 10 song variants disguised as “Top 40”, is pointless. Nobody wants to say they are strictly a new country adherent; we all want a little spice thrown into our bland rotation so as to appear slightly exotic or cultured. Perhaps a Gillian Welch tune. Or maybe a bit of Tom Waits thrown in. How about that awesome new Kanye West song, “Otis”?
This is a very tired conversation. I’m bored. I’m guessing you all are too. The tomato shirts are cute, and I suppose they’ll bring in a little revenue for the female artists who seem to be rarely making it into the program lists of radio conglomerates, but otherwise, can we just drop it? There are so many other critical issues to address, even if we stick to the singular movement of feminism. Why aren’t there any black female country singers? Why are women still struggling to climb the music industry corporate ladder? Why don’t we disentangle the (again, dull and homogenous) limited images on offer from bro-country videos and lyrics from a genre that, on the other side, has offered opportunities for virtuoso performers and strong voices in ways no other genre has? What is WRONG with us? There are many places where meaningful and progressive feminist conversations need to be had – try within the date rape culture of North American universities, or with a Canadian government that refuses to launch an inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women.
But country music, where women have proven again and again that they’ve conquered the genre, is not one of these places. And if you don’t agree with me, then spend some time with this lady:
Because she figured this out 50 years ago.