The Fight Over Bro-Country Still Matters, but Maybe It Needs to Be Different
Once upon a time, Garth Brooks was the harbinger of country's demise. But things have changed.
To some, the battle over the sanctity of country music had been fought and lost before many of the people arguing about it today were even born. Maybe it was back when Glen Campbell hit No. 1 on the pop charts. Perhaps it was when Shania Twain or Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift or Darius Rucker or whoever it was finally pushed the genre into the pop category forever.
This is an argument that has been going on since at least the 1970s, and many of us would agree that the battle still rages on. Only now, it’s not the countrypolitan sound or pop stardom that is the enemy: It’s the bros.
I am guilty of falling into that latter camp, of sharpening my pitchfork and aiming it directly at Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line and countless other shirtless wonders. I harped, because there were moments where there was no hope, when Brad Paisley was recording songs with LL Cool J and Florida-Georgia Line put Nelly on the track. Nobody does pandering like country music does pandering, and this time, the attempt to appeal to such a broad constituency threatened to take down the genre for good — to leave us with nothing but Sam Hunt and electro-dance beats and memories.
But then there was hope. There was Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves and hell, even a Luke Bryan song that didn’t make me want to jab my eardrums out with pencils. 2015 was not a particularly good year for country releases, with some major exceptions, but paying attention to more authentic acts certainly was trendy this year, and that was inspiring. But still, while it can be argued that the bros are losing their grasp on country music, they’re still popular enough to inspire concern.
At Noisey last week, Andrew Winistorfer, a self-described “bro who likes country music,” took up the noble cause of defending a sub-genre that he says is misunderstood, poorly classified and often the target of not particularly thoughtful criticism. To be sure, we (I) have lobbed some cheap shots at acts like Florida-Georgia Line, making fun of their shirtlessness and penchant for referring to their penises in song lyrics. Perhaps that has somehow obscured the real point, which is that bro-country is harmful to much more than just country music’s image.
And, to be fair, we (I) have been beating on that drum for some time. We don’t need to talk further about how sexist this music can be, and the impact that has on young female artists who are trying to get a fair shake in Nashville. Or that it appropriates hip-hop into a genre that isn’t particularly welcoming for people of color. Bro-country isn’t just bad music, it’s bad for people who aren’t white males, which is a much deeper concern than whatever Hank Williams or Johnny Cash would think about the state of country music today.
Okay, that new Luke Bryan song isn't the worst thing. But still.
What’s more interesting, though, is the persistent argument, echoed in this Noisey piece and by the Dallas Observer’s own Kelly Dearmore, that country fans should just accept that mainstream music is going to be garbage. That to find the gems, we have to look to the Internet and Americana radio stations and honky-tonks. There has always been a mainstream and a rebellion against that mainstream in country music, but does that mean we should completely concede mainstream country to the bros and the pop stars?
In the past, country fans have picked up their own pitchforks and directed them at the artists who they decided were ruining the music. Sure, Garth Brooks took off from making music to raise his daughter, but it also conveniently coincided with the biggest flop of his career. Country fans, for a time, blamed him for the sad state of country music. Taylor Swift was about one more banjo-free album away from being kicked off to pop before she decided to officially go that way on her own. Historically, country fans haven’t been particularly forgiving of acts that make bad country music, so why should we start now?
“The issue is that we need to draw a distinction between something being 'something I don’t personally relate to' and 'something I think sucks,'” writes Winistorfer. That would be an entirely valid argument if the success of bro-country didn’t hinge on hyper-relatability. In order to appeal to the mainstream, to sell records to middle America, Luke Bryan and the boys had to pretend to be regular guys. They had to pretend that they were as into hunting and fishing and rural life as the people who were buying their albums.
Or at least as into those things as the people who were buying those albums themselves pretend to be.
If you’ve lived in Dallas long enough, you’ve seen plenty of good ol’ boys who are indulging in a Texan fantasy. They’re the ones driving big King Ranch edition trucks that have never seen a patch of mud. They’re the guys who unironically wear actual cowboy boots to an office instead of, you know, to do cowboy stuff. They hunt and fish on game preserves once a year, and they get their rural rocks off the other 51 weeks of the year through songs about creek beds and trucks and guns.
The issue with bro-country has never been its relatability. Snobbish music critics who wouldn’t deign to admit that George Strait is one of the best performers of all time might feel that way, but the people who buy and consume music do not. The very roots of country music exist in its appeal to people who have long felt left out of traditional music. This is a fan base that is desperate to see itself represented on TV and music, ignoring the fact that they overwhelmingly already are.
The more room for artists like Kacey Musgraves, the better.
Liking bro-country isn’t a crime — even I can’t deny that some of those songs are catchy — but let’s not pretend it’s something that it isn’t. I’m not “writing off an entire genre that means a lot to a lot of people,” as Winistorfer argues. I’m charging that those people deserve better, more authentic, more relatable music. There’s a reason that Kacey Musgraves is successful, and it’s not because she’s pandering to any particular audience. It’s because she’s a relatable, small-town girl who also happens to be incredibly talented, and that has always been what has made country music distinctive and unique.
To say that Bryan and “FLAGA” (ugh) are getting too much flack is wrong. They’re just not getting the right kind of criticism. Only a few people are calling them out for objectifying women and playing into rural tropes that don’t particularly suit them. It is easier to just say that these acts suck and country music sucks, and in that, this criticism has an excellent point.
It’s time for people who hate bro-country (myself included) to criticize more substantively if we’re going to do it. There are legitimate reasons to loathe bro-country, and it’s not because it’s all songs about trucks and girls. Some of country’s best songs are about trucks and girls. What is at issue here is what is always at issue with this genre: authenticity.
The authenticity of the Coal Miner’s Daughter and of The Possum and everyone else who shaped this style of music deserves to be preserved. And to do that, sometimes we have to reject a style of music that, well, just kind of sucks.
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