In the past few years, it seems like everyone has been picking on country music. As the genre becomes more and more dominated by good ol' boys looking for a good time, the term "bro country" has increasingly been used by music critics to pejoratively describe some of the most popular artists in country music, like Brantley Gilbert, Luke Bryan and Lee Brice.
Sadly, that descriptor doesn't miss the mark. Most of the charting artists in country music right now are largely men and the songs they write are targeted at other, mostly white and young, men. If you take a look at the Billboard country music charts right now, there are only two female artists in the top 10. Miranda Lambert's Platinum currently holds the No. 1 spot on the albums chart, along with an album from young TV star Lucy Hale.
But aside from the actual women in country who are making music, the subject matter of "bro country" is distinctly less friendly to women than the country music from the past.
Sure, George Strait, Conway Twitty and Garth Brooks sang about women and relationships, but the tone was much different. Classic tracks like "She Needs Someone To Hold Her" and "I Cross My Heart" have been replaced with "odes" to women that have much more misogynistic undertones, like Bryan's 2011 track "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)."
Misogyny in country music is a touchy subject. It has certainly existed since the inception of the genre, like every other style of music. Sometimes the misogyny is extremely overt. For many people, it's difficult to see why seemingly innocuous things like insisting on calling grown-ass women "girl" and reducing the subjects of these songs to pieces of their anatomy are a problem, especially when plenty of women are crowding into stadiums to swoon over their favorite country boys.
While these women are swooning over Gilbert and Bryan, female artists in the industry are being left behind. Last year, Entertainment Weekly actually asked Bryan what he thought about the difficulty that female artists were having breaking into the industry, and he attributed it to "girls" finding touring and early mornings too tough. Not to keep picking on Bryan, but it's clear that he doesn't realize that he and his bro country buddies are a big part of the problem.
Let's start with the word "girl." Every genre of music uses this word to refer to women, but bro-country has a particular fondness for calling the young women that have caught their eye by "girl." Bryan alone has six songs in his discography that have "girl" in the title, all of which are infantilizing in their own right. It's already weird for grown men (Bryan is almost 38 years old) to be calling the women that they want to have sex with "little girl," but the consequences are much more far-reaching than a little skeeziness.
The same applies to the objectification of women in country music. We don't often hear about women as a whole in these songs, but we do hear a lot about their body parts. Entire songs are dedicated to "long, suntanned legs" and women's asses, and typically not in ways that would be considered empowering or even respectful. How can women sit at the top of country music when it won't even recognize them as people worthy of dignity and respect, much less as serious artists?
Even worse, this trends toward a very murky definition of sexual consent in many of these tracks. In a time when rape culture is being discussed more than ever, the issue of consent in country music is being largely ignored. My brother, whom I often torture with country radio on our drives back to our parents' house a few hours from Dallas, astutely pointed out that a lot of these songs "sound like they're going to end up in a date rape." Even if they don't explicitly imply date rape, they sure do provide good background music for taking a woman out into the backwoods to try to talk her into having sex.
The theme is pretty simple. Take Florida Georgia Line's "Get Your Shine On," for example. The "girl" in the song is encouraged to keep drinking moonshine, then "slide that little sugar shaker over here" so that she can "rock all night long." Something tells me that Florida Georgia Line isn't talking about a guitar jam. Not to mention the fact that they're driving down what presumably is a country road, which doesn't exactly provide for many escape routes.
This kind of language creates an environment that's making it much more difficult for female country artists to succeed. In the last 10 years, only ten percent of No. 1 country hits were performed by women, a 14 percent drop from the 1990s. Bryan may think otherwise, but this decline likely has more to do with the ascension of bro country and the messages that come along with it than women being too weak to hack it on the country stage.
There has never been a shortage of talented, hard-working women making country music. Even in the beginning, though they had to scrape their way to the top, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline were some of the biggest stars of their eras. In the '90s, women like Shania Twain, Martina McBride and Faith Hill ruled the country airwaves, often out-selling and out-earning their male counterparts. More important, the women in country music have always been the ones moving this historically conservative genre forward as it kicked and screamed.
"The Pill," Loretta Lynn's historic homage to birth control in the 1970s, was a commercial success that did not come without controversy. Lynn's label refused to release the song when it was originally recorded, and country radio refused to play the song. Nonetheless, this feminist anthem helped propel Lynn into mainstream music and earned her a top-100 pop hit. Jeannie C. Reilly's "Harper Valley PTA," a tongue-in-cheek look at small-town slut-shaming, was less controversial but equally progressive.
With this history of strong women making waves in country music, it's disheartening to see bro country walking the genre backward. Making country music a better environment for women, both artists and fans, makes country music better as a whole. Talented female country artists like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and even Taylor Swift deserve to have their music on the charts alongside artists that respect them as both women and musicians.
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