2015 was, to say the least, not a great year for country. That was also true in 2014, and the year before that, and so on. Honestly, it’s been true for the last 15 years. As the genre has continued to move ever closer to the “pop” in “pop-country,” the results have been commercially successful, if critically underwhelming. To be sure, pop-country is the most popular iteration of this genre at the moment, and that often feels very depressing.
Sometimes, though, pop-country has a winner that just sort of seems to come out of nowhere, and that has everything to do with its underlying appeal. It is, most of the time, just like easy listening — there’s nothing too controversial about pop-country’s bland mediocrity. It's just good, if not great, music for the background. This year, though, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” turned that notion entirely on its head. With the release of this song, Little Big Town may have actually redefined what it takes to be pop-country.
The mainstream appeal of "Girl Crush" is pretty clear. It’s a flip-the-script take on the siren song, and cleverer than just about anything else Nashville has churned out recently. The theme, jealousy of a lover’s new love, is so universal that it was released to adult contemporary and Top 40 stations instead of just to country radio. “Girl Crush” is classified as a pop song because it’s a popular song, not because it’s watered down, slicked up country.
“Girl Crush” is such a sparse song that it’s almost hard to say whether it’s pop or country or something more soulful, at least in the beginning. It’s only when you hear the specific hallmarks of country music, the grammatical errors and Southern Baptist-style harmonies, that it emerges as something that’s really more in the vein of Patsy Cline’s slow burning done-me-wrong songs. That comparison is pretty grand — especially considering that Little Big Town hasn’t exactly been a critical darling — but it's apt in this case.
It is also a song planted firmly in country tradition. The chord progression and aesthetic is almost identical to Lorrie Morgan’s 1992 cover of “It’s a Heartache,” a comparison that is even more appropriate when layered with Karen Fairchild’s equally wrenching vocals. The subject matter and writing style, though, make it an incredibly modern interpretation of what it means to blur the lines between pop and country.
And that is what makes “Girl Crush” such a remarkable track. It isn’t just a throwaway ballad, a song that merits a short burst of attention because everyone’s been a slightly crazy jealous ex. “Girl Crush” captures a special moment in time, when country music realized what it's best at — conveying emotions in a relatable way.
That has held true for country’s pop crossovers in the past. Shania Twain’s “From This Moment,” a sappy but lovable ballad, was played at damn near every wedding in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before Taylor Swift was an international pop sensation, she was a plucky teenager with a guitar baring her soul, however immature, to the world. As much popularity as bro-country has gained in the last few years, it is fleeting. The “pandering to an increasingly disappearing population of rural folks” bullshit never sticks around. Ask Joe Diffie about that. The success stories that do develop, the Shania Twains and the Taylor Swifts, have a lingering impact on the genre.
On face, that doesn’t seem like a particularly good thing. Most fans blame Twain (and Garth Brooks, for that matter) for country’s decline. But even they can't deny their love for Twain and other pop-country stars. There is certainly a place for pop-country in the genre — not every song has to be a grimy ode to country legends to be good — and the idea that pop-country that is authentically based in country roots has some mainstream appeal is even further evidence that country is, however slowly, getting better.
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Let us not forget that Little Big Town has been around since 1998, and has seen plenty of versions of its sound and aesthetic in that time. They are responsible for plenty of duds, like 2005’s the “The Boondocks,” which was unremarkable proto bro-country. Even on Pain Killer, an instant classic like “Girl Crush” is in the same track listing with a song about a pontoon boat.
Given the state of the genre right now, you almost can’t blame Little Big Town for trying to cash in on some of those checks that Luke Bryan is bringing home for singing about farm equipment and the trappings of a rural life. But with “Girl Crush,” they’ve managed to create something more enduring and, in turn, propel themselves into the mainstream country conversation for a long time to come.
At present, “Girl Crush” has already won the Country Music Association awards it was nominated for, and stands against a tough field of challengers in the Song of the Year category at the Grammys. It will probably not win for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a country song hasn’t won Song of the Year since Lady Antebellum took home the award in 2011 for “Need You Now.”
2011 was also the last year that a country track was even nominated for that award, and the coronation of “Girl Crush” as one of the six best tracks of the year has to be a positive sign. Not only is good country music starting to seep its way into the mainstream, the mainstream is being recognized for getting better. In a time when the victories for country fans have been so few and far between, “Girl Crush” feels like a real triumph, even if Little Big Town doesn't take home that trophy.