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The trouble with country music

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 07:11



Taylor Swift abandons the typical country-music sound in her new album, “Red.”

Last Thursday, ABC broadcasted the 46th Annual Country Music Association Awards, widely known as “the biggest night in country.”

For country musicians, a CMA Award is the equivalent of an Academy Award— it represents a certain level of iconographic importance.

This year’s winners included Blake Shelton as Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year; Miranda Lambert as Female Vocalist of the Year and, with Shelton, Song of the Year for “Over You”; Hunter Hayes as New Artist of the Year Little Bigtown for Single of the Year for “Pontoon”; and Eric Church for Album of the Year for “Chief” and Music Video of the Year for “Red Solo Cup.”

The problem with the list of winners?

With the exception of “Over You,” most songs were either not written by the artist who received the award — and credit — or they were co-written with someone else. This is the musical equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize being awarded to an author who employed a ghost writer to compose his or her manuscript.

This shift from classic country, when musicians were far more invested in their lyrics, can be attributed to the rise in popularity of “urban country,” which has evolved from being a small niche in the genre of country music to the only form receiving any kind of radio play, awards or attention.

 Even “throwback” country songs, performed by superstars such as Carrie Underwood, with her vocal ability highlighting the heartfelt lyrics to songs such as “Jesus Take the Wheel,” are not written by the performers, but by unknowns who parlay life’s hardships into songs that can only be recognized as worthy when performed by pretty girls with sexy bodies and millions of dollars in endorsements.

This is not to say that Underwood lacks talent – on the contrary, she is a talented vocalist and a stellar performer. But her artistry lies in her vocal ability and marketing cache.

Taylor Swift, arguably the most popular country musician on the planet, is the exception to the rule of urban country. Swift writes her own songs, and some of them are even good, though mostly about young lovers who eventually end up together or vengeance against famous exes.  

In her latest album, “Red,” Swift demonstrates her versatility by virtually abandoning the country sound

altogether in favor of a more electric and new-wave sound. “Red,”though not bad as an album, certainly wouldn’t classify as true country.  

For this reason alone, Swift has limited her shelf life as a popular musician. Country performers, such as Dolly Parton, who write their own songs and stick to their genre, can develop careers that span their entire lives. By “updating” her sound, Swift has done herself a great disservice, trading longevity for greater popularity, the likes of which she doesn’t need.

But the state of modern country music is also tainted by the rise in popularity of self-mockery within country music, and no one utilizes this practice more often than country sensation Toby Keith.

It would be remiss to ignore Keith’s positive contributions to country music. He supports the troops, visiting the Middle East to perform on several occasions and has released a number of worthy songs, such as the patriotic and sincere “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which was composed in response to the 9/11 attacks.

Critically speaking, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” is Keith’s best work — a classic country song with awesome instrumentals and catchy lyrics that aren’t contrived. This song lacks the smugness that makes Keith’s usual work so intolerable.

Self-awareness in country music is a tricky thing, and Keith exploits it with songs such as “I Love this Bar” and “Beer for My Horses,” that, for lack of better explanation, make fun of the entire genre of country music and the people who listen to it.

Keith’s music caters to a population of otherwise civilized people who, upon listening to his songs, are quick to see themselves as trashy and identify with Keith’s misappropriation of what it means to be a country music fan.

This is akin to the phenomenon experienced when listeners pretend to be from Alabama when they hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Keith’s work, however, differs from Skynyrd’s in the sense that it is insulting to listeners who view his music not as satire, but as commentary on “country” or “southern” life in general.

Instead, Keith presents himself as a serious country musician, and this feels somewhat like deception.

But it appears the only person in on the joke is Keith himself.

The bigger problem is in why country is abandoning its roots in favor of appealing to an audience that favors songs like “Red Solo Cup” and “I Love This Bar” over “Wagon Wheel” and “The Connection” ?

The country of the past — and even the not-so-distant-past — was a testament to the power of musical storytelling. Now it’s about catchphrases that can be repeated and recognized by a large percentage of the population: think bumper stickers instead of books.

The worst part about this migration is that acts that truly are genuine, such as Old Crow Medicine Show or Patty Griffin, are either forgotten or ignored completely. These acts are closer to classic country than the music of Swift and Keith, yet are considered to be alternative country — contemporary enough to be embraced by the younger generation, yet still pushed to the sidelines in favor of “superstar” performers who will earn more for shtick and marketability.

One can’t blame the record labels for this, either. It’s a matter of earning power. A pretty girl with a pink guitar or an over-the-top country boy who sings about beer is more appealing to the masses than a

songwriter who tells his or her story via music.

But that says a lot about America.

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