It’s sunny, 7 a.m. and I’m laced up, ear buds in and ready to run, as the Dixie Chicks song goes. (Can you tell I’m a country fan?) Next stop, my Spotify app, where I scroll through many upbeat playlists packed with the most empowering country songs of the moment: “Onto Something Good” by Ashley Monroe, “Dime Store Cowgirl” by Kacey Musgraves, “Little Red Wagon” by the reigning queen of country, Miranda Lambert. But instead, my finger hovers over Florida Georgia Line’s new single “Anything Goes.” I press play and I’m off and running—my decidedly unempowering song choice a little secret between me and my headphones.
“Lime on the rim of that dixie silver/Smokin up a faded out 4×4/Girls headin off to the river, yeah/Victoria’s Secret ain’t a secret no more.” As they croon “Well baby you ain’t nothin’ but a masterpiece,” I’m running hard towards the idyllic Friday night in their lyrics. And I’m kicking myself for liking it.
I’ve long looked down my nose at bro-country, a term coined by New York writer Jody Rosen, to refer to the monster trend of country music “by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude” of which Florida Georgia Line exemplifies. But while I’ve nodded in agreement that these pop- and hip hop-inflected tracks are just the product of a money hungry Nashville machine, I’ve been listening to bro-country more and more: Thomas Rhett’s “Crash & Burn,” Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and Billy Currington’s “Don’t It” all get more spins than I’d like to admit. When Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake it for Me)” recently pounded out of our kitchen’s Bluetooth speaker my husband scrunched up his face.
“You don’t really listen to that stuff, do you?”
Yes, honey, I say to myself. I actually really do. A habit that started as a way to keep my running pace (bro tunes are the more beat-laden tracks, it seems) has wended its way into my daily life. And I ain’t proud of it.
So this is me coming out as a bro-country fan. The trend has been accused of watering down a storied genre, drowning out those who craft the best songs in the biz—most of whom are women, like Brandy Clark, Sunny Sweeney, Monroe and Musgraves. Worst of all, it often does so with vapid lyrics that treat women like mindless, voiceless ornaments, content to shimmy up in the cab of a cowboy’s truck and twirl their tongues around the mouth of an ill-begotten bottle of ’shine.
But as the summer heat cranks up—and with one of Canada’s marquee country fests, Boots and Hearts, kicking off Thursday, August 6, its headline roster packed with male acts such as Brad Paisley, Eric Church, Justin Moore and the aforementioned Florida Georgia Line—I’ve struggled enough with it to ask you this: What’s so wrong with wanting to shake it at the command of a sexy dude like Bryan, if only in my kitchen (or in a field 15 minutes north of Barrie, Ont.)? What if I like pretending to be Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider”? What if a good hook is just a good hook?
The pull of the summer song—catchy as hell, peppy as all get out—has been with us for the better part of a century. (The first documented song of the summer was the kicky 1909 vaudeville hit, “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!”) If anything, pop music—and let’s face it, that’s what this bro-country stuff really is—has long been about escapism: throw down a melodious riff, pair it with some carefree lyrics you’re golden.
I think it’s this escapism, the kind that rock radio once afforded us, that has fuelled the rise of bro-country. Many have argued its popularity has inadvertently bumped solid craft and therefore excellent country women down the charts and made it harder to get on country radio. It’s what, in part, makes me and all other country fans complicit in women failing to make it on that hugely valuable platform.
The hand-wringing over women in country began in a big way last summer when female duo Maddie & Tae broke out with “Girl in a Country Song”—a playful track that name-dropped and skewered current bro-country hits (“Tell me one more time you gotta get you some of that/Sure I’ll slide on over but you’re gonna get slapped.”) But the tension hit fever pitch in late spring when influential radio DJ Keith Hill said female acts are merely “tomatoes” in a bro-country, money-making salad.
That misogyny inspired a major backlash amongst artists like Lambert, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles and scores of others who don’t take too kindly to dismissiveness. McBride called the comments “sexist and condescending.” Nettles tweeted “Don’t worry babe. I see an opportunity here. (A) big ole vagina-shaped opportunity.”
As the backlash ensued, I *ought* to have been loading up my playlists with women like Mickey Guyton, whose soulful breakup anthem “Better Than You Left Me” is fresh and empowering. Or with Clare Dunn, whose driving new track “Move On” challenges a shy guy to partake in a hook-up with table-turning lyrics like “Well, if I told you what I’m really thinkin’/It might make you blush, yeah, but baby so what?”
But I kept going back to my bro-heavy playlists, snarled in a looping internal argument about what distinguishes good taste from bad.
To detangle a bit, I seek insight from Toronto writer Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. In the book, published in 2007, Wilson explores the reasons why millions of fans love pop diva Celine Dion, and why so many more can’t stand her. Our very self-definition is bound up in the music we like, he writes, and the music we like becomes our “badge of recognition.” My hesitance to play bro-country in the presence of my friends, and even the way I wince whenever it’s outside the privacy of my home or headphones tells me it’s not the “badge of recognition” I’m after.
Similarly, Wilson chides himself as “vain” for not wanting his neighbours to overhear him playing the album for which his book is titled.
By the end of his journey, Wilson winds up with not just an appreciation for Celine, but a desire to no longer be the “subcultural snob” he claims to have been in his recent past—rejecting commercially popular music, largely because it’s cliché, and maybe a little over-the-top-poppy—in favour of the more obscure.
Maybe I’m coming to you as a bro-country fan to similarly liberate myself from that long-held genre snobbery. But I think it’s also an acknowledgment that we can value something for what it is: a really catchy tune, a song that makes us feel alive or amped up for some caricatured Saturday night even though the one that actually lies ahead may involve a little less booty-shakin’ and a little more Netflix.
And while I’ve never been the girl content to shimmy up into some guy’s truck (um, I’ll be the one driving), it tends not to be culturally appropriate these days to admit enjoying the passenger side, if only in your fantasies. In case y’all haven’t noticed, being a 21st century modern woman is hard, and we could all use a little escape sometimes. Maybe that’s partly what’s going on with me and bro-country: I can somehow divorce myself from the implied misogyny, inure myself to the sometimes nonsensically vapid lyrics, and appreciate the way it makes me feel—free, relaxed, ready for the party. And be at peace with all that.
In the meantime, I’ll blame music streaming—the way Spotify lets me surf playlists packed with radio friendly songs on which I’d never spend my hard-earned cash. But I’ll also thank it for what it’s given me. Because hey: if I didn’t have my bro-country playlist, maybe I’d still have my nose stuck up in the air and wouldn’t go running nearly as often. Or have been able to build my new bro-n-sistas mega running playlist. Because, equality.
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