I have a confession: I love country music. I grew up in a small town that could have come straight out of a country song, with its one stoplight, large number of cows, and self-described “redneck” residents. Country music was, unsurprisingly, pretty popular. I stopped listening to country for quite awhile after I left home, until a friend took me to a Zac Brown Band concert — after that, I was hooked. My Pandora stations all had titles like “Today’s Country Radio” and “Country Love Songs Radio.” I even bought cowboy boots. One day while singing along to Florida Georgia Line’s incredibly popular “Cruise,” I found myself thinking, “Man, I want to be this girl.”
Despite my decidedly country upbringing, complete with honest-to-God dirt roads, I can’t be a girl in a country song because I don’t tan well, I rarely wear tight jeans or bikinis, and I’m not crazy about cheap beer. But this is the version of womanhood being sold right now in a form of country music that’s been nicknamed “bro country,” a genre that revolves around trucks, beer, and hot, often blonde, “country girls.” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” is about a woman with tan legs and a bikini top; Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin’” at one point entirely reduces the female character to “the little white tank-top.” A particularly egregious example is Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake it For Me)” in which a woman is instructed to “shake it for the young bucks sittin’ in the honky tonks/For the rednecks rockin’ ‘til the break of dawn/For the DJ spinning that country song/come on come on come on/shake it for the birds, shake it for the bees/shake it for the catfish swimming deep down in the creek,” and so forth. Note the one thing she is not asked to do is “shake it” for herself.
This good ol’ boy exultation was ripe for a feminist backlash, and one seemed to appear in the form of Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song.” These young women called out the men of bro country, asking “Bein’ a girl in a country song/How in the world did it go so wrong?/Like all we’re good for/Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend/Nothing more.” But even as Maddie & Tae’s song offers some pretty sharp and specific criticism, the performers themselves recently insisted they are not feminists, joining a long line of female celebrities who have distanced themselves from the word “feminist” in recent months.
What’s so strange about this whole debate is that country music has long been known for its powerful women. While some performers have become notorious for seemingly anti-feminist songs, like Tammy Wynette’s infamous “Stand By Your Man,” there also have been sharp, tough women in the genre. Many female country stars, such as Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire, among many others, have exuded grit and independence. After decades of male country stars like Johnny Cash and Hank Thompson singing about murdering women or lamenting them as whores, Loretta Lynn famously sang about getting access to birth control in “The Pill,” and refusing her husband’s sexual advances in “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ On Your Mind).” Jeannie C. Reiley’s “Harper Valley PTA” was about a tough-as-nails single mother who put the local PTA in their place for essentially slut-shaming her. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” offered a cutting description of married women’s lives, while Shania Twain put women in charge of defining what they expected from a partner in “Any Man of Mine.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, a string of songs appeared that were held up as examples of women’s empowerment. Suddenly, the women Tammy Wynette suggested be doormats started — literally — firing back: Martina McBride sang about a wife killing an abusive husband in “Independence Day,” as did the Dixie Chicks in “Goodbye Earl.” Miranda Lambert reminded men that not all country women are sweet things in cutoff jeans when she sang about yet another abusive partner, saying “I’m going to show him what little girls are made of/Gunpowder and lead.” In a slightly less violent song, Carrie Underwood suggested trashing a man’s sports car as a way of getting back for infidelity, hoping “maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”
But isn’t it problematic that this is what we have as an example of feminist country music? We’re offered a choice between songs where women are essentially well-tanned objects, or songs where women are so mistreated by their romantic partners that they resort to vandalism or murder. Country women certainly can be tough as gunpowder and lead, as Miranda Lambert sang, but their lives are infinitely more complicated. Perhaps we need more from women like up-and-coming artist Kacey Musgraves, whose album Same Trailer, Different Park was acclaimed for its fresh take on classic country subjects. Musgraves’ descriptions of women’s lives are a lot less glamorous — and a lot more realistic. In “Trailer Song,” Musgraves takes on class issues as she talks about trailer park politics: “Don’t ask me if I go to church/I won’t ask if your husband is still out of work/Try and claim high society/We get our mail on the same side of the street.” In “Blowin’ Smoke,” she sings about working-class waitresses who talk about quitting their jobs to pursue bigger things, but never do. Her waitresses aren’t wearing any Daisy Dukes: “Well Janie got divorced again/Her ex-husband’s in the pen/From two to five, five to ten and longer/Brenda’s traded smokes for cake/Still hadn’t lost that baby weight/And that baby’s about to graduate/From college.”
Maybe Musgraves’ newfound success will usher in a new wave of truly feminist country singers. In the meantime, I’ll still be listening, bro country and all — although I certainly won’t be shaking it for any catfish.
For Further Reading
Fox, Pamela and Barbara Ching, eds. Old Roots, New Routes: The Culture and Politics of Alt.Country Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
McCusker, Kristine M. Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
McCusker, Kristine M. and Diane Peeknold, eds. A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Rogers, Anna. “Sexism in Unexpected Places: An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics,” Caravel Undergraduate Research Journal, Fall 2013.
Feature image: “Museum of Country Music, Nashville.” Licensed CC BY-SA by Flickr user Céline.