Imagine you are back in school. Your history teacher has given you an assignment to write an essay about Paul Revere’s role in the Revolutionary War. The assignment was due on a Friday and so that’s when you handed it in. You did an admirable job and it’s the best essay you have ever written. There’s only one problem, you wrote about the Irish Potato Famine.
Had the assignment been about the Irish Potato Famine you would have easily gotten an A. You were thorough and explained the causes and effects of the Famine in great detail but you still got a D. Despite your great work, you didn’t do the assignment that was given to you. The teacher was kind to give you higher than an F.
The point of this made up story has to do with the dilemma that we now face in mainstream country music. As critics and fans, we are judging music under the country label that has no resemblance to country music.
Even when the music is good (which it often isn’t) it is usually mislabeled. If you are releasing a song to country radio and selling it as a country song then shouldn’t we judge the work based on that?
Take “New Years Day” by Taylor Swift as an example. I actually find “New Years Day” to be a quality song that is better than a number of songs on country radio. The problem is that it is a pop song, from a pop album, from a pop artist that is being pushed as a “country” single. If it is labeled as a country song it is not deserving of the grade I would give it had it been properly labeled. Also, as someone that listens to very little pop music I find it difficult to review something from a genre I know little about in 2018.
I have seen some blogs go about this problem by simply giving the song a country grade and a pop grade which can be a tricky thing to do. If it’s not a country song and actually requires two separate grades then shouldn’t the country grade be a 0/10? I mean you are admitting that the song isn’t country which is the whole reason you needed the pop grade. Another option is to just review the song/album as a pop review but if it is being labeled a country song and played on country radio should you be doing that? And finally, I have seen blogs just give the song/album a lower grade because it is not truly a country song. But, as I said if it’s not a country song how do you give it any country grade besides a 0?
To be clear I am not saying there is one right or wrong way to go about doing this. I think it’s a very tricky and difficult decision that any reviewer has to figure out for themselves. I do think that the conversation needs to be had now more than ever as country radio drifts farther and farther away from the roots of the genre.
Hello all! Welcome to the new feature Sunday Morning Time Capsule which will be a weekly feature here at Critically Country. In this feature I will do a throwback spotlight on a song, album or subject. I say spotlight instead of review because I won’t be giving grades for this feature just discussing the piece of work. Nostalgia can be a powerful thing so hopefully you all enjoy this piece as much as I do. I am happy to take requests for the Time Capsule if you have any so speak up if you do.
Last week the Sunday Morning Time Capsule took us back to 1993 for Reba and Linda Davis’ duet “Does He Love You”. This week we jump forward 19 years to 2012 for Taylor Swift’s hit song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” This song was the lead single to Swift’s fourth album Red and peaked at number 13 on the country airplay chart. Now there’s a couple of reasons that I picked this song. Number one is that this was a song that really ended any illusion that Taylor Swift was any longer a country artist and as it turned out it would also be her last lead single pushed to country radio. This brings me to the more important reason that I chose this song and that is that with this album and officially in Taylor’s next album 1989, Swift made the full transition to pop. It was clear that despite her label Big Machine’s wishes, Swift no longer wanted to pretend to make country music and release albums that were a hodgepodge of genre’s. Swift called it “picking a lane” and not only did it work out great for her career but, she did true country fans of favor by not pedaling her music to country radio any longer.
Now let me say right up front i’m not a Taylor Swift hater like a lot of country bloggers. I actually loved Swifts first couple albums growing up. Say what you want about her but, her early songs were loaded with fiddle, banjo and steel guitar. I enjoyed the ride and was sad to see her go to pop but, it’s clear that’s where she was headed regardless of what it was labeled. She deserves a lot of credit for being honest and picking a lane in regards to genre. There’s plenty of “country” artist’s that could learn a thing or two from Taylor Swift.
A few weeks ago I started thinking about the idea of legacies. Specifically, I was thinking about legacies of older Country singers and wondering why older artists who have already made all the money in the world don’t go into legacy mode at the end of their careers. What got me thinking about this was actually Rascal Flatts. Rascal Flatts, who has basically been around my entire life has certainly released their share of bad songs even though they also have a number of songs that I enjoy. So I was thinking if Rascal Flatts is practically done being relevant on the radio and they have made more money than god why not go into legacy mode? Why not make the best music of their careers right now and forget the boring pop stuff? I sat on this idea for a couple of weeks before I realized actually how bad of an idea that was. It’s not a bad idea for Rascal Flatts to start making better music but, the bad idea would be for Rascal Flatts after two decades to drastically change who they are and what their hardcore fans love. An artists legacy basically is what it is after two decades of making music. The people that never liked Rascal Flatts aren’t going to ever like them no matter what kind of music they make so why bother catering to them? Not to mention the fact that it would seem disingenuous if a band as old as Rascal Flatts all of a sudden started playing traditional country.
But, not all artists have gone the route of staying true to what they have always been. Some artists have chosen to turn their back on the fans and the music that have gotten them this far. Just some names I will throw at you right now are Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry and Garth Brooks. In regards to Dierks Bentley, he was one of the good guys in the mainstream for so long. Sure, he had his pandering radio singles but, for the most part he put out solid, respectable country music. Hell Dierks even did a bluegrass album Up On The Ridge that I still listen to to this day and I have a great deal of respect for Dierks for even doing that. When Dierks Bentley in 2016 released the lead single to his album Black I think that most of us chalked it up as an awful song but understood that that’s the game Dierks plays with radio. He gives them a garbage song and in return he gets to release the album that he wants with better singles to come. However, this time after the bad single came another one and another one and an album full of horrid pop music that erased practically all of the good will the traditional country fans had for Dierks. He turned his back on his fans and the music that made him into a B level star. That wasn’t enough though Dierks was it? You wanted to be like your booty shaking compadre Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line.
Then we have the freak show that is The Band Perry. I’ll be perfectly honest, I never was much of a fan of The Band Perry’s music as a country band. But, at least I could respect their music even if it wasn’t my kind of thing. Their fans had grown to love the little country folk band that had released a couple solid albums which included songs like the smash hit “If I Die Young” and the Glen Cambell cover “Gentle On My Mind.” They were never going to be A list country stars and that’s fine. They were pretty consistent turning out hit songs and regularly got to perform at the country awards shows. That wasn’t good enough though. They wanted to go pop and become bigger than ever. They spent a great deal of time and money dealing with image consultants, marketing people ext and what did it get them? A complete embarrassing flop on the radio with the song “Live Forever.” Then we almost got the song “Put Me In The Game Coach” but that was quickly pulled. The Band Perry was later released from their contract with Big Machine after which time the band went back to country with the crybaby release of “Comeback Kid.” Essentially, The Band Perry was whining that people were mean to them and passing the blame on everyone else while again throwing the middle finger to their longtime fans. And now The Band Perry is back to pop.
Finally, we have Garth Brooks who has really grinded my gears for awhile now and it has little to do with his music. Artists that include but are not limited to Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean and Adele have all done things to limit accessibility to their music. All of these artists with the exception of Garth Brooks have gotten away with it because they are megastars. What Garth Brooks has done that pisses me off is basically refuse to join us in the digital age with his music. For YEARS Garth Brooks refused to make his music available for digital download or streaming ANYWHERE. Then Garth Brooks partnered with GhostTunes a site that nobody on earth ever wanted to use and made his music available there for digital download but oh wait, there was a catch. You still could not simply download individual songs, you had to download the entire album or nothing. Then some more years go by and Garth Brooks in the year 2016 finally decides to make his music available for stream and digital download but wait, there’s yet another catch. It will only be available to stream through Amazons new streaming service that nobody uses. Do you wonder why your music and your new albums continue to be so irrelevant? Do you wonder why nobody talks about your albums even during the week they are released? It’s simple Garth, arrogance and ignorance. It annoys me to no end when artists limit accessibility to their music through exclusive deals but nobody has handled this worse than Garth Brooks.
The Band Perry should be a warning shot to country artists in the mainstream and elsewhere. If you screw over your fans and the people that got this far there may be no going back. In regards to Garth Brooks he is irrelevant except to his longtime fans in large part due to the arrogance and ignorance. What will happen to Dierks as a result of screwing over the people and the music that got him here is yet to be seen. The point however, is not to bite the hand that feeds you. The fans are everything. Without the fans you have no career. Tread carefully.