Archives: Has The Simplistic, Banal Nature of Bro-Country Affected How Fans Interpret Lyrics?
This article was first published on September 3rd, 2015 on forthecountryrecord.com
Or, perhaps more accurately, has bro-country brought in fans who don’t hold the intellectual capabilities to read beyond the surface?
A contentious statement, maybe, but one that it is important to consider at times like these. Times which, much to countless critics’ dismay, see the IQ level of mainstream country lyrics dropping further and further until they are no better than pop, and in some cases a far uglier, more bigoted beast than the genre’s more commercial sibling. While pop is often content to throw any old lyric over a catchy hook and an infectious beat, because all fans are going to be doing is dancing and singing along while inevitably drunk (as evidenced by Taylor Swift’s “dumbing down” on ‘1989’), country has historically focused on stories, stark reality and poetic confessionals – even if some of the songs were extremely simple, there was beauty and truth in that simplicity that rose into a more profound mode of thinking and emoting.
Throughout the past few years, however, the well-documented rise of bro-country has seen the subtlety of metaphors and poignancy of notion disappear in favor of thinly-veiled euphemisms and surface songwriting. Now, country radio almost exclusively prefers narratives that center around a party, with signpost references of youth, drinking, smoking (marijuana), women (particularly if drawing attention to their appearance in an objectified manner), trucks, cornfields, bonfires, tailgates – you get the picture. Much has been made of the form’s use of clichés, misogyny, un-country sound and total lack of originality, so that is not what I’m here to argue.
It might be easy, given how popular bro-country has become, to assume that listeners have adjusted to not having to concentrate that hard on the meaning of a song. In fact, perhaps its meaning holds little importance to them, and they’ve never really thought about it beyond repeating the words “beer” and “girls” and “truck” in tandem with the singer. Certainly, judging by social media, many of them don’t have a solid grasp on the English language, even if it is their mother tongue, so they can’t be expected to actually think about the music they’re getting drunk and losing their virginity to. That would be too much to ask, right?
But still, when it comes country’s core fanbase and the hopeful assumption that most of the human beings in the world have common sense, we expect simple motifs to be easily digestible by the audience, even if it’s not quite as rudimentary as “drink – fuck – throw up – repeat”. That was why it was a shock to many of us back in March when a number of radio PDs revealed that listeners were calling Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ a “lesbian song”, and that they would stop listening to that station if they carried on playing it. Ignoring the fact that the lyrics clearly outline a clever twist (the kind that once upon a time was to be expected in a country song), listeners heard the word “girl crush”, and totally skated over the fact that it was a song about being in love with a man, and wanting to be the woman he was with.
And it’s this attitude which is the most curious. To hear a song without studying the lyrics properly, to make a judgement on its meaning and then refuse to accept any other perspective or correct interpretation, there’s a self-entitlement there that says we all have the right to be offended, even if we’re offended by something that only exists in our own heads. The same occurred with Carrie Underwood’s new single recently. ‘Smoke Break’ is a song about working hard without respite and longing for a moment where we can “take a load off”. The chorus states clearly, “I don’t drink, but sometimes I need a stiff drink… I don’t smoke, but sometimes I need a long drag,” meant to convey how even those who are clean living are tempted by vices as a means of escapism – if only for a moment. It doesn’t even say “Sometimes I have a stiff drink,” or “Sometimes I have a long drag,” just that they need it. It’s all a hypothetical metaphor for needing to take a break.
But fans didn’t see it that way – oh no. Scores of them lambasted Carrie for promoting smoking and tobacco to her young fans, despite the fact that she is one of the biggest health advocates in the country music genre. The clumsy interpretative method of seeing a title and assuming the ‘worst’ is an ill that must be cured, lest country music tumble into even darker depths of banality.
But there’s also a double standard going on. Bro-country relies heavily on the consumption of alcohol and the smoking of tobacco as well as other, more illegal products, and yet those same people are enjoying those songs without complaint. Even the critics, who have bemoaned the excessive nature of the alcohol references in bro-country, do not argue that the references should be removed altogether. Then there’s Miranda Lambert’s new single ‘Smokin’ And Drinkin’’, which by contrast does actually promote smoking and drinking – although no-one actually cares. The song is a fondly nostalgic look back on teenage years spent smoking and drinking, and how sometimes the narrator chooses to relive those days by doing just that: smoking and drinking. If that isn’t promotion of substances, I don’t know what is.
The most obvious answer is that Carrie’s fans are younger, more impressionable, and Carrie is more of a squeaky clean princess – but that’s hardly the case. Carrie’s subject matter has ranged from pre-meditated murder to domestic violence and alcoholism, so the idea that sometimes characters in a song might want a cigarette is hardly a big deal. But fans can have this habit of placing their idols on such a pedestal that they convince themselves the person is pure and good, injecting their own values into their idea of who this person is.
A similar thing happened with Taylor Swift and the song ‘Sparks Fly’. Although not appearing on record until 2011’s ‘Speak Now’, the track was actually written in 2007, when Taylor was 17. She performed it live once and a fan captured it, leading to it becoming widely disseminated among her fanbase soon afterwards. An easy interpretation of the song is that it’s about sex, and while it isn’t as risqué as some bro-country songs, the signifiers are there. However, many fans (particularly younger, but ranging in age) struggled with this interpretation and swore that Taylor was a virgin. They found the idea that she had had sex quite upsetting, even as she reached her early 20s. Although I have not investigated in some time, I can imagine there are still fans out there protesting that Golden Girl practises abstinence, just as there are fans who thinks it’s atrocious that Carrie Underwood says it’s okay for people to consider smoking occasionally.
Fans can be intent on misinterpreting music, but is this a gradually increasing phenomenon in the country world? Logic tells me yes, although precise examples are slow. Bro-country is painfully simple lyrically, and while some country fans could have adjusted to that so much that they don’t know what to make of anything that requires them to think, there’s also a huge possibility that most of it is the incorporation of non-country fans who have no idea how to process traditional country songwriting. To them, it means what it says (or even what the title says), and sadly those seem to be the people with the loudest voices. There is no room for subtlety in bro-country and there is no room for subtlety in bro-country fans’ interpretation of songs.
And unless something changes, we are going to run into this time and again.