News reports and analyses from publications that present a mainstream perspective on music tend to render country music an afterthought. So when they acknowledge conversations happening in the genre, you know the issue has broken out of “the family.”
Since the dawn of recorded music, a debate has raged in country music regarding the merits of the traditional sound versus a more progressive one. In the 1960s record producers employed strings to many recordings, in the 1980s it was synthesized keys, and in the 1990s louder guitars and drums. In nearly every case, the progressive music has increased the reach of the genre while sacrificing the identifiable elements that traditionalists hold dear. When Billboard, the music industry trade publication, changed its methodology for identifying a hit song recently, the implication for the Hot Country Song chart was immediate and the reaction online came just as fast.
“The Day the Music (Chart) Died” was published on the Country Universe blog the same day as the announcement of the methodology change. Taylor Swift, a global superstar who’s career began in country music, had catapulted to #1 with a single that country radio did not embrace, and to #2 with an album track. Blog posts like this one decried the new chart criteria that expanded beyond country radio airplay to include non-country radio airplay, digital downloads and, even more recently, online streaming. Many saw it as an avenue for crossover style music to prosper while hampering the success of traditional-oriented songs.
The Record-breaker that Broke the Camel’s Back
Two months ago, the duo Florida Georgia Line broke a 58-year-old record for consecutive weeks at #1 with a song called “Cruise.” It achieved this feat by re-releasing the single as a remix that featured the rapper Nelly, and marketing the song exclusively outside country radio and the base country audience. The blog Saving Country Music deemed the record-breaker “meaningless.” I defended the new chart methodology in the comment section of that blog post and on my own country music blog, Critically Country, acknowledging that as technology advances, the means of assessing the popularity of music will follow, regardless to anyone’s subjective tastes.
Two weeks ago, it all came to a head when Entertainment Weekly recapped this country music “civil war,” citing the very public criticisms some performers now are making of each other. Though country music has never been more popular, the divisions within it have become more clear.
The New Billboard Podcast
Billboard debuted a new podcast last week, called The Pop Shop Podcast, and it intends to shed light on the music charts it produces. The first two episodes have focused exclusively on the Hot 100, the overall singles chart, and the Billboard 200 that tabulates album sales. Here is that inaugural episode in its entirety:
Among the more notable points made in the podcast:
- The “quirky” sound of the current #1 song, Lorde’s “Royals” — a song of equal parts alternative/hip-hop/pop — enhances its popularity because of its lack of categorization. Other recent similar examples include fun.’s “We Are Young” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
- The current #1 album, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, may have achieved its sales success because he is both rapper and R&B singer and can be promoted to both markets.
- The success of Miley Cyrus’ advance “real hit singles” from Bangerz may be due to the fact this new album is her first on RCA, a label more capable of creating smash hit singles than Disney’s Hollywood Records, her previous label.
There is a homogenization in all genres of music that allows for universally unique, “quirky” and innovative songs to become successful. The questions that country music needs to ask itself are these: if the intention is to expand a single outside the country genre, then what in this genre is the homogenized sound? Is it the lyrics that laundry-list a country lifestyle, or the 1980s-era “Jack and Diane” music production? What would an innovative, universally unique country song sound like?
How could a traditional-oriented artist capitalize on this? The embrace by the industry of Kacey Musgraves, an artist with no hit singles but plenty of award show recognition, could indicate one of two things: her traditional sound is a “quirky” anomaly, or the entire genre wants to correct itself and move toward a greater editorial authenticity.
The two latter points speak to the influence of record labels and marketing. The Florida Georgia Line re-work of “Cruise” was brilliant because it was successful, and success is the intention of every label, not necessarily quality. Another example: note that two of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits from Red (“22″ and “I Knew You Were Trouble”) didn’t chart on the Hot Country Songs chart. Billboard can’t arbitrarily define a country single; the record label does, and the relationship between record labels, radio, and Billboard runs deep.
It’s easy to get caught up in the maneuvers of our own genre, comparing the new reality to the familiar ways, so it helps to take a look around, especially at other genres, to see how that same new reality is being accepted or tolerated there.
Bose, Deb. “The Meaningless Billboard Florida Georgia Line Songs Record.” SavingCountryMusic.com. 6 August 2013. Web. 15 October 2013.
Brant, Joseph. “Florida Georgia Line’s Billboard Record is Not Meaningless.” CountryMusicInCanada.com. 7 August 2013. Web. 15 October 2013.
Coyne, Kevin John. “The Day the Music (Chart) Died.” CountryUniverse.net. 11 October 2012. Web. 15 October 2013.
Lipshutz, Jason and Keith Caufield. “Pop Shop Podcast, 10/3/13 (Lorde, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Cher).” Billboard.com Pop Shop Podcast. Prometheus Global Media. 3 October 2013. Podcast. 15 October 2013.
Pietroluongo, Sylvio. “Taylor Swift, Rihanna & PSY Bouyed by Billboard Chart Changes.” Billboard.com. Prometheus Global Media. 11 October 2012. Web. 15 October 2013.
“Pop Shop Podcast: Lorde, Drake, Miley & More in Debut Episode.” Billboard.com. Prometheus Global Media. 3 October 2013. Web. 15 October 2013.
Ross, David. “Is Country Too Close to the Pop Flame?” NEKST.biz. HitShop Records. 16 Septemer 2013. Web. 15 October 2013.
Smith, Grady. “How Country Music Went Crazy: A Comprehensive Timeline of the Genre’s Identity Crisis.” music-mix.EW.com. Time, Inc. 1 October 2013. Web. 15 October 2013.