August 29, 2008
I fear this post won’t quite live up to its ambitious title, and I realize that I’m stirring the tempest pot a bit by putting those two artists in the same sentence. But the tone that surfaces whenever Carrie Underwood is discussed here is something that I find increasingly frustrating, so I’m going to talk about it. Hopefully, I’ll get a meaningful conversation going along the way.
Readers of this site know that I write a lot about women in country music. Part of that is because the majority of my favorite artists are female, and part of it is because I have a sensitivity to gender issues as a whole. It’s impossible to be an educator and not pick up on the way that societal messages are distilled through the media and our own cultural traditions. What’s always amazing to me is how popular culture both mirrors and reinforces such things.
Witness the recent attempt to make Carrie Underwood and Jessica Simpson seem like rivals. Pitting young female artists against each other in the gossip pages is nothing new, especially when you can make it out like they’re fighting over a man. Even more popular is the “aging female star is threatened by the young new starlet” storyline. That was the subtext that made the silliness over Faith Hill’s on-camera joke at the CMA Awards gain traction in the media, even though Hill can be seen giggling and laughing right before she did the fake outrage bit.
Earlier on in Underwood’s career, an attempt was made to turn an innocuous comment by Wynonna into a criticism of Underwood’s music, with the reporter noting that Underwood was “teary-eyed” but not bothering to get a quote from Underwood herself. The construct is a two-for-one here: older women get to be shown as bitter and threatened by younger women, while the young woman herself is portrayed as a helpless victim. All of it is constructed from whole cloth.
What’s even more frustrating, though, is seeing such silliness internalized by the fans of female artists, who divide themselves into camps, cutting down one female artist to praise another. In recent weeks, right here in the comment threads, Carrie Underwood has been unfavorably compared to Shania Twain, Miranda Lambert and Sara Evans, with fans of those artists giving their various reasons why Underwood is not worthy of her current level of success, and how her achievements are unimpressive compared to these other women.
Guess what? I’ve heard it all before. I remember when Shania Twain first burst on to the scene. Well, I bought her first album, which had a decent set of singles but was largely forgettable. But for all intents and purposes, her career began with The Woman in Me. Once that album started selling, the insults came in full force.
She’s a studio creation! (She’d been singing on Music City Tonight for the past two years.) Her husband’s the only reason she’s popular! (Her album was the biggest hit he’d had in almost a decade.) She’s not really writing those songs, he is! (The songs were all written in the clear voice of a woman of her generation.) She’s using sex to sell her records! (Women were the vast majority of her record buyers, and that belly button didn’t help her first album at retail at all.)
I’ll never forget the year that she presented at the Grammys with Patty Loveless. This was back in the country newsgroup days, a primitive version of the blogs and forums we have now. One commenter noted, “Patty must be sick to her stomach having to stand next to Shania Twit.” Over and over again, she would be compared unfavorably to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood and Pam Tillis, all great artists who were presumed by their fans to be more deserving of Twain’s success.
Any of this sound familiar? It should. Carrie Underwood’s been the most successful female solo artist to come along since Shania Twain. Her debut album sold more than seven million copies. Only two other women have pulled that off: Twain (twice), and Faith Hill. It’s the top-selling country album of the decade.
“Before He Cheats” was the biggest country crossover hit in many years, and her appeal is so diverse that she’s appeared in ads for Skecher’s, Hershey’s, Vitamin Water and Nintendo. I took some heat for calling her an ambassador for the format, but I stand by that. She is the most visible face of country music right now, and she wears her membership in the country music community proudly, even to the point of not remixing her songs for pop radio. Not even the Dixie Chicks stood firm on that one.
Yet like they did for Twain, the criticisms have come in for Carrie Underwood. She’s only popular because she was on American Idol! (She’s sold far more records than any other winner.) She’s a Nashville creation, being told what to sing! (She co-wrote three of the hits on her latest album.) She’s not really country! (Her second record is more traditional than the first, and there’s more fiddle and steel in her stage show than Kenny Chesney’s and Keith Urban’s combined.)
Part of such attacks comes with the territory of being the biggest star out there, but it bothers me to see fans of other female artists do it. Over the past decade, women have been given less time on country radio than any period since the early sixties, despite consistently selling records with less radio support. Miranda Lambert had sold 1.5 million albums before she even cracked the top ten. Alison Krauss is one of the genre’s top-selling artists, and radio won’t touch her unless she’s singing with a male artist.
Instead of cutting Underwood down, she needs to be pointed to as an example of how women artists are important for country music. Other than Garth Brooks, it has been the female artists who have shown the most ability to expand the fanbase of country music. Carrie Underwood is merely the latest example of this. Her success should be touted as a reason to play more women. By cutting her down and minimizing her talents and achievements, the argument is being made by these fans that their favorites should take her place.
Miranda Lambert is a brilliant talent with strengths completely different from Carrie Underwood’s. She shouldn’t replace Carrie on the radio dial; she should join her. Let some of the interchangeable men step aside instead. Country music was far more interesting when women were dominating it because each woman had their own different style and unique contributions to offer.
Carrie Underwood is but one of many worthy female talents out there today. She and Lambert have both supported each other and vocalized the need for more acknowledgment of women in their field. Their fans should follow their example instead of bickering with each other. There’s a larger battle worth fighting.