January 31, 2011
I became a country fan twenty years ago, and have been fully immersed in the genre for about as long. I’ve read up on the history, heard pretty much every significant artist and recording, and can speak knowledgeably about the genre’s highs and lows over the past few decades.
We’ve never been this low. I think I finally understand why that is.
Jonathan Keefe from Slant wrote this in his review of the JaneDear Girls album, and it really hit home with me:
…the JaneDear Girls use a couple of catchy melodies and garish costumes to mask the fact that they can’t sing even a little bit, and, if they could, wouldn’t have a single authentic thing to say. In other words, they’re exactly what country music, in the throes of a pretty severe identity crisis, doesn’t need right now: its own Katy Perry.
This is the paradox that’s increasingly devouring country music. Artists are singing more than ever about how country they are, yet they’re doing it with songs that sound less country than ever.
Perhaps all of these “loud and proud” country identity songs are a reflection of the country lifestyle being fully swallowed up by suburbia, and “country” is now more of a chosen lifestyle than it is something homegrown. But “country music” has almost completely shifted to “music about being country.” You don’t have to sound country, you just have to revel in being country.
Country music cannot retain its identity this way. As a radio format, it isn’t going anywhere. As the larger player on the field, it’s managed to absorb a good chunk of what we used to call Adult Top 40, picking up a few of their core artists along the way.
But as a relevant genre of its own? That can’t continue if the vast majority of the new mainstream artists have little connection to what came before them. Superstars are hard enough to come by as it is, and when you think about the ones who have emerged from country music in recent years – Sugarland, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum – their tenuous links to country music as a distinct art form are virtually nonexistent.
Ten years ago, Carrie Underwood would’ve been grouped as a pop-country diva. These days, she’s the only recent superstar that even seems to care that her music sounds identifiably country. And while there is no shortage of alternative country acts who are connected to the genre’s roots, their very existence on the outskirts of the mainstream prevent them from having a meaningful enough impact to carry on country music’s rich legacy.
Without a new generation of country stars breaking through enough to really captivate the interest of the public, I see no way for country music to continue as a viable art form and culturally relevant presence in contemporary music.
We’re in trouble, folks.