CU10 Flashback: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

Shania Twain Carrie UnderwoodIn 2008, I was finishing up my degree in journalism and trying to understand what it meant to be a professional writer. I wanted to write about music, but the divide between fan and critic felt, at times, insurmountable.

That fall, I stumbled onto Country Universe through this post, and it changed my perspective. As both a writer and leader, Kevin was thoughtful, rational and personally invested in the country music genre. He showed a deep respect for the genre’s history, but wrote about new artists with tolerance and curiosity. Best of all, he held readers and writers alike to the highest standards of decency.

It’s for that reason that this post shines. Kevin’s ability to take a stand while cultivating constructive dialogue is unmatched. He cut through the divisive hype around Carrie Underwood –an artist who is as special to me now as she was back then—and underlined the real issue at hand: country music’s staggering, frustrating gender bias. Six years and a truckload of interchangeable male artists later, it’s more imperative than ever that we continue this discussion.  – Tara Seetharam

Discussion: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

by Kevin John Coyne

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. 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 fan base 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.

You can read the original post here.

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8 Comments

Filed under Alison Krauss, CU10, Discussion, Flashback, Miranda Lambert, Women of Country on Women in Country

8 Responses to CU10 Flashback: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

  1. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I for one may be totally wrong as to why I think fans of certain female artists are so catty towards their favorites’ “competitors”, but I feel it’s because there are so few of them that radio will allow to be bonafide “stars” these days; and so the fans become either very defensive of their favorites or they go on the offense against the others, as seems to have been the case with Carrie almost from the beginning. In any case, as Linda Ronstadt once said, “Competition is for race horses, not artists”, and she was dead right on that.

    Just as a side note, although I’m not much of a fan of Carrie’s, I give considerable props to her for singing in Linda’s place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April and doing Linda’s career-making 1967 folk-rock classic “Different Drum”. That was an above-and-beyond performance (IMHO).

  2. JoeNo Gravatar

    “Kevin’s ability to take a stand while cultivating constructive dialogue is unmatched.” How beautifully written, Tara. Enjoy you two immensely. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. [Profanity self-censored], Carrie Underwoods performance of Different Drum was fantastic.

    There was no showboating, no putting “her own spin” on it; just a faithful cover of Ronstadt’s performance from one of very few artists working today who could even approach her raw vocal ability and interpretive skill.

  4. JasonNo Gravatar

    Kudos!! I agree with everything here, and I have to point out it happens in other genres, too. Pop radio is a lot more willing to play female artists, but there are still bitter fan disputes among the stans for Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Gaga, just as there were between fans of Mariah, Whitney, and Madonna in the 90s. So, I am not sure the disputes among fans of female country artists are about a competition for airplay. I don’t know what it is, really.

    Anyway, two things I want to highlight from the article:
    1. Outside of Garth Brooks, it has been female country artists who managed to reach a wider commercial audience on a consistent basis. Why the country industry doesn’t seem to want to utilize that, I don’t know.
    2. This issue of sexism in the country industry has been written about and acknowledged for as long as I can remember, yet nothing changes. So, what can bring about actual change?

  5. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Quote by Jason:

    2. This issue of sexism in the country industry has been written about and acknowledged for as long as I can remember, yet nothing changes. So, what can bring about actual change?

    It may seem to be too much to hope for, but it really is up to the fans themselves, en masse, to demand an end to the sexism, not only in country but also in the entire music industry in general, and to demand that the blatant misogyny of “bro country” be eradicated. The only way to do that is through their buying power, and putting it elsewhere (IMHO).

  6. CountryKnightNo Gravatar

    As long as the top line female country stars avoid their own spin on “bro-country” aka “Something Bad”.

  7. JackNo Gravatar

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the distaste that many have for artists like Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood is aesthetic: a lot of people like their country artists to be rootsy, down to earth, independent, and “country, ” both in terms of music and attitude. Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and other female artists meet that criteria, whereas Shania Twain looks and sounds like a glossy pop star. I think the various criticisms people lob at Shania are a reflection of those preferences. Likewise, Carrie Underwood rose to fame due to her presence on a cheesy reality TV singing show. Generally speaking, the world of mass pop culture and Hollywood used to be separate from country music and its institutions, and people traditionally expect country singers to earn their bona fides by rising up through the country music farm system. The interesting thing is that Carrie Underwood has been more widely accepted by country fans in the years since this piece was originally published: I’d guess this is due to her continued loyalty to the country market and to traditional institutions like the Grand Ole Opry.

    Also, I think there have been many artists in the history of country music who have expanded the genre’s fanbase in various ways, going all the way back to the outlaw country craze of the 70s, for example. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings appealed to much broader audiences than country artists had previously, but in my opinion they did so while keeping their music firmly rooted in country. Shania Twain expanded her fanbase by abandoning country music entirely. Carrie Underwood hasn’t done anything so extreme, but for the most part her brand of post-country pop bears a negligible resemblance to country music of any traditional variety. Personally. however, I’ve heard more criticism from “traditionalists” of both Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban than Carrie in recent years, but perhaps that’s just because she hasn’t released an album in a couple of years.

    I agree with the other commenters that the chauvinism of “bro-country” is appalling, as is the poor representation of female artists on country radio currently. Still, I think the latter is more a reflection of big two radio conglomerates’ short-sighted focus on the bro-country market trend (partly due to the death of rock radio,) than to direct chauvinism on the part of programmers. The need for more female artists on country radio is one thing we can all agree on, however!

  8. JessNo Gravatar

    Interesting take, Jack. I can see some of what you are saying, but I also think in the grand scheme Carrie is now more traditional than a lot of the artists getting play. Whereas she used to fall more on the pop side of what country was playing, she has now been passed in that regard. I’d argue none of the singles from her past album were traditionally country in any real way, but they were probably still more country than a lot of the 80s rock that is now country.

    We also just have to accept on some level that country music has changed. What is traditionally associated with country isn’t “country” anymore. Ironically Carrie covered a lot of 80s rock artists – Pat Benatar, Air Supply, Skid Row, Guns N Roses, Heart, Motley Crue – during her run on American Idol and in subsequent live shows. “Something Bad” is in that lane, too.

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