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The Malec Minute: Country Music’s Biggest Night Wasn’t Country

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If you tuned in last night to ABC’s broadcast of the 42nd annual CMA Awards expecting to see country music in even its most mainstream form, you were sorely disappointed. And if you are reading this website now, on the morning after, not because you’re looking for pictures of Kellie Pickler but because you love country music, or because you like country music, or even because you have just a passing interest in one of the few contemporary art forms that can be said to be uniquely American, you should feel both insulted and outraged by what you witnessed last night.

I most certainly am.

Those of you who are regular readers of this publication know that I am neither a pop-country apologist nor a fervent traditionalist; that I’m as likely to laud a squarely mainstream act like Sugarland as I am a so-called neo-traditionalist like Randy Travis (who, despite his stellar 2008 album Around the Bend, was wholly absent from last night’s broadcast). I believe firmly in the idea that country music resides under a so-called “big tent,” that it encompasses many different stylistic variations and themes, all of which combine to comprise the broad spectrum of “country” music.

Country music has always been a conglomerate of sorts, a twisted family tree with branches that intersect with numerous influences and values. Even in country’s earliest days there was a strong dichotomy between the so-called “morally good” music of the iconic Carter Family and the blues-informed music of Jimmie Rodgers. Later, country music as a whole would grow to include Western Swing, Bluegrass, Outlaw Music and many other “fringe” elements that were to the left or to the right of the genre’s center.

We would not see any of those fringe elements on stage last night. The Country Music Association has always largely ignored all but a select group of core artists, and its awards, though the most prestigious our genre has to offer, are politically driven by individuals who have a vested interested in protecting and growing record sales. The CMA Awards have never truly reflected the “best” of country music, and “Country’s Biggest Night” is more a promotional vessel than anything else.

So I expected last night to be a celebration of country music’s center, to be a showcase for those artists who are supposedly most appealing to the broader American public–the audience we’re trying to woo into our fold to help solidify tragically falling record sales. In that sense, last night was supposed to be about bringing new blood into country music.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that last night’s ceremony would represent, for the first time, not only an attempt to appeal to a mass audience by showcasing the genre’s most centrist, non-polarizing artists, and to broaden the scope and appeal of the broadcast by incorporating artists and music from other genres, but also a full-scale attempt to completely re-appropriate the term “country music” and make it mean something substantially different than what it really is.

And make no mistake—that’s what was happening last night at the Sommet Center in Nashville.

Somewhere between Kid Rock not-rocking and rapper Lil Wayne pretending to play the guitar, between the Wailers wailing and the Eagles (who have never been country, despite what Brad Paisley or anyone else says) performing in business suits, I had a moment of realization—this was not about celebrating country music at all; it was about moving past country music. It was about redefining “country music,” the term, as being not tied to a specific sound or even a specific artistic aesthetic, but rather to an ideology. Last night was not about showcasing country music’s center—it was about positioning country music at the center of American music, about presenting country music as an all-encompassing format which embraces what are supposedly “Main Street American” values and tastes.

It was, in that regard, an attempt to shift “country music” off its axis so as to fill the gap left by pop music as pop continues to struggle with its definition in an era where there is widening a schism between Adult Contemporary, Dance, and Hip-Hop. The CMA wants to make country music an American standard, something that completely leaves behind its country roots so that it can be more appealing to a suburban audience.

What it doesn’t seem to recognize, however, is that standardization is the reason for pop’s decline. Standardization is why the pop music of the 80s and 90s has failed in the new century, and it’s the reason why country music, as an industry, will fail as well. Standardization makes the music boring and irrelevant.

Last night, we saw a lot of performers, and heard a lot of music, that was boring and irrelevant. Even some of our most promising and talented artists, Miranda Lambert for one, offered up performances that will be forgotten by the end of the week.

If you have any doubt at all that what I’m conveying to you about country music’s standardization is true, look no further than a man who was, without question, one of the evening’s most genuinely country-sounding performers. Rock convert Darius Rucker, who wanted to make country music because he grew up listening to it and had it etched in his heart, chose to forgo the glitzy sets and production gimmicks that almost all of his peers utilized, instead simply standing on stage with his guitar while poured his heart into his song. This is telling because even as it was one of the most country performances of the night, it was not nearly as country as it might have been in other circumstances. Rucker is a man who wanted to make a truly country album, one full of waltzes and two-steps. He wasn’t allowed to do so by his label, for fear that it wouldn’t be able to find a radio market.

And even with all of that—even having tweaked his sound to be less country, I cannot help but feel that Rucker seemed musically out of place last night. Think about that—Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, was too country for the country music awards.

Instead of trying to sanitize and standardize country music, the CMA should be embracing country music’s niche styles, celebrating its diversity, and awarding its true talent. If the CMA wants country music to be cool, to be able to appeal to a younger demographic, all it has to do is look at the success that it has already had in the rare instances when it has embraced non-mainstream artists.

If the CMA thinks teenagers and college students, as a whole, don’t like bluegrass, it should look at the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. If it thinks that no one wants to hear traditional sounding country, it should look at the regional success of bands like 1100 Springs or Jason Boland and the Stragglers. If the CMA thinks music has to be slick, polished, up-tempo, and positive to be commercially viable, it should look at the sales figures for Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.

Instead, the CMA thinks it best to put Jason Aldean up on stage to sing a slightly twangy rock song, ironically titled “She’s Country.”

And therein lies the problem. In 1995 Jason Aldean would be selling triple platinum. Teenage girls would be lining up at the record store’s doors to buy his album on release day; because he’d be dominating radio, the place where everyone who liked a certain type of music learned what was new and cool.

But this ain’t 1995, and radio is no longer the gatekeeper. Those same teenage girls now have (literally) all of the music in the world at their fingertips. And so the monoculture is dead. One teenage girl likes Jason Aldean while her friend prefers Chris Cagle. But each only likes their chosen artist enough, if either artist is lucky, to download the new single, or a few hits, from iTunes. The music is nice but it’s not exciting. And the industry doesn’t know how to deal with that. It’s stuck trying to sell people music that they don’t really want to own.

Country music has a wealth of exciting music, from a wide pool of sub-genres, that could engage almost any potential listener, of any age. The CMA should be working to bring those artists and their music into the public eye. They should be working to show us why country music is cool–because Jason Aldean can share a stage with Jason Boland, and because Kasey Chambers can share a stage with Carrie Underwood.

Last night, they showed us why what they’re pushing as country music–homogeneous, unoffensive, uncreative–isn’t cool at all.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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