Country Music Is Changing, in Spite of Itself

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The genre’s ongoing racial reckoning combined with a shift toward streaming listening could lead to a more inclusive future for both artists and fans.

Graphic by Drew Litowitz

No music genre is as beholden to corporate radio as country music, and no form of music media is as conservative, aesthetically and politically, as corporate radio. Put two and two together, and it makes sense that no genre is more conservative than country music made for the radio—an assembly-line product stuffed with references to patriotism and pickups, built by a massive industry centered in Nashville. That conventional wisdom accounts for the wide swaths of people whose response to seeing video of rising country star Morgan Wallen using the n-word last month was: “Is anyone surprised?”

The country industry’s answer to that question was both yes and no. As stars like Mickey Guyton and Maren Morris quickly pointed out, there’s at least a century’s worth of evidence that the genre was built by overt racism and discrimination—to paraphrase them, Wallen’s racism is country. In recent years, that bigotry and ignorance has been either expressed just vaguely enough (see: Jason Aldean’s Halloween blackface) or by artists obsolete enough that the industry hasn’t had financial incentive to address it. Wallen’s use of the slur, though, was clear-cut and impossible to ignore, given that it happened while he was literally the biggest artist in the country. Grotesquely, perhaps the most surprising thing about the ordeal was how neither Wallen nor his squad of flacks could find a way to talk around such an obvious offense. Within a day, all the major radio conglomerates had stopped playing Wallen’s music, an action that is unprecedented in scope and swiftness, particularly for the genre’s conservative gatekeepers.

A slew of necessary, overdue conversations about how to make country music more inclusive are now happening both on the record and behind the scenes. At the same time, Wallen’s album Dangerous has remained atop the Billboard 200 for the past eight weeks, as some stations continue to play his music. When Norfolk, Virginia’s US 106.1 stopped playing Wallen’s music for just one day, listeners revolted, and the station reversed course. “We made the decision to start playing him immediately,” program director Dave Parker recently told Country Insider. “Since that time, we have received almost exclusively—with the exception of two people—positive feedback and thanks for playing his music.”

Generally, though, corporate stations are still shunning Wallen, understanding how the explosion of activism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police last summer would have made country’s standard “no drama, just music” tack look extra tone-deaf right now. So country radio’s sudden sensitivity to outsiders’ perception of the genre is both a step in the right direction and ultimately self-serving—a reflection of how the tectonic plates of the country industry have already been shifting over the past few years. Where mainstream country’s motto, especially in the warmongering George W. Bush era, had been, “If you don’t have anything conservative to say, don’t say anything at all,” in the last election cycle, Maren Morris’ Biden endorsement was much more visible than any of her peers’ #Trump2020s—and she still had one of the biggest songs of the year.

But the main reason country music can no longer claim neutrality within an increasingly polarized cultural zeitgeist isn’t just because of political correctness. It also involves popular music’s overarching transition toward streaming—a mode of consumption not just divorced from location and community, but genre itself.

It’s important to note that country radio is still enormous. There are more country radio stations in America than there are of any other format. If your song is No. 1 at country radio, somewhere between 20 and 30 million individual people will hear it in a given week—making it imperative that your song is the one chosen by an insular cadre of radio conglomerates and major labels.


 

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