Bro country’s domination might be coming to an end. Here’s a look at the inexplicable new(ish) trend and why it’s possibly on its way out.
As we push further into the internet age of vertical integration and viral branding, country music finds itself at a crossroads. A cursory glance at the charts reveals a cynical recycling of formulas that are known to work. Seemingly gone are the days when country was the original three chords and the truth, even if that truth was ugly or gauche. But there are signs of a sea change, and it can’t come fast enough.
Let Me Explain
In case you’re unfamiliar with bro country, here’s a relatively brief history. Around 2012, the charts began to heavily feature male singers reusing key hackneyed phrases. The average country bro can be found going out with his crew on a Friday night to drink some of that good stuff at the club. The bro then plies a girl – any girl, really; her name is unimportant, but she must be wearing painted-on denim, with even more good stuff, then takes her on a romantic riverbank date by moonlight.Essentially, it’s the southern version of Bo Burnham’s Repeat Stuff bit.
After enough songs with this exact plot hit the charts with a bullet, the folks writing and profiting from them weren’t the only ones to notice. Entertainment Weekly columnist Grady Smith’s Top 10 Country Albums of 2013 got flak from readers for not featuring enough mainstream acts. In response, Smith made a video compiling every country copycat catchphrase from that year alone. The results were surprising even for the most cynical listener.
Lyrics aren’t the only problem. In 2014, YouTube user Sir Mashalot did what his name implies and combined six country hit singles. Though the keys were changed and the song chunks were re-ordered a bit, it’s pretty jading. The chord progressions are the same. The guitar solos are the same. The whoa-oh-oh-oh’s are the same. If you’ll forgive the turn of phrase, it’s enough to drive a country fan redneck crazy.
The term Bro-Country, first popularized by pop music critic Jody Rosen, has become a declarative buzzword in much the same way as the recycled ideas it employs. Many country fans claim to disdain it, songwriters are tired of writing it, and performers don’t like being stuck with it. So what’s going on? And how long will Broseidon govern the Brocean of twang?
Country music isn’t often accused of being progressive. Many of the clichés it gets pinned with are often thinly veiled cries against any kind of change. Bro country is no different: its rigid formula leaves little room for female characters with agency, or for women on the charts, period.
Occasionally, something breaks through the zeitgeist. In 1968, Tammy Wynette sang about “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, and a few years later Loretta Lynn ruffled some feathers with “The Pill”. Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood have crafted anti-abuse anthems. Even Brad Paisley has tried to reframe the melting pot mentality with “American Saturday Night” and “Accidental Racist” (not all attempts at racial discourse are created equal).
Each song, though perhaps controversial, became wildly popular and instantly classic in its own way. A few modern artists are boldly making a similar stand.
Take Kacey Musgraves. Her fourth full-length came out in 2013 on Mercury Nashville – not exactly small potatoes – and contained smirking asides calling out the hypocritical burdens placed upon modern women. Its first three singles subverted the small town chest puffing that usually dominates. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Blowin’ Smoke” serve as epitaphs to lives stalled in the muddy dirt roads that most singers romanticize so strongly.
But “Follow Your Arrow” was Same Trailer, Different Park‘s most important track. It skewers the damned-if-you-do traps society lays, with some clever wordplay: “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore / If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a hoooooorrible person”, emphasis hers. Its chorus encourages same-sex relationships and pot use, but only if that’s what you’re into.
It’s a song that may have gotten Musgraves banned from radio a la the Dixie Chicks 2003, but actually peaked at number 10 and became certified gold. Beyond its themes, the music had very little in common with folks like Jason Aldean. It’s more traditional and less electric; her 2014 Grammys performance even featured neon cacti. The album as a whole debuted at #s 1 and 2 on the Top Country Albums and Billboard 200 charts respectively, made too many Best-Of lists to count, and won the Grammy for Best Country Album.
That Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady
Perhaps the strongest criticism of the subgenre is Maddie & Tae’s whip-smart takedown “Girl In A Country Song”. In it, the young duo wonder what in the world happened to women in country music. “George Strait never did it this way!” they exclaim after calling out repeat offenders like Blake Shelton and Tyler Farr. Their frustration resonated: the song hit number one on the country airwaves. It was the only the second song by a female duo to do so…ever.
But not everyone was a fan – some artists who’ve been stuck with (and stuck defending) the bros hit back. Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line told an interviewer, “All I’m gonna say about that is, I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song. That’s all I’m gonna say to you. That’s it.” And relative newcomer Chase Rice, performer of gems like “I Like Drinking, Cause It’s Fun” and “Look at My Truck”, did a bit of mansplaining when he tweeted this:
Ironic and key to the song’s success is that the pair was signed by Big Machine Records, the label that’s home to many of the dudes the song admonishes. Some have been scornful that the label profiting from Maddie & Tae’s stance is also responsible for their grievances in the first place. Still, it’s noteworthy that even the home of Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett senses the change in the air.
Back To The Future
There are a few indicators that the men of Nashville want to get back to their roots as well. Zac Brown Band, adamant bro detractors, have taken to covering indie favorite Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” live. Supremely talented traditionalist Sturgill Simpson recently signed a deal with Atlantic Records after his brilliant (and appropriately titled) Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. And this subtle sea change isn’t specific to Americana purists.
Kenny Chesney’s 2014 album The Big Revival, sounding more like early Little Big Town than Jimmy Buffet, was the beach bum’s attempt at moving away from songs that even he admits “objectify the hell out of women.” Chesney also said “Twenty years ago, I might have written a song like that – I probably did.”
It is significant that an enormous star like Chesney would apologize for participating in the subgenre, especially in contrast to the immediate “It’s all in good fun, we just sing about having a good time” defense that is so often barked by current chart-toppers.
The Heart Of The Matter
At the end of the day, your opinion of bro country probably depends on how you define ‘country’ in the first place. Thanks in large part to Taylor Swift, hot country has, for the foreseeable future, become inextricably linked to pop. As with most things in the entertainment industry, what’s popular is what makes money, and today’s hot country is hot precisely because it sounds nothing like country.
Hip-hop beats and metal riffs abound; clubs and bars have replaced honkytonks and neon dives. It’s escapist party music, and while it can be problematic, it never claimed to be substantive. The danger of bro country lies in the vicious cycle it creates. When the success of one song becomes a brass ring to reach for, it shuts out musicians who have something different to say.
Plus, it’s straight up boring to hear the same elements awkwardly thrown into a blender ad nauseam. Country sticklers may not get what they want from Clear Channel, but that doesn’t mean the heart of country doesn’t exist – or that it won’t step back into the limelight.