women in country music

From the Kitchen to the Tailgate: Country Music's Struggle to Define Women

"She's a maniac in the bed, but a brainiac in her head."

That's a line from the song "Gemini" off of Keith Urban's new album Graffiti U. On the surface, the track is meant to be a praising, celebratory ode to a woman who is the "total package." But unfortunately, it also reinforces the outdated assumption that finding a woman who can be both sexual and intelligent is a rarity.

"Gemini" was actually written about Nicole Kidman, an acclaimed actress in her own right and Urban's wife of twelve years. "She's not quite a contradiction," he says in the song, co-written with Julia Michaels, Justin Trantor and Ian Kirkpatrick. "I know everybody knows, baby she's both." The lines play off of the fact that the zodiac sign Gemini is a represented by a set of twins.

Much like the album's lead single "Female," which garnered mixed reviews for its praise of women from a purely male perspective, the song's lyrical simplicity does a disservice to its intended message. In 2018, it should no longer be seen as a compliment to be told by a man that a woman is special or unique because she is more than one thing. It should be common sense.

Defining the complexities of women has been an issue in country music lyrics since the genre's beginning. As women have continually pushed to get their voices heard, men's voices are still at the forefront of most facets of life. And while other genres like pop and R&B have allowed more and more women to take hold of superstar statuses, country music has often lagged behind in letting women shine as powerful and complex beings.

During the 1940s, a woman's worth or love was commonly referred to as a commodity in country songs — a commodity that the woman had little or no control over. For example, here's a snippet from Eddy Arnold's 1949 No. 1 hit, "Don't Rob Another Man's Castle."

"So don't rob a man of his loved one
You'll break his heart don't you see
I robbed another man's castle
Now someone just stole her from me"

Hank Williams later scored a major hit in 1951 with "Hey Good Lookin'," a song that many still define as a pivotal country classic. The tune uses a mix of sexual and cooking references throughout, a not-so-subtle nod to the places that women were then expected to be found — the kitchen and the bedroom.

"Say, hey, good lookin'
Whatcha got cookin'?
How's about cookin' somethin' up with me?"

In 1952, country music got its first female superstar with the great Kitty Wells and her landmark song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." It was a direct response to Hank Thompson's song "The Wild Side of Life," which featured the infamous line, "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels, I might have known you'd never make a wife."

Wells made history with her response song, which became the first No. 1 Billboard country song for a solo female artist. Still, Wells was banned from performing the song at the Grand Ole Opry, and many country stations banned the song from its airwaves.

In the 60s and 70s, artists like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette also brought a strong feminine perspective to the genre. Instead of being told to bring something hot to the table, women were sharing their frustrations, goals and feelings through songs like "The Pill," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)."

Modern artists like Tanya Tucker, Shania Twain and Dottie West broke more barriers by proudly owning their sexuality in song. Even with these important purveyors in country music's past, the genre still doesn't uplift and celebrate enough female artists. Alongside this struggle to include more female voices on the airwaves, the male perspective dominates in Music Row board rooms, recording studios and writing rooms.

READ MORE: Where Are the Women on Country Radio?

In other words, mainstream country radio listeners today get to hear a lot about who women are or what they feel, but from a male perspective. It's important to note that having that perspective is important and can often bring a unique look on the female experience from the outside in. Artists like Jason Isbell have been celebrated for their ability to create feminine characters that are multi-faceted and, therefore, realistic.

However, many of the songs that are manufactured or intensely marketed for country radio airplay still bring a one-dimensional look at female characters. Just a few years ago, bro-country hit an all-time high with songs like Florida Georgia Line's "Get Your Shine On" ("Strawberry shimmer on hot lips, silver buckle hangin' off her hips") that only used sexualized imagery to define women.

"To be a female in a country song in the 2010s is to be objectified more than in the past," according to Texas Tech University researchers Eric Rasmussen and Rebecca Densley's study Girl in a Country Song: Gender Roles and Objectification of Women in Popular Country Music across 1990 to 2014.

"Songs from 2010 to 2014 were also more likely to refer to a woman's appearance, to women in tight or revealing clothing, to women as objects, and to women via slang than songs in one or both prior decades," the study reads. "Furthermore, results indicate that the changes in the portrayal of women appear to be driven by changes in lyrics in songs sung by male artists, but not by those in songs sung by female artists."

Following the release of Maddie & Tae's "Girl in a Country Song" in 2015, radio's interest in songs about tailgates and tan lines began to fade. Although the peak of bro-country seems to have already passed, it certainly isn't gone for good.

Parmalee's current single "Hotdamalama" is a prime example of a country song that only uses visual imagery to describe a female character. Its opening line, "she got that delta donk," is followed by descriptions of how she wears "cutoffs clean up to her pocket" and this cringe-worthy snippet:

"She got them sho' enough coming in runner up
Panama City, wet t-shirt, Mrs Banana
Boats, boats, motorboatin'
Man, it's a handful juggling all these emotions."

According to the April 23 edition of Country Aircheck, the song was added to 25 major country radio stations during its first week of rotation. This comes at the same time as Cam's "Diane," Kacey Musgraves' "Space Cowboy" and Ashley Monroe's "Hands On You" have been stalled at the bottom of the country charts. Although all three of these songs have been championed by critics for their storytelling from the feminine perspective, they are still not being supported by the ones who hold the golden keys within their own industry.

Although the difference between Keith Urban's well-intentioned "Gemini" and the blatant female objectification in "Hotdamalama" is a big one, it's important to recognize that words matter — especially when they are being shared on a platform as massive as country radio.

It's time for country music to let women speak for themselves. If we are going hear another song about a man's sudden discovery of just how complicated women are, we should also hear another five songs about how that experience really is from the women who live it every day.

The amount of incredible songs by female artists that have been ignored by country radio in recent years is both baffling and enraging. But as long as male voices are the dominant force on the country charts, there must be prominent and frequent discussion on how women are — and aren't — being portrayed.

From the Kitchen to the Tailgate: Country Music's Struggle to Define Women is part one of an ongoing series about women in country music by Wide Open Country's Managing Editor Lorie Liebig.

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