Commentary: Why does country music have such an inferiority complex?

06.18.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Okay, I know it’s very unblog-like to actually think about a piece before you post instead of just throwing up immediate reactions, but I needed a few days to ruminate about the CMT Music Awards before I posted my thoughts.

As many of you know, heads in Nashville are still spinning about Tuesday night’s CMT Music Awards, during which country’s reigning superstar Taylor Swift rapped (quite cutely) with T-Pain and performed (quite painfully) with Def Leppard to close the show with “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”  Plus, Sugarland brought out the B-52s to perform “Love Shack,” greeting the pop band as if they were long lost cousins from the holler.

We’re all for genre bending, but think about it this way: Imagine, if you will, the MTV Video Music Awards devoting several of its musical slots to the top country songs of 20 years ago. Dwell on the thought of the Jonas Bros. bringing out Alabama to sing “Song of the South” (a hit the same year as “Love Shack”) or Katy Perry trotting out George Strait to duet on “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” which hit No. 1 on the country chart in 1988, just as Def Lep’s “Sugar” topped the pop chart. Never happen, right? (A little back story, part of the Swift/Def Lep performance was about plugging the hell out of their edition of CMT’s “Crossroads,” which just came out on DVD).

And yet, country fans were expected to applaud this adventurousness (and trust me, only in the world of country, would this pass for daring). There are several reasons for this train wreck — some good, some horrible.

First off, many of today’s country music listeners were listening to pop and rock when “Love Shack” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” were hits, so they were very familiar with the songs.  Rightly or wrongly, they were alienated by pop when it became so rhythmic/hip-hop oriented several years ago and switched to either country of AC. It’s no coincidence that Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker is now a country star and that the Eagles’ last album topped the country charts.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that country music– despite the fact that two of the top sellers of all kinds of music, Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts, are country artists–still suffers from an inferiority complex. That’s because fans of pop and R&B have no idea who country artists are-other than perhaps Swift, since she’s crossed over, and Carrie Underwood, since she won “American Idol.”

It’s inconceivable that a pop artist could sell 100 million albums, as Garth Brooks has, and millions of folks would not be able to sing one of his songs. It’s a genre that simply remains often isolated from the rest of mainstream music, despite the fact that there are more country stations than any other musical genre.

So why the ugly step-sister syndrome? Instead of trying to prove they’re “edgy” by having Swift dance around with Def Leppard like she just came off the stripper pole (at least Joe Elliott had the good graces to look slightly embarrassed that he was ogling someone young enough to be his daughter), country music should have embraced its own past, not pilfered from another genre’s history. 

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