With Respect To … Respect
June 9, 2016
This is column is about nationally televised Country music awards shows, and the lack of respect they collectively and continually show toward Country music, its artists, and the format. How the hell did we get to this point? The way in which Country as a genre is presented in this venue is detrimental; this madness has to stop immediately, if not sooner.
I’m not picking on any one show in particular, but the most recent one was the official tipping-point – my had-it-up-to-here, pull out my hair, moment of clarity. I was vocal about the ACM awards in April, characterizing them as “meh,” and I stand by that. But they’re all to blame, with their stubborn insistence on recruiting Pop stars for random, mostly awkward performances; for chasing an unattainable high, and desperately seeking the ultimate TV “moment.” I know these moments are designed to bring ratings, and I realize ratings matter – because without them, we can’t showcase this wonderful, unique genre that we all love. However, most of them are misguided.
But just like an addict seeking the next big buzz, the drug is gradually killing us in the process. We’re dying from thousands of paper cuts. The seemingly insatiable need to create forced collaborations – what I compare to trying to bake a watermelon – is diminishing the format’s well-deserved, well-earned integrity and credibility.
This has been going on for a while now. And it may have started in the 90s, when the ACMs were on NBC. The network used to provide what it thought was firepower to the show by having then- “Tonight Show Host” Jay Leno announce the Entertainer of the Year. He came out in a corny looking, bedazzled denim leisure suit with “Possom, the other white meat” on the back, wearing a huge foam hat. This was during a time when – like now – Country was a mainstream format. What an out of touch ass Leno was. More recently, I remember Carrie Underwood being joined by Steven Tyler on the opening of the ACMs a few years ago. Absolutely a cool, unexpected, show-stopping show starter. Organic, real, compelling. Somebody – somebody in TV who’s an expert, who knows better than us in radio, or certainly in Country music – demanded more. And more. And more. It’s out of control.
And we – all of us involved in Country – are allowing it to happen. We’re like that person who is abused regularly, and allows it to continue, unreported. We’re a prince, who thinks of itself as a frog.
Here’s a news flash for the “experts.” Country music doesn’t need validation. There are roughly 2,100 Country radio stations in America, and – along with Top 40 – it’s the most ubiquitous music format on the air. We’ve grown our audience among younger, 18-34 listeners in the past five years, trailing only Top 40 in that demo. We still deliver an outstanding, competitive and – in many markets – dominating 25-54 share, too; it’s still considered our target demo. A recent, massive study commissioned by the CMA shows growth for the format, the biggest growth coming from Millennials (18-34s), along with Hispanics and non-whites. As for Millennials, there are 78 million of them now. Why does that matter?
This injection of new, younger Country music fans is increasing the reach of the genre and will continue to do so in the future. Additionally, this generation is more likely to spend more money on our music than all other groups. My assertion: their expanding passion for Country and willingness to put their money where their mouth is, is due to the diversity that exists WITHIN the format. They don’t see boundaries in their music, and now, neither do the artists – many of whom are of the millennial generation themselves, and bringing all kinds of musical influences to their music and the Country format. But I don’t think this growing legion of younger fans discovered Country because Fifth Harmony and Cam mashed it up one night in Nashville. Just because they like Leona Lewis AND Cassadee Pope back to back on a playlist doesn’t mean they also want those two singing TOGETHER. On CMT “Crossroads?” Sure, that’s a one-hour special and that – a merging of two genres for an hour is the entire context. But for a one-off? No. Just no.
The touring business? Better than ever for Country. Have you seen how many live, multi-act Country festivals there are during Spring and Summer? And that crowd is the true family reunion Country has always considered itself to be. Speaking of Summer, as I have said in this space many times before in recent years, Summer for Country is what Christmas is to AC radio, when it comes to ratings performance. Happens every year.
As I write this, a couple hundred thousand fans have descended upon Nashville for CMA Music Fest. Now more than ever, Pop programmers strive to transition to Country radio. Blake Shelton is the biggest star on the biggest TV singing competition, NBC-TV’s “The Voice.” How come Blake is the constant on that show? Because he’s the rudder, that’s why.
I guess there’s a shorter, better, three-word description of what I’m saying above: We’re the shit.
Yes, we’re the shit, and we have been for years now. And this is why Country needs to do something – as it relates to national TV exposure and how we’re presented – to proliferate THAT brand, ASAP, instead of the red-headed, needy, bastard stepchild image with which we’re currently saddled. And we should perpetuate our strong brand – not in a boastful, cocky, self-serving way, but in a prideful way (#humbleandkind). We’re way past the point, in 2016, of relying on anybody else to legitimize us or give us cred. We’re not suffering through a down music cycle. In fact, it’s the opposite, with a terrific story building on the horizon for female artists in 2016, which will further solidify our position as the aforementioned shit.
We’re the ones with the serious cred; we’re the badasses on a roll. So why don’t mainstream or Pop oriented awards shows start asking Country artists to validate THEIR acts and music?
As it relates to the CMT Awards – and I really hate a laundry list, but – here are the things that got me to the tipping point:
– Elle King with Dierks? Fine. They made a record together – that’s a vocal event, not a random collaboration.
– Pitbull with Leona Lewis – and a token verse from Cassadee? An insult. Want Pitbull? Fine. Have him appear with Keith Urban on the vocal collaboration THEY recorded together in Keith’s brilliant “Ripcord” album.
– I have no problem with Cam singing with five other women – I just wish those five were Cassadee Pope, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert.
– CMT has done a great job of leading the way when it comes to emerging female artists – better than anybody else – spearheading its own “CMT Next Women Of Country” initiative and corresponding tour. But where was that presence or initiative last night? I didn’t feel their excitement about any female movement.
– Collaborations are great – Country artists have been doing them for years, and this format has a more collegial atmosphere than any other – so why don't we see more of THAT?
– Erin Andrews has proven during her long career that she is no better than a painfully average broadcaster. Sorry, that’s the truth. She has no feel for comedy whatsoever. But we suffered through a lame bit about memes at the expense of promising female newcomer, Maren Morris, who was allowed to squeeze a verse and chorus of “My Church” in before we went to commercial. Meanwhile, the decidedly non-Country-centric “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and (the following day) “The Today Show” both deemed Morris qualified and interesting enough to sing two different songs on nationally televised shows with decidedly more viewers than the CMT Music Awards.
I posted a shorter version of the premise of today’s column last night (6/8), on my Facebook page, and it blew up. I was merely voicing what I saw, and I waited until the end of the show to do so. It was a gut reaction – and yes, frustration – about how the format I love, the artists, and music I admire continues to be treated – because we let it be treated that way.
Some who commented – and I appreciate that feedback – took off and ran with the “Country isn’t Country anymore.” That’s not my point here, and I have promised myself I’d never be the “get off my lawn” guy. But I’m not saying that at all. I want – and will gladly invite – all the people on my lawn. Let’s have a party! Barbeque, croquet, and a bouncy house, even. But I don’t need you to tell me how to mow, grow, or fertilize my lawn. I can do that myself. I just need you show up and enjoy it.
That wider conversation about what is and isn’t Country has been going on for years and will never be complete. The format grows, sometimes uncomfortably. It ebbs and flows, through strong and weak music cycles. Lots of people today pine for the good old days of 90s music. Guess what? In the 90s, a lot of people pined for the good old days of the 80s. Do I have to tell you what people bitched about in the 80s? One of the most revered acts in the history of Country music – Alabama – was often blasted for being too Pop and selling out. Today, they’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1986, the New York Times declared Country radio to be dead. Hello!?! Looky here: we’re still around!
So that conversation will never end. But this mindless, muscle memory crap of trotting out flavor of the month Pop stars to make us look cool and validate us? That’s over. Done. It jumped the shark long ago, and it’s time for the smarter-than-us “experts” to put on their creative hats and think of something else – pronto. But when they do it, here’s an idea – and since they love them some collaboration – consider consulting people in this industry who have a clue about our format and its music. People who respect it. That’s a collaboration I can get behind.