It’s not a great time to be a female country singer. “Bro country,” often with sexist lyrics, dominates country radio, while women find it increasingly difficult to get a hearing.
No wonder recent remarks from radio consultant Keith Hill shook the country music scene. In an interview with Country Aircheck Weekly, the self-proclaimed “leading authority in music scheduling” advised country stations to avoid featuring too many female artists:
If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out…. Mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations….
Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.
Leave aside for the moment the foolishness of the tomato analogy (foolish for two reasons: one, “tomato” has long been a slang term, and not a particularly nice one, for a woman; and two, a salad that’s all lettuce with a tomato or two sounds like the dullest salad ever made).
At one level, Hill is simply speaking the bleak truth. In recent years, few female country singers have regularly made it to the top of the charts. They’re the household names you’d recognize even if not a country fan: Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift—before Taylor left the genre for pop. It has been difficult for other female artists to break through.
Yet, the women of country music have reason to take issue with Hill’s remarks—and they are most definitely taking issue. It’s his job to strategize to raise ratings, so if male singers are more popular, if that’s what listeners are into, it makes sense he’d tell radio stations to keep playing them. However, by advising stations to “take females out,” to remove an entire gender from the airwaves, he reveals himself as a very shortsighted expert indeed.
From Kitty Wells to Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton to Reba McEntire to Faith Hill and Shania Twain, women thrived on country radio for decades. If listeners—both women and men—liked female artists then, why don’t they anymore?
For a couple of reasons, I think. For one thing, as I wrote in a previous article, female-objectifying party anthems have taken over country airwaves. (This trend, in some ways, is nothing new and extends across genres. Rock, rap, hip-hop, and others have all faced the paradoxical challenge of songs that remain commercially popular though they stereotype, objectify, and demean women.)
When bands and listeners embrace the attitude championed in hit “bro country” songs, I think it’d be natural for them to get to the point where they internalize the message, and care less about what female artists are saying and singing. After all, if certain lyrics—and scenes in corresponding music videos—are to be believed, women are there to be thin and pretty, wear tight shorts, and smile adoringly at their guys.
As new duo Maddie & Tae sang in their surprise hit “Girl in a Country Song,” which lampoons pretty much every “bro country” cliché there is:
We used to get a little respect
Now we’re lucky if we even get
To climb up in your truck, keep our mouths shut and ride along
And be the girl in a country song.
So how did the objectification of women in country music become so popular in the first place? Maybe people pay more attention to the catchy tunes or danceable beats than the lyrics. Maybe country music’s sexism doesn’t seem so bad against all the other media where we see women objectified in our culture: Internet, TV, porn. Or maybe, we hear it so much on the radio that we’ve grown to love it despite the problematic message.
The male domination in country radio didn’t happen by accident or without the influence of these consultants and radio execs and DJs. Which gets to the other reason we hear from fewer women. Audience tastes stem from what they’ve been taught to expect, what they’ve been conditioned to listen and love by country music stations and CMT. In an article about efforts to get more recognition for female country singers, Kate Dries points out:
[Radio programmer John] Marks is partially responsible for the rise of bro-country—he doesn't make the music, but he's a "tastemaker," someone who helped one song do really well and who then got watch as record labels tried to copy that success. Even Cole Swindell, one of the artists Marks helped break, recognizes this power. Swindell told the WSJ that he warns Marks about what music he includes on The Highway: "You better be careful who you put on there."
So if you helped form, nurture, and sustain a trend, it seems a bit ridiculous to sit around wondering how to counter it. The same goes for Keith Hill, who replied to a flood of angry tweets (many of them with the hashtag #SaladGate) that the way to get more women on the radio “is not to complain[,] it is to create.”
But as Hill should be the first to realize, creating is one thing, being heard is another. And without the help and encouragement of those in positions of power, one doesn’t always lead to the other.
I mentioned earlier that the subversive “Girl in a Country Song” had been a surprise hit, suggesting that there is after all an audience out there for daring and outspoken female country musicians. But where are the tastemakers trying to copycat these women’s success, the way they did with the “bro country” singers? Nowhere to be found.
It makes me think about how consumers of entertainment tend to justify our choice to put up with mediocrity—or worse, objectification of women—by saying there’s nothing else to watch or listen to. That notion has always made me uneasy. I don’t like the idea that my tastes should be utterly dependent on whatever a few studio executives or PR people decide is hot.
Both as a Christian concerned about the redemptive value of art, and as a music fan interested in well-crafted lyrics, creative tunes, and good voices, I want more than that. Which makes me think that perhaps we consumers have a responsibility to seek out what’s pure, lovely, and of good report for ourselves, not just sit around waiting for radio programmers to do it for us. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, especially in the age of the Internet—and it’s definitely worthwhile.
Case in point: I first heard about “SaladGate” via the Facebook page of country singer Hannah Blaylock. Blaylock isn’t a very well-known singer yet, but I’ve kept up with her career over the years, both as a member of the band Edens Edge and then when she went solo, because, frankly, she’s better than about 99 percent of the “bro country” singers.
In response to the Country Aircheck Weekly article, she put a new song, “Stand on It,” on ReverbNation. “I wasn't going to release this song for awhile,” Blaylock wrote on Facebook. “But I feel it's my responsibility to do my part. The ladies of country music have been called out.”
You could say Hannah Blaylock took Hill’s advice to “create” to heart (if not exactly following it to the letter, as she already had the song written and recorded). But what happens if she tries to release the song to a country radio market where the programmers have also taken Hill’s advice—the part about getting rid of female singers—to heart? What happens is that this programmer, who’s perfectly content with the female-objectifying trend, ends up reinforcing the very state of affairs over which he claims to have no control.
Or to put it another way, there’s something rotten in that salad.
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