There’s no bigger country star right now than Luke Bryan.
The hatless, hip-shaking singer currently has the number one album in the country with Crash My Party, which sold a staggering 528,000 copies in its first week. (That gives him the third-highest debut sales week of the year, beat out only by Justin Timberlake and Jay Z). His previous disc, the compilation Spring Break…Here To Party, hit No. 1 earlier this year, too, and each of his last eight singles has reached the Top 5 on the country charts. In April, Bryan not only hosted the ACM Awards, he won the career-galvanizing Entertainer of the Year prize as well.
So why is everyone crashing Bryan’s party? Perhaps because his music typifies today’s predominant modern-country sound: a mesh of head-banging ’80s rock, late-’90s hip-hop, liberal doses of pop production, and thuddingly derivative lyrics about barnyards and breswkies – invariably delivered by men. You could say that Bryan (who, it should be noted, is an exciting, cheeky, genuinely fun performer) is merely riding the same wave that has lifted acts like Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, and “Cruise” duo Florida Georgia Line to the peak of country fame.
In a recent New York magazine story, critic Jody Rosen labeled the non-traditional songs produced by this raucous crowd “bro country.” “[Florida Georgia Line] pay lip service to ‘little farm towns’ and pickup trucks and such,” Rosen wrote. “But what they care about is getting drunk and laid.” Bryan’s current single, “That’s My Kind of Night,” fits the “bro country” bill to a T. The track finds him bragging about his “diamond plate tailgate,” telling a woman to “scoot [her] little hot self over here,” and bumping a mixtape with “a little Conway, a little T-Pain.” Inevitably, the second verse ends with an auto-tuned “Make it raiiiiiin” refrain:
The popularity of such songs has become distressingly pervasive on country radio. As Tom Roland argues in this week’s Billboard Country Update, “What constitutes country music on the airwaves is noticeably narrower than it was just a year ago.” He’s got a point: it’s all very loud, and it’s all very male.
Of course, country radio’s lack of solo female stars is nothing new, but ladies on the country chart seem to be more absent than ever. Billboard’s current Hot Country Songs chart includes just one song by a solo female, Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again,” in the Top 25, but 19 songs by solo men. (To be fair, Taylor Swift is a featured guest on Tim McGraw’s “Highway Don’t Care.”) The country airplay chart looks a bit better, but not by much. Of the 30 most played songs, four tracks are by solo women; 20 are by men.
Here’s a sobering fact: a solo country female hasn’t had her first two singles reach the Top 10 since Taylor Swift in 2007. Yep, six years ago. It’s that hard for a new woman to break into the industry. “Merry Go Round” chanteuse Kacey Musgraves instilled some hope in Nashville when that song went Top 10 this winter, but its follow-up, “Blowin’ Smoke,” flamed out at number 23 despite critical acclaim for her album. (Musgraves still gets major points for recently telling British GQ that the one musical trend that needs to die is, “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop - nobody cares.”)
So what does the top man in country music – and currently the most notable purveyor of “bro country” – have to say about the genre’s woman problem? While speaking with Bryan about his new album earlier in August, we asked him just that. According to him, a big part of the problem is the requirement that women must look “glam” when promoting themselves. “They kind of have to be able to hang with the guys but also be feminine and pretty,” Bryan tells EW. “Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy.” Meanwhile, men can “wake up, throw on a hat,” and hang with the guys.
Left unstated are the executives, radio programmers, and label heads that are perpetuating the cycle in country music. And it does seem to be a bigger problem in Nashville than the pop world. After all, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga managed to break out just fine – even with complicated “glam” routines.
Here are Bryan’s full thoughts on the matter:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are women in country getting the short end of the stick?
LUKE BRYAN: It’s disappointing that it’s so tough for a female artist to break. I don’t know really the demographics of why that is and what makes that so tough on women. I don’t know. I don’t know why that’s so tough. I do think it sucks, but I don’t know what I can do. I mean, it’s a weird phenomenon. What’s funny is that the majority of listeners are females, but then you’d feel like they would want to hear women too. I guess I didn’t give you at all an answer, but I just feel like I don’t know what can be done to solve it. I think historically it’s always been that way a little bit. It feels like now is the toughest time ever for women, but I would imagine it’s always been pretty damn crummy.
Overall in country, it’s a different deal because it’s tough for a girl to, at the age of 16, start hitting the honky tonks. It’s just… [sighs] that the landscape in the minor leagues for women are tougher in country. My radio tour, back when I was singing two shows a day, I’d have to wake up, throw on a hat. A lot of times girls, you know—it’s just a tough time for girls to pull off those early days and radio tours, too. And I don’t want anybody calling me saying, “Why are you saying girls aren’t tough enough?” But I’ve thought about it a lot and why it happens, but at the end of the day, I can’t put my finger on it.
But why wouldn’t they be able to do that? I’m not following.
In my opinion, the girls that make it, man, they can wake up early at 5 a.m., throw a hat on, roll into a radio station, hang with the guys. They kind of have to be able to hang with the guys but also be feminine and pretty, and it’s just a tough dynamic when you talk about that aspect. It’s nothing that—there’s probably not even any merit to what I’m saying, but it’s just stuff I’ve thought about through the years. I remember waking up, and you know, hell, I’d hop in the shower quickly. Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy. They do two hours worth of glam. I mean, It’s tough, you know?
Readers, what do you think? Is there a single reason for the current dearth of women in the upper echelons of country, or a whole lot of reasons? Is there a solution? Let us know what you think.