There are many fundamental differences between country music and pop music. In fact, you could pitch country music and the rest of popular culture/media at two different ends of the spectrum. Having said that, it is still part of society, and the similarities are often extremely apparent, particularly at times in the cyclical nature of trends within genres and popular culture. But within this, the one thing that makes me proud to be a country music fan, to be ‘part’ of country music’s ‘club’, is that while image is clearly important for branding artists, at times to sell records (generally to younger fans), there is not the predominating focus on it that there is in pop music (or not historically).
Pop music culture has often been criticized for the kind of emphasis on image that it promotes through the media, the idea of a perfect figure and selling sex, women prancing about nearly naked grinding the air in the name of music. So in this state of society, it continuously floors me of the impact an artist like Adele has had. She, let’s face it, is not the size the media generally promotes as ideal in Western society. She is a lot bigger. Yet, she has come out time and again saying that she refuses to lose weight, as she is happy how she is. She refuses to conform, and despite this was the #1 selling artist in the US last year (and I’m pretty sure the year before too). From the sales of her two albums 19 and 21, she can now afford to retire, has won numerous Grammys, an Oscar, and so many other awards, along with global fame and success.
So when I watched her take to the stage at the Grammys to accept an award, I felt so proud as a fellow woman, to watch someone who is beautiful, but who is firmly rooted in who she is, and who she wants to be, and refuses to let other people tell her how she should live her life. I feel the same thing when I see Miranda Lambert, more than comfortable in her curves and often wearing things the media would consider ‘not good for her figure’. It feels somewhat less remarkable than Adele because the focus in country music is less on such an unattainable image of perfection, but Miranda’s fame, success and critical acclaim makes me feel so proud still, to see a curvy woman refusing to let constructs set by men on what female beauty is rule her life. It’s something I continuously struggle with, being a similar size to Miranda, and the pressure I have felt from the media, popstars as ‘role models’, but even family and friends, to lose weight.
I look up to Miranda as a woman for this reason, but contrary to the argument I have just made, as soon as I look further to other powerful females within mainstream country music, it begins to look increasingly like the ‘pop world’. Artists such as Carrie Underwood and Jana Kramer, regardless of aesthetics of their music, sell sex in both their look, the amount of flesh shown and the way in which they are constructed. Jana Kramer’s latest video for ‘Whiskey’ for example, has an overwhelming majority of ‘beauty shots’ compared to the actual storyline. The dramatic lingering looks, the flattering lighting and angles, the slow and ultimately sexy movements, even if they aren’t blatant or erotic. For me, it undermines her music. Martina McBride and Sara Evans in the past haven’t been averse to it either, and Faith Hill is a huge perpetrator of the trend. It makes otherwise good music appear co-opted and trivial. Taylor Swift used to represent the average, awkward-looking teenage girl (even as she entered her twenties this was still how she dressed, her hair and make-up, etc), but with the advent of ‘Red’, all we see are figure-hugging dresses, absolutely plunging necklines, tiny hotpants and, since her performance at the 2013 Brit Awards in London, corsets and sexy lace. Why did she suddenly feel the need to act sexy? On one level she doesn’t have the figure for the outfits that she’s been wearing, but perhaps moving into a fully pop terrain, she is now under pressure to conform and lose the ‘high school’ look in favor of suggestive eroticism.
So it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that after Miranda’s appearance at the Grammys looking stunning, there was an outbreak on Twitter of people making fun of the star’s weight and size, even going so far as to draw insulting pictures. Yet while looking at the state of the industry, it doesn’t surprise me, it deeply saddens me. I expected better from people. This is not an occurrence confined to a one-off, this kind of behaviour circulates everywhere. For someone as beautiful and sexy as Miranda, making music that’s both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, in a genre that is not entirely preoccupied with image (in my view), how are we still at this point where people are laughing at her for having breasts? For having a rear end that doesn’t disappear? When compared to the size of most Americans (and British and Europeans), it seems totally ridiculous that someone like Miranda who looks about a US size 10 at most, could be focused on for her weight, above everything else.
I get the feeling that country music is becoming increasingly image-orientated, especially for women. So many of today’s male stars are not that attractive and don’t have to be – the focus is automatically on their music, but with stars such as Luke Bryan rising I suppose there’s even focus on men to be sexy. If it becomes equal, however, I won’t mind so much.
But the crux of the argument is, when did we become so concerned with an unattainable image of perfection in country music? Kacey Musgraves, who comes across as a girly tomboy of sorts, appears on her new album cover with a tiny tight skirt on, and shows a LOT of thigh. This made me sad as soon as I saw it. Why is it, one of the most hyped ‘authentic’ ‘roots’ performers and albums of 2013, and indeed recent years, should still have to advertise herself based on her sex? I don’t want to know what the top of her thighs look like. I want her music to let me see inside her soul and inside mine.
In some ways I feel like the fight for equal footing between men and women in country music, and the fight for independence from the pop music industry and country music retaining its integrity, is one we are losing. And no matter how proud I feel when beautiful Adele or Miranda Lambert take to that stage and flaunts who they are as they want to be, that’s always going to make me sad. Aren’t we better than this?