It’s been a strange year. When we came into 2014 publications (such as Country Weekly) were hailing the coming 12 months as “the year of the woman”, with many predicting the fall of that tiresome trend known as bro-country. Others disagreed; our ex-contributor Jason Scott called BS on all of those claims that the clichés were dying down and that the format would see its gender balance readdressed, and I agreed, but it didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from making promises he couldn’t keep about “tasking” his writers to delve deeper. Several months later, bro kings Florida Georgia Line returned with new music, at first with the less-bro ‘Dirt’, that fooled just about everyone into thinking Scott Borchetta was being truthful back in December 2013 when he made that promise. But then, like almost all things in the commercial music industry, it turned out to be just smoke and mirrors, as their resulting sophomore album ‘Anything Goes’ was possibly even more obscenely bro-country than their first. Gone were the pretences about the state of country music.
So where were the women in all this? 2013 saw plenty of women on the fringes of country and Americana release amazing records that thrust them into the spotlight as a group; acts such as Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies and Holly Williams all had celebrated albums that year, that served as some kind of antidote to the bro. When it came to 2014, then, we were a little strapped for options. Miranda Lambert released her fifth studio album ‘Platinum’ and many argued that it was her best yet, with a cut down the middle between commercial and substance-orientated material. It went on to win Album of the Year at the CMAs and be nominated for a Grammy (winner pending), but the singles didn’t fare so well, with myself arguing that much better singles should have been released and weren’t. The promised power female collaboration with Carrie Underwood was something of a dud, and although it produced a great video and some award nominations, it wasn’t the game-changer we were hoping for. Lee Ann Womack returned to the country format, releasing a new album for the first time since 2008’s ‘Last Call’, and ‘The Way I’m Livin’’ was a fabulous bluegrass crossover that topped a lot of year-end lists and was nominated for a Grammy. Yet, it made virtually no impact on the charts. The same went for Angaleena Presley’s debut solo record ‘American Middle Class’, which succeeded at pushing boundaries both sonically and lyrically without getting away from the heart of country, but the ex-Pistol Annies member struggled on commercial radio. Sunny Sweeney was another, signing with Thirty Tigers and releasing the wonderful Texas-cross-country-pop record ‘Provoked’, but typically lead single ‘Bad Girl Phase’ didn’t chart. It’s a big bro world out there.
One success story this year however was Maddie & Tae. The pair (flagship artists on newly-revived Dot Records) released the edgy and bluntly honest ‘Girl In A Country Song’ in July, and with a combination of catchy country-pop credentials and lyrics that poked fun at all the clichés in bro-country, it turned into a #1 hit. Other bro-country themed songs (such as Meghan Linsey’s answer song ‘Try Harder Than That’ and Maggie Rose’s sharp about-turn with pandering ‘Girl In Your Truck Song’) failed to make an impact, just as arrogant, obnoxious dudebros such as Chase Rice were scoring #1 albums with the awful ‘Ignite The Night’ (and ruffling a lot of feathers at the same time). There were plenty of men not releasing bro-country but still doing well in the commercial format, such as new artists Frankie Ballard, Jon Pardi and Brett Eldredge, but they would find they had to lean gently on bro in order to make the biggest impact.
But the biggest story of 2014 was Sam Hunt. In January he appeared on everyone’s radar when he expressed his disappointment that his song ‘Cop Car’ was being performed by its recording artist Keith Urban on the Grammys. It turned out he had wanted the song for himself, but that was neither here nor there as in June he released ‘Leave The Night On’, an R&B and EDM-inspired party song that left bro-country in the dust in favor of a far more hip, modern-facing sound and image. Buzzfeed called him “the country star of the Instagram age”, and they were spot on, his popularity on social media leading to him selling over 68,000 copies in his first week of sales, a huge number for a debut album (‘Montevallo’). He spent a couple of years building on the quiet, and then came out of nowhere with a virtually country-less sound directed at the country market. Critics who asked where we were going next had their answer; Chase Rice, Florida Georgia Line, Jerrod Niemann, Kelsea Ballerini, Jason Aldean, Lee Brice, Dustin Lynch – they all drew from the sound on their respective records, eager to jump on the bandwagon of a sound that had been used in pop 5-10 years previously.
But as we took one in, we gave one back. To a place where she maybe should have been all along, or at least lately. In August Taylor Swift announced that she was releasing her first official pop album, and it was to be called ‘1989’, the year of her birth and the musical inspiration that provided it with a classic synth-pop sound. Swift had grown up, and with the adjustment came a move to New York City, a much higher profile around the world and record-shattering pop smashes such as ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Blank Space’, that only served as soundtracks to her changing look from wholesome to sexy. She began writing op-ed’s for the Wall Street Journal, flashing her buttcheeks at the VMAs, walking the catwalk at Victoria’s Secret and pulling her entire album off Spotify to make a stand against free streaming. Social media was ablaze with conversations (not least about her album that sold 1.289 million copies in its first week, the most for any album since 2002), and she never seemed to be out of the news for yet another reason. But she was playing on the big stage now.
There is so much to consider when trying to sum up 2014. There was auto-tune (Tim McGraw’s ‘Lookin’ For That Girl’ and Jerrod Niemann’s ‘Drink To That All Night’ being examples), country-rap remixes (Florida Georgia Line with Luke Bryan and Jason Derulo on ‘This Is How We Roll’ and Jerrod Niemann with Pitbull on ‘Drink To That All Night’), and an even smaller proportion of women on the charts. With Taylor Swift gone, Miranda Lambert’s team struggling to pick the right singles that would do well on radio (it’s currently been two months since her last single peaked on radio and still no official follow-up), and Carrie Underwood releasing a Greatest Hits album due to pregnancy, the three main women of the commercial format are out of action. Even critics’ darling Kacey Musgraves long ago released her final single from Grammy-winning ‘Same Trailer Different Park’ and is out of the spotlight working on new material. Country radio is a testosterone zone, with only Lucy Hale, Sara Evans and Jana Kramer managing to hold onto the very bottom of the charts, aside from Maddie & Tae in the top 5. Little Big Town (featuring two women) may be enjoying some renewed commercial success with the release of ‘Pain Killer’ and single ‘Day Drinking’, but that’s about to dip with moody ballad ‘Girl Crush’. We’re losing female voices all the time.
So will 2015 be the “year of the woman”? Unlikely. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s editorial on what 2015 holds, but for now contemplate the change that 2014 has brought us, and the effect that 12 months can have. Happy New Year!