I am woman enough to admit that this review may have been cultivated from a field that has been growing predominantly negative opinions of modern country for several years now however, those seeds of hatred have been sown amidst a childhood and adolescence not far removed from the stock of the country genre itself. Raised in a 100-year-old farmhouse with cows on every side of us, a church on every street corner, and staunchly upheld sports rivalries, I am acutely aware of the influence of contemporary country music within its target audience, and yet I still can’t bring myself to sincerely “enjoy” it.
In 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the idea of the “male gaze,” originally focusing on: “the way that film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual differences,” (Mulvey, 1). Though Mulvey originally explored how film depicts masculine and heterosexual stereotypes of women, contemporary lyrical music frequently falls victim to the same hypersexualized storytelling, and this is where my qualms with the country music industry begin. Clad with a dazzling smile and a scruffy beard, Luke Bryan seems to be some sort of paragon of male perfection for countless middle-aged women and young girls alike, despite the abominably objectifying lyrics he shoves into his catchy, pop-inspired guitar melodies. His 2011 success “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” has over 103,000,000 streams on Spotify and is brimming with innuendo. The track starts with Bryan’s throaty voice half whispering, half heckling: “Hey girl, go on now! You know you've got everybody lookin.’” It’s quite a presumptuous request—insinuating that this woman owes him something because he finds her attractive. Phrases like, “Tangle me up like grandma's yarn,” are surprisingly raunchy for a song riddled with banjo and carried along by a kick drum. The rock guitar seems to furnish the illusion that this song is in some way progressive, but the lyrics stick to the stale formula of most contemporary country: a beautiful woman’s only purpose is to be a sexual object for men.
“Play It Again” can’t even wait until the third line to acknowledge the (female) subject’s “…tan legs swingin’ by a Georgia plate,” and the rest of the track doesn’t attempt to redeem itself. 85% mind-numbingly repetitive chorus, “Play it Again” determinedly projects idealistic male conceptions of female presence and behavior with little variation in musical form. It isn’t lyrically or melodically interesting in any way, especially by the eighth iteration of the phrase: “Play it again, play it again, play it again,” which also happens to occupy the tonal range of a children’s recorder. Things don’t improve by Bryan’s 2017 album, “What Makes You Country,” either. The track “Light It Up” is particularly atrocious, detailing what appears to be fully fledged cell phone obsession with a romantic partner post argument. “I wake up, I check it/I shower and I check it/I feel the buzz in my truck/And I almost wreck it,” he garbles, struggling to conform the pitiful lyrics to the stilted, electronic beat. Even admitting to neuroticism, Bryan seems to believe there is some sort of pathos to be found in his storytelling.
Bryan attempts to make things a little more wholesome with “Most People Are Good,” but only succeeds in producing a twee amalgamation of hand-me-down moral codes your archaic grandpa might proudly spout off at the family BBQ. Bryan lovingly endorses the phrase: “…most mamas oughta qualify for sainthood,” which, at the very least, attempts to give women some recognition, but feels so 1950’s that it almost doesn’t count as a step in the right direction.
Perhaps I would find modern country a bit more pleasing if it chose to shirk the “beers, trucks, women” stereotype that we all attribute to the genre.
Nevertheless, it appears to almost subscribe to it! Gone are the days of Dolly Parton challenging the male-centric business world in “9 to 5;” I haven’t heard Johnny Cash mourn the life of “A Boy Named Sue” for ages, and even Carrie Underwood’s manic, girl power battle cry, “Before He Cheats” has been relegated to the 2000’s mega hit list, losing all semblance of its country label in favor of a slot in the ‘Drunk Girl Karaoke Hall of Fame.’ I’ll be waiting more patiently than Luke Bryan has for anything in his life for the return of country music that really means something again, but until then I’ll just ponder the meaning of “Tryin' to pour a little sugar in her Dixie cup.”
By Kyanna Bren, Winter 2018
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
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