Image courtesy of Michael Wilson
By Margaret Adams
As a young person, it is not a unique trait to dislike country music – most millennials and “zoomers” have repeatedly expressed a unanimous disdain for the country genre. The reasons for this could be melted down to the typical, tiresome Southern accent and simplistic, out-of-touch lyrics that 2000s country artists generally produce.
This sentiment is understandable; it’s difficult to enjoy a song that details antiquated life of the working class from a man flying in private jets and wearing $3 million cowboy boots.
Country music was not always like this though. The country genre is home to some of the best songwriters in history; Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and George Jones are all country artists who have changed the music industry with their own influences. Dolly Parton particularly has written songs that resonate with the poor (“Coat of Many Colors”) and the working class (“9 to 5”).
The reason these songs resonated with country audiences was because Dolly Parton and other influential country artists of the time came from the working class life that they sing about.
The top country artists of today like Blake Shelton and Kieth Urban continue to sing about the typical Southern working-class lifestyle, full of dirt roads and whiskey, while leading a life of fame and fortune. This could explain why the country genre has become such an undesirable genre for younger generations on digital music platforms, like Spotify.
“U.S. country music doesn’t travel like hip-hop or pop. Every country has its own kind of regional music,” said Lucas Shaw in an article. “The biggest country stars—Combs, Wallen, Blake Shelton and Chesney—aren’t among the 400 most-popular acts on Spotify.”
Despite this, the reasons for younger people having this common bias against country music goes much deeper and is more ingrained in generational causes than many would think.
A study by the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame found that country music has in fact grown out of favor with younger people, and it is likely that this trajectory will probably continue its path. The same study also found that an association between the country genre (music, artists, and fans) and intolerance (racial, religious, and other) causes this rejection of the genre as a whole.
This public association between the culture of the country genre and intolerance is not necessarily unfounded, as many people tend to view the long-standing patriotic theme of country songs negatively, considering our current political backdrop and rapidly changing political standards.
9/11, the Iraq War, and the entirety of the Bush era completely transformed the country genre. The emotional throughline of popular country songs at the time ranged from grief for lives lost on 9/11 to pride in America for not allowing terrorism on our land. Either way, the country genre became a forum of American patriotism; this eventually led to discrepancies between country artists and their audience.
In 2003, a popular country group called The Dixie Chicks, who recently changed their name to The Chicks, were booed off the radios in America when their lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized former president George W. Bush regarding his decision to involve America in the Iraq War. This was a hit that The Chicks have yet to recover from, commercially and economically.
“It began with thousands of phone calls flooding country-music radio stations from Denver to Nashville—calls demanding that the Dixie Chicks be removed from the stations’ playlists,” states a History article. “Soon some of those same stations were calling for a boycott of the recent Dixie Chicks’ album and of their upcoming U.S. tour.”
A study by Gabriel Rossman of Princeton University found that this severe backlash and rejection that The Chicks received came directly from country music audiences, not corporate efforts. Because of this inability to step outside the traditional patriotic images and messages, country fans have since become characterized by younger generations as conservative “hillbillies” that are intolerant and discriminatory.
With this in mind, it is not a coincidence that the kids who grew up during the rise of Bush-era country music have come to view the country genre as a representation of the obstacles blocking the path to social change.
“As opposed to the humanist outlook, the defining feature of populist openness is not so much
wide breadth and selective eclecticism as rejection of elitism and tolerance for the coexistence
of multiple aesthetic forms,” said Michèle Ollivier, professor of sociology at the University of Ottawa, in a study exploring openness to diversity in cultural consumption. “People who express populist openness stress their acceptance of all cultural forms that fall within certain parameters of social or aesthetic tolerability.”
According to this study, the majority’s favored product will more often reflect an openness to diversity and tolerance, which is something that young people do not see in the country genre. This explains why the country genre is not popular among younger generations; “America first” songs in an age when the U.S. government is constantly coming under fire begins to look less like patriotism and more like parochialism and prejudice.
Now, I have always thought this way about country music; this white rural experience is antiquated. It does not attract the audience it did because the audience that popularized country music does not exist anymore (at least online). I thought country music was being written for an audience of people who believe in things I don’t believe in, and that country music was characterized entirely by an effort to exclude anyone that was not white or male.
Contrary to this belief held by many people my age, illustrating the country genre in this light has its consequences. Having this perspective of country music inadvertently overlooks the future of country music that is characterized by promoting the voices of minorities and influences from the return of values of acceptance, respect, and unity.
“It does not matter how many variations of country abound — it’s somehow easier to reduce country to a single dimension,” said Elamin Abdelmahmoud in a Rolling Stones article. “And with that comes along an image of who listens to the music. And more important, who makes it.”
The innovative and transitional spirit of the country genre is being ushered into the sphere of popularity by artists of all backgrounds in ways and in genres we would not expect; dumming the genre down to one dimension ignores the new way this genre is manifesting in this generation.
Kacey Musgraves is a country artist who has received lots of positive recognition from younger generations by changing the way young people view country music. Yola is another artist who has brought a new facet of the genre to light, even after almost a 100 years of country music. Brandi Carlile and the rest of the Highwomen have made it their mission to highlight women’s contributions to the male-dominiated genre of country, and have made some of my personal favorite country music today. Orville Peck is bringing the best of classic country to the forefront through the lens of queer person.
Indie folk artists like Brittany Howards and the Alabama Shakes clearly exude country influence in their own music as well. Even rapper Lil Nas X can attribute country inspirations for his rapid rise to fame in 2019.
There is no doubt that country music has a certain history of enforcing barriers, and that seems to be why our generation doesn’t care for it. Despite this, the country artists of today are breaking down those barriers, and they’re not coming down by themselves.
You can support these artists, while remembering the best of classic country with this Spotify playlist that joins the past and future of country music. Happy listening!