Girls in Country Songs
by Alice Bolin
The beginning of Maddie & Tae’s video for “Girl in a Country Song” is familiar to any CMT viewer: two sun-tanned hotties in cowboy boots and bikini tops walking on a dirt road, ogled by plaid-shirted men hanging out on their pickup truck’s tailgate. But then we pan past some hay bales to Maddie & Tae, two blonde nineteen-year-olds from Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, holding guitars and rolling their eyes. “Well, I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet,” they sing, “And it’s getting kinda cold in these painted-on cut off jeans.” In the rest of the song, Maddie & Tae not only call out country bros’ clichés, but directly quote and satirize a dozen of the genre’s biggest acts: artists like Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Jason Aldean, who have, taken together, easily held the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart for eighty percent of 2014. This is a brazen move for two teenagers to make in their first single — especially at a time when number one singles by women on the country charts are coming at a rate of one per year.
Country music has been in extreme party mode for going on three years. Nashville producers discovered autotune and drum machines, and country radio transformed into a permanent tequila-fueled dirt-road bonfire bacchanal. In a basic way, “Girl in a Country Song” is meant to address the annoying and gross ways these songs — where singers evoke guys who talk too loud in bars, yell stupid things out of their cars, and are so drunk that they mess up their own pickup lines — talk about women. Maddie & Tae counter a lyric like Florida Georgia Line’s “Slide your little sugar shaker over here” in the only appropriate way: “There ain’t no sugar for you in this shaker of mine,” they sing. “Tell me one more time, ‘you gotta get you some of that’/Sure I’ll slide on over, but you’re gonna get slapped.” As they note later, “Conway and George Strait never did it this way.”
But “Girl in a Country Song,” as it climbs higher in the charts, has bigger implications than pointing out sexism in some country lyrics. The process of releasing the song was incredibly fast: it was written on St. Patrick’s Day and released less than four months later. “The song is so topical and it’s what’s going on right now,” Maddie & Tae told Rolling Stone Country. “It’s like, ‘Gotta get it out there!’” Alternatively, it’s a single like Lorde’s “Royals” that so devastatingly skewers pop music rhetoric that for a moment, the industry is left gaping. “I’m not really familiar with that,” Brian Kelley form Florida Georgia Line crankily told the Chicago Tribune when asked about “Girl in a Country Song.” His anger doesn’t read like that of someone who has been criticized, but of someone whose comfortable throne suddenly seems less secure. “All I’m gonna say about that is, I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song. That’s all I’m gonna say to you. That’s it,” he said. “He’s a dude,” Maddie & Tae responded. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman, or to be a girl in one of those songs.” (In the same radio interview, they were quick to deny any allegations of feminism, though.)
If you watch “Girl in a Country Song” on YouTube, one of the videos suggested in the sidebar will no doubt be RaeLynn’s “God Made Girls.” RaeLynn is another young woman from Texas — not a teenager though, she’s twenty — a product of Blake Shelton’s The Voice juggernaut making her first venture in the country charts. The “God Made Girls” video features an elfin woman on a horse, a ballerina throwing dust (?), Raelynn gazing in many mirrors and dancing around a campfire looking like an extra from Xena, Warrior Princess. “I really wanted it to showcase my personality,” RaeLynn told PopCrush about the video. “I love whimsical things and forests. I’m really into all that. I wanted them to bring that to the table with this music video and show the mystery of a woman.” The song is a saccharine horror show, with RaeLynn singing in a cloying twang, “Somebody’s gotta wear a pretty skirt,/Somebody’s gotta be the one to flirt/So God made girls.” Other reasons for girls’ existence include that “somebody’s gotta be the one to cry” and “somebody’s gotta let him drive.” “Somebody’s gotta put up a fight,” RaeLynn sings, “Make him wait on a Saturday night/To walk downstairs and blow his mind.” Like Maddie & Tae sing about country’s attitude towards women, it’s like “all we’re good for/Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend/Nothing more.”
Blake Shelton’s role as one of the coaches on NBC’s The Voice, a popular reality singing competition, puts country on equal footing with pop, rather than treating it as a niche. This means that country singers, whose audience is extremely loyal, do very well on the show, with one of Shelton’s mentees winning or coming in second in five of the show’s six seasons. It also means that Shelton, in addition to being a huge star, has become a powerful figure in country music; one of the few ways, it seems, for a woman to get into the top fifteen of the country singles charts in the past year was to be one of Shelton’s singers on The Voice, like Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbury, Shelton’s wife, Miranda Lambert, is one of the most (read as: only) prominent women in current country music, and she has definitely benefited from his TV star status. Lambert, along with Carrie Underwood, went to number one this summer with their song “Somethin’ Bad.” They were the first women in a year and a half to do so.
RaeLynn didn’t do particularly well on The Voice — she was eliminated in the third week — but after the show, she was reportedly “adopted” by Shelton and Lambert, staying in their house in Los Angeles and singing on Shelton’s number one hit “Boys ‘Round Here” alongside Lambert’s super group The Pistol Annies. “We’ve already written a song and started another one,” Lambert told a Florida radio station in 2012 about RaeLynn. RaeLynn’s songwriting career has flourished since then — she is signed to megaproducer Dr. Luke’s publishing house, writing songs for pop stars like Becky G. “I wrote that song with three chicks in Nashville,” RaeLynn said of “God Made Girls,” eliding the fact that the “three chicks” were veteran songwriters Lori McKenna, Nicolle Galyon, and Liz Rose. McKenna is a well-known country folk artist who has co-written three top ten country hits in the past year; Galyon is another of Blake Shelton’s The Voice singers who co-wrote five songs on Lambert’s 2014 album Platinum; and Rose was Taylor Swift’s closest collaborator from the beginning of her career, co-writing twenty of her songs. All of these women, including RaeLynn, in other words, should have known better than to write “God Made Girls.”
It’s easy to read a little desperation into the career moves of female country artists and songwriters — is the generally female-free atmosphere of today’s country radio why country legend Trisha Yearwood’s idea of a comeback was getting her own show on the Cooking Channel? So there is some logic to hitching your wagon to one of the most popular men in country and releasing a song more over-the-top sexist than any “bro country” party song. But RaeLynn seems to have topped out at number thirty on the charts, and Shelton’s other protégés, Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbury, were unable to recreate their initial success with follow-up singles. In general, the women who have triumphed in country’s current frat party atmosphere are unapologetic and out for blood — like Lambert, although she usually vents her anger in hyperbolic ways, singing about being a fugitive from the law or shooting her husband.
Maddie & Tae have gained country radio success without Shelton — with a song that makes fun of Shelton — and without a larger-than-life narrative as a palliative to their song’s feminism. Part of the reason for their breakthrough has got to be that when they say, “We love all the artists that we’re picking at, and we love their music. We are fans of ‘bro country,’” you believe them. “Girl in a Country Song” is a masterpiece of the country-hip hop hybrid genre that Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have made their millions on, its drum machine beats and syncopated lyrics mingling with steel guitar and mandolin. As shallow and lazy as recent country party anthems’ lyrics are, the reason these songs are popular is because their production is actually progressive, making savvy use of dance and pop elements to welcome the country listenership to the twenty-first century. “These guys have some incredible tracks,” Maddie & Tae told Rolling Stone Country, “We’re like, ‘We can’t poke fun at them if our song doesn’t live up to how awesome theirs are.’” In seeking to live up to these hits, they’ve innovated on them, showing you can write a country club banger that is smart and self-aware. More of country music’s women should follow their lead — not just in calling male artists out on their bro country bullshit, but in appropriating some of the bros’ style. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to be honest,” Maddie & Tae told Rolling Stone Country, “and hopefully get more females on the radio.”
Country Time is an occasional column about country music.
Alice Bolin is a writer living in Los Angeles.