Throughout country music’s history, it has struggled with its links to commercialism, and particularly from the late 1950s with the CMAs efforts to make the music more widely accessible and Chet Atkins with the ‘Nashville Sound’ to increase sales among pop fans, some fans argue that country has lost its ‘soul’. Every year it seems there are new critics claiming the end of the genre, and as pop music moves on sonically, so does country music, the two inextricably linked. In this respect from a young fan looking back it feels as though country has become more and more pop as time has gone on, when in reality it has more or less stayed in a very similar relationship/ratio to pop music since the 1960s. Having said that, from the time of country’s conception as a genre recorded in studio, sold as a commodity, and played to paying audiences, it has had links to commercialism and the pop sector, back in the early days that being Vaudeville (to a huge degree) and Tin Pan Alley (to a lesser degree but still notable).
So the critics make me laugh when they claim that country was pure, then suddenly it wasn’t, because a couple of instruments were changed. Nowadays a lot of them claim the Nashville Sound, full of smooth strings and non-twangy voices that directly contrasted Honky Tonk, was the authentic, pure stuff, and I suppose that is how it sounds compared to today’s offerings. However, country music is not so much a musical genre as an identity, the identity of millions of Americans and people around the world, including myself. And identities are fluid and include many different things, which is what makes country a meta-genre, an ‘umbrella’ genre covering a wide variety of offshoots. For example, bluegrass and Southern rock. They’ve got pretty different identities, yet they’re still called ‘country’, and we can see that from various country charts over the years, who’s been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, etc. So identities change over a long period of time, and while I’d call myself a big country fan nowadays, what I identify myself with now is not what was on offer many years ago, and maybe I wouldn’t have called myself a big country fan if I were alive back then. That’s not to say I don’t like or appreciate older country music, because I do, but I tend to prefer more modern stuff simply because people tend to prefer the sounds and music they grew up with. I was thirteen when I discovered country music in the form of Carrie Underwood and such, so even though now I wouldn’t listen to people who sound like her, I still listen to her because I always have and I like her because of it. If that makes any sense?
But even as a modern country fan I can’t help but get get up in the pop vs country debate. I love pop music but I want my country artists to remain country because that’s how I like them. If I wanted to listen to pop music I’d listen to one of the pop artists I already like. There’s few artists who I really really love and so if one of them ‘goes pop’ as they say then it’s really disappointing because I’m losing the country music they made and I’m losing the person I thought they were, the person I identified with and related to. So that’s why most people get angry when country artists ‘go pop’. But I’ve also noticed that country music’s identity has been changing.
Today, I looked at GAC’s top 20 country countdown chart (5th October-12th October) and at least half of those in the top 10 were leaning towards pop, totally pop in some songs (Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Carrie Underwood – Blown Away and Lady Antebellum – Wanted You More are prime examples). True these were just chosen by GAC but the actual Billboard country charts were fairly similar, if slightly more ‘country’ as I currently understand it. In addition, I looked at the recently-debuted list of the Top 40 Pop Songs Artists 1992-2012 (radio airplay). Jewel and Taylor Swift were 40 and 39 (I’m aware Jewel was not always trying to be country), but there were no other artists on the list who could really be considered country at all, and this surprised me, because I expected there to be at least 7 or 8. Shania wasn’t even on the list, despite breaking a lot of records with her album sales. So clearly although this is a list of the ‘pop music elites’ country really hasn’t had that much of an impact, so it’s almost as if its efforts to be pop and crossover have been in vain because the airplay hasn’t gone with that, despite the magnitude of country-only stations across the country. So it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because I do like a good twang and a good country/southern rock sound and the fact that I see artists ‘going pop’ in order to crossover every day and they’re not even getting what they’re doing it for just makes me really sad. Of course, we haven’t seen a chart of sales, which may tell a different story.
Perhaps the ‘real’ country releases just aren’t good enough to do better in the charts than the pop releases. It’s possible. Perhaps the amount of pop fans buying the countrypop records are making the charts the way they are, and country fans are doing their best. The fact is, pop fans greatly outnumber country fans still, and although some people see this as a bad thing, I see it as a good thing. The whole point of country is to be this slightly independent thing, separate from the mainstream, because it feels more special that way. The country industry is booming and needs no extra support so I would rather it not get any more successful, to be honest. Unfortunately, that means the charts are telling the record companies to make more countrypop records, and although there is a space for that kind of music, there needs to be more twang around here, don’t you think?
As for the future, I’m unsure. Pop music will chop and change again and country will follow it. I have a feeling it will become ‘more pop’ than before, or maybe just appear it to me because I’ve grown up and set my ‘standard’ for what country music is. Who knows. All I know is there will always be people making good music, whatever you may feel is ‘good’ music, there will always be something to appeal to you and that’s the beauty of the technology-orientated world that we currently live in. It’s cheap and easy to produce music of any kind and even easier to access your audience.
So although it does bother me, I know ‘my’ country music will always be around to cheer me up. And so will yours.
Vickye Fisher – CMTT Music Contributor
For my blog that examines issues in country music and responds to the latest news with my opinion, go to forthecountryrecord.tumblr.com. For ranting, funny retweets and all round silliness, follow me on Twitter @planmymistake