OK, kids, let’s talk for a minute about that mash-up of bro country hits going around on the ol’ interwebs right now. Just so we’re all caught up, here it is, in all of its revealing and horrifying glory:
Everyone and his or her fifth cousin is reposting this thing. It’s a pretty damning demonstration of something that the hard-core fans and critics of contemporary country music have been talking about for a while now: the numbing sameness of Nashville’s popular bro country output.
What I haven’t seen as many of my Facebook friends and relations talking about is why these songs all sound the same. The answer is both simple and disturbing. (Don’t worry — links below go to Wikipedia entries about the songs, not the songs themselves.)
Consider the following list of songwriting and producing credits for the songs included in this mashup:
“Sure Be Cool If You Did”– Blake Shelton recorded it; written by Rodney Clawson, Chris Tomkins, and Jimmy Robbins
“Drunk on You”– Luke Bryan recorded it; written by Rodney Clawson, Chris Tomkins, and Josh Kear
“Chillin’ It”– Cole Swindell recorded it and co-wrote it with Shane Minor
“Close Your Eyes”– recorded by Parmalee, written by Adam Craig, Trent Tomlinson, and Shane Minor
“This is How We Roll”– Recorded and written by Florida Georgia Line with Luke Bryan, with a writing assist from Cole Swindell
“Ready Set Roll”– Recorded by Chase Rice, written by Rice with help from Chris DeStefano and Rhett Atkins
So — what do you notice about these songs? I look at this list and notice a whole lot of creative inbreeding, honestly — by which I mean a lot of songs written and produced by a relatively small number of people. All of these records come from labels in Nashville — not an outsider or indie outfit to be found. They are marketed to a particular segment of the mainstream Country audience: the people who listen to the mass conglomerate-owned country radio stations, the ones who watch the shiny, exploitative videos, probably a more urban rather than rural crowd than would have been the case in the past (more on this in a bit). As Nashville itself has grown and gentrified, so has its music.
When you look at the songwriters themselves, you notice some interesting things (be sure to look at the “associated acts” box on those Wikipedia pages). Some, like Clawson, are really professional writers and producers for other artists (Clawson has penned hits for Faith Hill, and seems to specialize in trying to help Jason Aldean make money). Tompkins won a Grammy for writing “Before He Cheats” (recorded by Carrie Underwood, an American Idol winner — this is not an accident). His buddy Josh Kear (cowriter with Clawson and Tompkins on “Drunk on You”) also writes for Carrie Underwood, and wrote Lady Antebellum’s big hit “Need You Now” (which is really obviously a pop song). DeStefano is a songwriter and producer, and makes his living selling songs to everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Rascal Flatts.
Others are singer/songwriter acts themselves, but with a twist. Shane Minor, for example, has written for/with Cole Swindell and Shania “Really a Pop Act, But Never You Mind” Twain. He did not, however, write the song that was his debut single as a recording artist. Trent Tomlinson’s usual writing-for pedigree is usually a bit less bro-oriented, and but he’s the co-writer on all of his most recent successful singles (two of them co-written with Ashe Underwood). Neither of these artists have had the commercial success as performers and recording acts that the people for whom they write have had; Tomlinson struggled to find a record deal, for example, after entering the biz as a junior contestant (and 2nd place finalist) on SpikeTV’s “You Can Be A Star.”
Do you begin to see the problem?
It turns out that there are a lot of reasons why these songs sound the same, and it isn’t just some sort of mass attack of unoriginality. This isn’t art. This is business, you see, and the formula is simple: go with what you know works, and kick it out there in large amounts as efficiently and attractively as possible. Then, when the well runs dry, find a New Thing. In order to do so, you set up systems (social, mechanical, economic) in which the incentives all drive us ultimately toward sameness. Nashville’s mainstream pop-country business is a closed system in which choices are made about which product to promote by people who are not artists, sold by people who are not artists, packaged by people who are not artists, and paid for by the labor of the artists who want in, but who cannot get in without becoming a part of the machine. The result is a labor pool of songwriters and producers (some of them artists themselves) bound up in a system that deploys their work toward the promotion of a product from which they are essentially alienated (why, hello, entfremdung!).
Short version of the above: the business of mainstream Nashville country production is built out of modular systems with interchangeable songwriter parts and shiny, disposable performer parts.
Why do these songs sell? They’re easy, they’re fun, they are tailored very carefully to people who want to cultivate a particular kind of identity — call it the New Urban Redneck tribe (I can’t be the first person to think of this, but I don’t have time to find links right now), people who want the flash and the sophistication of high-rolling city life (and especially the appearance of wealth and concomitant high status) attached to the old-school rural rules for authenticity. They don’t live on the farm anymore, but they remember that someone they knew or were related to once did (corporations own the farms now, anyway). Like rappers and other artists transitioning from niche markets to mainstream pop markets*, they have a certain need to represent “realness” relative to their cultural roots — we made it big, but we still need to keep it real. Jason Aldean still has to be our country cousin, just like Jenny needs to be from the block. The problem of course, is that once you leave the farm, sometimes you don’t really know how to go back, artistically speaking. You only know the signs you remember, not the reality you no longer live (if you ever did). The Connemara of The Quiet Man owes a lot more to John Ford’s romanticized dream of Ireland (the dream of the American-born son of immigrants, raised on stories of the old country) than to the reality of the place.
*There’s a whole lot to unpack about the social forces at work in what makes something “mainstream” that I’m not going into here. Some of it has racial and cultural implications. Explore that puzzle at your leisure, if you like. I’m not doing it right now. Maybe later.