On the Painful Degeneration of Country Music into Pop
“You say you’re the real deal
But you play what nobody feels
You sing about Johnny Cash?
The man in black would’ve whipped your ass…”
— Eric Church, Lotta Boot Left to Fill
Whether it’s the sanitized horrors of modern architecture or the descent of literature into corporate feminist screeds on “how to be a bawse,” it’s clear that culture is in steep decline. Grocery stores used to have a variety of products, now most items are subsidiaries of large multinational brands and liquor stores are full of corn syrup beer. Cultures that used to be genuinely different now all must fit into the ‘multicultural’ framework and slotted into some grandiose White liberal mosaic. Even entertainment used to include a wide range of options, now it’s Netflix and politically correct shrews like Stephen Colbert or ‘clapter’ scolds like Samantha Bee relentlessly pushed by our cultural betters.
Then there’s music. For the most part, it just keeps getting worse — more generic and more intolerable. Nowhere is that more true than in the country genre. Once a distinctive American musical style that arose out of Appalachia and a mixture of Celtic music and blues, country has increasingly become a bland form of pop with no unique or redeeming characteristics. The great writing, twin fiddles and a steel guitar are gone. A world-weary voice that’s still somehow comforting: replaced by a bratty frat boy singing about slamming beers and how hot his girl looks tonight (with a few references to Johnny Cash or chewing tobacco).
These complaints of country music becoming too repetitive, boring and clichéd are nothing new. The charge, after all, was already being widely leveled in the mid-1980s. What’s different now, though, is that we’re at a whole new level.
As a longtime country music fan (who once even had plans to move to Nashville to be a songwriter), I do like some regular, mainstream country… or at least I did. The problem is not with country being formulaic: the formulaic nature of country songwriting and its lyrical twists (often taking a popular saying or rhyme and riffing on it to make a surprise pun or twist) are part of what makes it so great. It is not with melodic repetition either: after all, the genre is just three chords and the truth. The problem is that country music has dropped most of the instrumentation and style that ever made it ‘country music’, thus becoming “a narrow horizon,” full of lazy songwriting, lousy singing and an ersatz ‘bro-country’ pop sound.
In other words, it went from telling the truth to just spouting endless clichés.
From Loretta Lynn, George Strait and Randy Travis to Alabama, and more obscure artists like Bryan White (Rebecca Lynn), mainstream country of past decades (and before) has stuck to the tried and true. Sure, many artists already began using more synthetic production by the 1980s, but at least the style and subject matter retained some loyalty to the genre. Now, it has simply gone plain off track, to the point that future generations will barely be able to know what real country ever was — from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.
As Grady Smith pointed out, “country music has been taken over by snap tracks” that use a copy-paste mid-tempo beat, crappy half-rapped lyrics and formulaic hooks to score cheap hits. Pop-country singers like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift helped make the genre palatable to mainstream audiences on MTV — and it’s only gone downhill ever since. The genre is being rapidly replaced; the real fans left behind. Many songs no longer even tell a story: wordplaying and name-dropping a laundry list of country items from John Deere to guns to Bibles, without actually having them add up into an… actual song. The rest are even worse — generally revolving around being horny, or drunk, or both.
From songs like Sam Hunt’s Body Like a Backroad to Thomas Rhett’s What’s Your Country Song? and Kane Brown’s Worship You, today’s country is a long list of forgettable, cringeworthy pop offerings. (Let’s just say that Thomas Rhett is a long way from Rhett Akins.) As Falon Sellers notes, most of the genre’s mainstream songs “only continue to fill country stereotypes of dirt roads, bonfires, going to the creek, jacked up trucks, drinking beer, and women in tight jeans. These songs are simply about promoting the stereotypical country lifestyle, instead of actually being country.”
After undergoing its ‘frat boy’ phase in the mid-2000s, country has entered the post-country era: eaten up by backwards-hat young people like candy corn, this fake, new version has only continued to gain in popularity during the pandemic, and it’s unlikely to shift gears anytime soon. The degeneration of the genre is like watching peer pressure take hold on a global level, except instead of everyone doing drugs they’re doing a whole lot of cringe (and probably quite a bit of drugs, too). As Benjamin Roberts writes reflecting on the global growth of pop: “as capital’s sonic handmaiden, pop obliterates particularist traditions, cordoning off their pasts and futures. Different cultures produce their own pop, but the gaudy sets, aesthetic palettes, sexual magnetism, and rhythmic hypnotics are all the same.”
Today, tractors, trucks, hot country girls and ice-cold beer are simply jumbled together for audiences who are expected to be hopped up by default, as terrible movies like 2009’s Crazy Heart help introduce another folk-oriented fake version of the genre. Roberts further writes: “Place is reduced to a set of superficial signifiers, deployed as placating winks to the cultures they replace… No one has fought pop and survived for long.”
Yes, there are still exceptions. But the point is to examine what’s charting and being promoted. There’s plenty of good country left, but what’s being pushed by the entertainment industry is mostly a fake version of the genre that has become a form of its own parody. The rare deeper track from an artist like Miranda Lambert (The House That Built Me) or Kenny Chesney (Back Where I Come From, Don’t Happen Twice) soon gets overshadowed by replaceable follow-up hit singles about bars or beaches (although to be fair, Chesney’s turn to Caribbean sounds and subject matter has been quite good at times.)
While artists like Eric Church, Josh Turner, Riley Green and Granger Smith (just to name a few) have managed to chart mainstream success with a catchy sound that still incorporates traditional country elements and genuinely strong songwriting, far too many others have jumped ship and started pumping out spoofy, styrofoam country. (Sometimes you just want to sit back and blast Grandpa Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days). Even many country artists who started out with engaging traditional styles, like Luke Bryan, Joe Nichols and Toby Keith started going off track in the mid and late-2000s, right into pure plodding puff and forgettable party anthems — dropping the sound and storytelling format in favor of bland pop production and inane writing.
Take your favorite genre of music, and ask yourself, has it not gone downhill and become more generic and low-quality in the past twenty years? What about your hometown? Your favorite TV show. Your favorite brand. Your favorite car. Your favorite person… If you feel like this article is starting to come across as one big country song, you’re starting to get the right idea.
Whether you hate country music or love it, the mongrelization and f—boyization of the genre holds a broader lesson for Western civilization. The solution to global descent into sameness and mediocrity is simple: stop letting the market be the sole arbiter of artistic merit. The snarling trash that is increasingly being offered to us must be declined in favor of music that truly speaks to us. The charts can keep doing their thing, but let’s stop playing along, if we avoid all the ‘right music’, we might still have a shot at saving country. But we must start by leaving behind what the genre has become.
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Paul Brian is a freelance journalist and writer currently based in Brazil. His website is paulrbrian.com.
Cover photo from Thomas Rhett's "What's Your Country Song (Official Video)"