It’s not easy being a woman in country music these days—whether you’re a real live woman artist trying to get airplay or make it to the top of the charts, or a fictional woman being sung about by a man who’s finding it relatively easy to get airplay and make it to the top of the charts. The genre is pretty dude-heavy. But the guys don’t have it easy, either.
Earlier this year, Billboard, using their year-end charts, took a deep dive into the gender imbalance on the country charts and the disappearance of women from the mainstream and bankable parts of the genre. Last year, the magazine found, “the percentage of women with charting singles in 2014 was the same as it was in 1991, eight percent.” It’s never been higher than 16 percent. Furthermore, “2012, 2013, and 2014 have seen a decline in the proportion of women on the charts so that the current level is comparable to—and in a few cases, lower than—historical nadirs in the Nielsen Soundscan era.”
Unsurprisingly, the historically low levels of women performers making it on the charts—put another way, the historically high overrepresentation of men on the charts—has resulted in some shifts in the way that women are depicted in the imagery, both lyrical and visual, of the genre. In the last few years, “bro country,” a subset of the genre whose songs are mostly about drinking beer on a tailgate with your bros and a bevvy of nameless blonde women (“girls”) in cut-offs and/or bikinis, and being the kind of country boy who chooses a baseball cap over a cowboy hat and a white T-shirt over a button-down, has come to dominate the genre and, often, the charts. Artists like Luke Bryan—“you’re looking so good in what’s left of those blue jeans”—have come to define the subgenre, and in the last year, they’ve been the target of not a little criticism.
The most successful example of that criticism is “Girl In A Country Song,” by newcomers Maddie & Tae, a chart-topping song that skewers the cliches of bro country. The chorus—“being a girl in a country song/ how in the world did it go so wrong?/ Like all we’re good for/ is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend/ nothing more”—is well taken, though the song imagines a faded feminist past for the genre that never truly existed. Still, while it’s necessary to critique how bro country circumscribes the roles of women, it’s also important to consider the kind of masculinity that the subgenre promotes. After all, strict gender norms tend to come in pairs. Being a girl in a country song means being tan-legged, buzzed, and grateful for male attention. What does it mean to be a man in a country song these days?
Contemporary country masculinity is all about working hard, drinking harder, and doubling down on the kind of old-fashioned manliness that is now rejected—or that is seen to be rejected—by hipsters, nouveau bros, metrosexuals, and myriad other manifestations of the decline of manhood. It’s a deeply reactionary vision of masculinity, rooted in class, race, and a desire to define oneself as not a woman and as definitely, absolutely, supremely heterosexual.
Men in country have always been hard workers; the genre has long been the music of the middle and working class. These days, men in country long for the weekend, live for Friday night.
They hate their jobs, unless they work on a farm, in which case they revere their work—for its symbolism, for its inherent and authentic goodness—even though it’s hard. With the extolling of small-town values and the rhapsodic waxing about dirt roads comes the class-conscious assumption that work is a paycheck, not a path to self-actualization. Men in country work hard, but they’d clock out for good at the end of today’s shift if they could.
And when they clock out, they drink. A lot. Right now, five of the songs on the Topsify US Country Top 40 have titles that are explicitly about drinking—“Sangria,” “Day Drinking,” “Drinky Drink”—and the majority of the remaining songs contain references to partying, drinking, the bar, or refer to alcohol brands like Crown and Bud Lite by name. Over on Spotify’s Hot Country list, you’ve got “Sippin’ on Fire,” “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools, “House Party,” and “Hell of a Night”—and again, those are just the songs with drinking and partying references in their titles. This is not new for country, nor is it unique to this genre—I’m pretty sure liquor is Pitbull’s primary food group—but the rise of bro country has resulted in what feels like wall-to-wall songs about throwing it back. And let’s be clear: men in country songs are not swirling Cabernet or sipping rosé. They’re drinking beer and whisky, the manliest of drinks, and they’re drinking it straight from the bottle or the can, or from a red Dixie Cup (why don’t blue Dixie Cups get any love in country songs? An investigation for another day). There’s the occasional concession to Bud Lite—again, mentioned by name—but on the whole, these men drink full-fat domestic beer and Kentucky bourbon. Their masculinity is not just an old-fashioned, hard-drinking kind; it is an explicitly American kind, and has neither patience nor need for foreigners, in the keg or elsewhere. In the case of Luke Bryan’s “Kick the Dust Up,” they do real authentic American farm work, then turn the farm into a party.
The third component of the masculinity espoused by bro country is straightness. Super straightness. Like, flaunting your heterosexual lifestyle, rubbing it our faces, definitely not compensating for anything straightness. In bro country, which, for its current dominance of the rest of the genre, we might as well call “country,” there are no openly gay men. Not in the lyrics, and very rarely on stage. Men are straight, and they spend a lot of time thinking about, talking to, and dancing with women. At bars, at bonfires, on the tailgates of trucks, at the aforementioned house parties, there are always women, and they’re usually drinking, or drunk—and it’s often the men filling the cups. The women are gorgeous, and all the men are staring at them, but it’s the male narrator who “gets” them. Sure, the men go out and party with their boys—country venerates brotherhood between male friends—but they abandon them the moment a pretty girl comes along.
The opening lines of Cole Swindell’s “Let Me See You Girl” are a perfect example: “You’ve got every guy in here/ spinning around, spilling their beer/I bet you came out to have a good time/ so what you say we leave your friends with mine.” The chorus is about how the girl in question is “tearin’ that dance floor up,” and Swindell wants to see her do it “on the bed of [his] truck.” The night, Swindell sings, “has been waiting on us.” It’s been a long week and they’ve both worked hard, and now they’re drinking, and Swindell is making his move—leaving his brothers behind and winning the girl away from all the other staring, desiring, very straight men.
This is what masculinity looks like in country today: work hard in a “real” job, blow off steam drinking and ogling women with your boys, then demonstrate your heterosexuality by picking one of them up. As Noah Berlatsky wrote in this magazine earlier this year, the male gaze has become central to the genre’s authenticity. “To be normal, to be real, to be rural, to be unaffected on country radio … You just have to be a guy who likes staring at women.”
Country music wasn’t always like this. Throughout the history of the genre, there have been multiple ways of being a man; you could be a highwayman, or a domestic abuser, to be sure, but you can also be a heartbroken crying cowboy or a loving father. The only emotion bro country truly permits men to express is lust (as long as it’s straight lust). There are some songs that make it high on the charts without resorting to the work hard-drink hard-be aggressively straight triumvirate required by bro country, but they’re few and far between.
So often, when we talk about gender equality, we talk about changing women’s roles, with little attention paid to the shifts in masculinity that are required to accommodate that change. Country music doesn’t make that mistake; it sees the way masculinity is changing in America, and it wants no part of it. In “I’m Still A Guy,” a Brad Paisley song that’s now a few years old, Paisley sings about how “it’s hip now to be feminized.” Men, Paisley complains, are “lining up to get neutered,” with their “deep spray on tans and creamy lotion-y hands” that prevent them from gripping a tackle box. The song seems to celebrate the duality of masculinity—Paisley will “write a love song that makes you cry/ then turn right around, knock some jerk to the ground/ ‘cos he copped a feel as you walked by”—but it’s really a reaction to loosening notions of masculinity, to the allowance and expectation that men express their emotions, consume high culture, and care about their appearance. “I don’t highlight my hair/ I’ve still got a pair … My eyebrows ain’t plucked/ there’s a gun in my truck/ oh thank God,” Paisley concludes, “I’m still a guy.”
Likewise, bro country sees the shifting norms around masculinity, and is actively pushing back against it. In this reactionary view of the world, women are girls—drunk, hot, ogleable girls—and men are real men, who work hard, drink harder, ogle women, and get laid. None of this nuanced masculinity, thanks, where men can contain multitudes.