Adam Lawler questions the motives behind the country reinventions of white pop stars.
Popular music is currently split between safe trop-house and forward-thinking hip-hop and R&B, but some of the biggest pop stars in recent memory are occupying that gulf and doing something that would be considered strange in any era: releasing country albums. In 2016 Lady Gaga released Joanne, last year Miley Cyrus released her post-Bangerz jaunt Younger Now, while most recently Justin Timberlake dropped Man of the Woods, a record misleadingly teased as an album of navel-gazing Americana which turned out to be more of an unholy fusion of country tunes and Neptunes beats.
When looking at their respective careers it’s clear to see why they needed a change. Gaga’s EDM-influenced ARTPOP drew no small amount of ire from critics and fans alike. Cyrus’s bad girl affectations could only further her career for so long, while Timberlake, in the wake of criticism stemming from racial insensitivity and appropriation, most likely realised he could no longer reap from the ground which had proved fertile until now. Each move was made for the sake of damage control and course correction, even though this meant abruptly dropping the borrowed elements of queer and black culture that had made up the foundation of their success until this point.
The fact that so many white artists are turning to country music in this political climate is highly suspect.
This would be forgivable if the resulting albums were any good. On Joanne, Gaga drafted in Mark Ronson to produce. This gave the record a scrubbed-clean sheen that aped old sounds without committing to them, transforming even the Father John Misty collaboration ‘Come to Mama’ from an earthy demo into a monstrous exercise in overblown kitsch. The more “stripped back” songs dealt exclusively in generic platitudes and a heavily-affected accent. The emotional richness was summed up in the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two by Gaga’s grandmother. Upon hearing the acoustic title track, about Gaga’s aunt who died of lupus, she admonished her granddaughter for being maudlin over something that happened so long ago and didn’t need dredging up. This was supposed to be Gaga’s step away from provocative antics and into vulnerability, but all she did was adopt the glitzy trappings of a genre to which she had no prior connection.
Meanwhile, Cyrus’s album was a collection of bland, twangy drudges that sounded as though they were produced underwater. Timberlake has used his bloated 16-track chimera to continue coming on to women, but stripped of the R&B context in order to be read in tandem with a culture of chopping wood and pick-up trucks.
In all of this mess, if there is one country reinvention that warrants unexpected praise, it is Kesha’s sublime Rainbow. Like Gaga, Kesha was once a purveyor of sleazy dance songs, but unlike Gaga she has real connections to Nashville through her mother, Dolly Parton songwriter Pebe Sebert, and unlike Cyrus she does not exploit these roots for a calculated career move. There is also the fact that this album was the direct result of Kesha being the victim of an abusive industry, from which Timberlake continues to profit without consequence, and consequently it rang more true in both its catharsis and well-earned humorous touches.
Kesha made a good country-tinged album because aside from being a good songwriter, her intentions were pure. She wasn’t trying to skirt criticism or revive a failing career; she just wanted to be allowed to make good music. The very existence of Rainbow is a political triumph. The same cannot be said for the others, and politics do not occupy the minds of any of the aforementioned stars. The closest they come to making a statement is ‘Angel Down’ from Joanne, which earned Gaga criticism for allegedly retroactively attaching the meaning of the song to Trayvon Martin’s murder, and ‘Say Something’ from Man of the Woods, a centrist anthem in which the central conceit is that maybe saying nothing is better than saying something of worth.
This is not surprising. There is nothing inherently wrong with “going country,” and there was a time when it would have been considered a ridiculous and amusing novelty. However, the fact that so many white artists are turning to country music in this political climate is highly suspect. It practically advertises an aversion to get involved in anything that would alienate the silent majority audience of the backwards USA Rust Belt to whom they are trying to pander with these albums.
It illustrates what happens when pop commodities run out of ideas and panic.
Maybe these stars got too unwieldy and truly wanted to strip it back. Maybe it is about authenticity and getting in touch with their roots, present or not, or more realistically, maybe it illustrates what happens when pop commodities run out of ideas and panic. In any case, one cannot resist the urge to grab them by the shoulders and tell them to read the damn room.