Feminism in Cut-Off Jeans

Posted on Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Country music has long been stigmatized as a genre composed primarily of white, heterosexual, rural men. This popular misconception of the genre impacts our ability to understand who really has an interest in making and listening to country music. Part of this issue is linked to the small number of women participating in the industry as singers, songwriters, musicians, and producers. Even if they are very active in Nashville, you will rarely hear them on the radio. Jada Watson, professor at the School of Music, researches this phenomenon, studying how the male-run industry has created structures that limit the space available for women in the genre.

Professor Watson did not start as a country music scholar, nor was she a country music fan growing up. This former grunge-enthusiast has become a key researcher in the field, but with an unusual path.

She started her M.A. at the University of Ottawa to work on Russian music in 2006, focusing on censorship in Soviet music. In one of her graduate seminars, taught by Professor Roxane Prevost, she wrote a piece about the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice” video and song, discussing censorship the famous country trio faced after lead singer Natalie Maines’ controversial political statement about President Bush in 2003. “I wrote that piece for a graduate seminar and went to a couple of international conferences with it and I felt like a sense of immediacy and urgency with that project that I had never felt before. I felt like it needed to be done, and it changed my path.”  She then published the article with her long-time mentor, Dr. Lori Burns, Director of the School of Music. Jada Watson completed her M.A. thesis on Russian music and the scholar has been working on country music ever since.

Professor Watson currently researches the connections between country music and geography, and has also been working on a project that focuses on issues related to gender-equality in the genre.

“[Country music] isn’t gender inclusive, there needs to be a significant shift in industry practices,” Professor Watson explains. “There are so many women participating in country music as singers, songwriters, musicians, and producers—but you won’t hear many women on radio.”

She corrects her previous statement. Women do have a dominant presence in the country music world, but it translates into the way male artists portray them in their songs. The way they should look, how they should behave: “They are dancing, sitting on the hood of a truck, going in the water, but they are not given an identity or a voice”.

In a May 2015 interview, radio consultant Keith Hill boldly stated that “playing two women back to back on a country radio is a no-no, and playing more than two women in an hour was against the rules.” His comments consequently harmed the commercial aspect of women in radio, but he defended his choice of words by saying that it had been an industry practice for a long time. For him, female country music artists are the “tomato” in the otherwise “lettuce-only” salad that is country music – the reason we call this event the Tomato-Gate. Leading female artists took to social media eruption after Hill’s interview. What you’re seeing is a strict quota system on country music stations that limits the place of women to just 15% of the programming. Professor Watson has been working with Billboard’s long-running Hot Country Songs chart to investigate how this quota system has impacted chart performance of female artists between 1996 and 2016. Over the course of this 20-year period, women debuted just 25% of the songs on the Hot Country Songs chart, while men were responsible for 70.8% and male-female ensembles for the remaining 4.1%. Her work has found that the presence of women in the genre has declined gradually over this period, from about 23-27% of the songs debuting in the late 1990s to 13% by 2016. The figures become more drastic in the chart’s #1 position—dropping from 37% of the chart topping hits in 1996 to just 13% in 2016. Although harmful and discriminatory, Tomato-Gate has raised public awareness about the long-standing issue surrounding gender representation on country radio, and has created space for female artists to speak openly about their experiences.

 

 

No. songs

Percentage

No. artists

Percentage

Male (solo/group)

3,027

70.8%

407

62.2%

Female (solo/group)

1,072

25.1%

207

31.7%

Male-female ensembles

174

4.1%

39

6.0%

N/A (Hampster Dance)

1

0.0%

1

0.1%

TOTAL

4,274

 

654

 

Percentage of songs and artists debuting on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, 1996-2016


Female artists have had to work within a set of unspoken boundaries to exist within the country music industry. Artists like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, for example, took to social media to challenge this industry practice. These two rising country stars are advocates for the place of women in the industry, and both found their success by developing their careers outside the traditional channels—like radio. Musgraves’ sound is without a doubt one that does not fit within the traditional country mould and Morris’ greatest success has been her collaboration with pop/electronic duo with Zedd. A radio programmer once told the singer-songwriter not to release “I Could Use a Love Song” because country ballads by women wouldn’t sell. A year later it was Morris’ first number one hit. Both women have challenged industry constructs, and found their own paths outside of mainstream radio to develop their loyal fan bases.

Although the two artists have a crucial presence in the media, “Cam has become the most socially conscious young artist. Her song “Diane” presents a women’s apology to her boyfriend’s wife after discovering he was married. While cheating songs are common in country music, you won’t hear many cheating songs by women on the radio because the genre’s majority male programmers believe that the largely female audience doesn’t want to hear women sing about cheating. This song gives value to women’s stories and has challenged that misconception—becoming one of Cam’s most popular singles” explains Professor Watson. The young singer-songwriter is a leading voice in the Tomato-Gate movement, participating in events organized by Change the Conversation, a Nashville based coalition of all women who creates a safe space to encourage and mentor young female singers and songwriters. Their logo, you ask? A tomato, of course.

“There is a bright side to this issue. Since women don’t really have anyone to answer to in terms of radio airplay, they have more freedom to make bolder statements in their art”, professor Watson clarifies. “But you won’t hear them on the radio.”

Although Professor Watson doesn’t expect the change to come easily, she believes that with the help of “journalists and scholars who are interested in spotlighting these issues, and artists who dream of a more gender- and race-inclusive country industry”, country music will gradually rewrite its own narrative.

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