Going into this year, my roommate and I knew that we were going to have a happy home. We’d been suitemates freshman year, and we had faith that we could resolve any disagreements that came along. There was just one caveat: I like country music, and like many students here in the North, she most certainly does not. We’ve worked out a convenient system, an unspoken rule: We play music we both love when we’re together, like hits by Ed Sheeran and Adele, and I belt out my country ballads alone.
I come from Pittsburgh, so my love for country music isn’t cultural or regional. Like many people, I never thought I could like country music. All I could picture were cheesy ballads about beer and corn fields.
But in 2015, I went to an international youth group convention and made a new friend from the South. We were hanging out and she played Miranda Lambert’s “Little Red Wagon.” Starting out gritty and slow, but quickly picking up speed, Lambert was belting out lyrics about self-empowerment and being proud. I was hooked.
I’m not thinking about twanging banjos — that’s more bluegrass than I’m looking for. I’m talking about modern country, like Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and the Zac Brown Band. There’s something to be said about how emotional the songs can be despite the all-too-common superficial themes in a lot of country music: alcohol and women. It certainly doesn’t help my case for the genre that my country playlist on Spotify features Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class” and Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into A Bar.”
But not all country music deserves an eye roll. I attempted to convince my friends during a recent road trip from Pittsburgh to New York City. I got control of the radio, and I wanted to demonstrate to my friends that not all country music has to be misogynistic or groan-worthy. I put on Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song.” I thought it was a good choice — the women offer a critique of their own genre, singing about how they “used to get a little respect,” but now have been demoted to mere objects and trophy wives in the songs of some fellow artists.
It did not go well. We barely made it through a minute of poppy acoustic tunes before my radio privileges were revoked.
My love for modern country is a secret I must carefully decide whether to reveal to others, on par with my support of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers. Why is it my friends can proclaim their love for Justin Bieber and One Direction with minimal scrutiny, but when I control the radio, my country picks are immediately accompanied by groans?
I certainly don’t deny that the vast majority of songs playing on the country radio stations and featured on Spotify’s Hot Country playlist contain repetitive lyrics sung by men, who see women for their bodies rather than their brains. I’m a proud feminist whose worth extends far beyond physical looks, and I’d be astounded if those who know me think I could be content with music degrading women. It pains me that those songs seem to represent all country music.
One of my favorite country bands, the group that first got me interested in the genre, is The Show Ponies. I was first exposed to the group through a friend’s playlist, and its music has stuck with me. Rather than the light-hearted lyrics featured on the Hot Country playlist, each song focuses on an internal struggle: failed expectations, being afraid to love, pressure to plan for the future. The meaningful lyrics are surrounded by a folky sound that gives the band a timeless feel.
I will admit the majority of country music could use a serious face-lift. The modern country played on the radio needs to move away from its simplification and objectification of women.
But that won’t keep me from searching out those empowering tunes I keep coming back to again and again. Following the advice of The Avett Brothers, I’ll “decide what to be, and go be it.”
Ruth Oshlag can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.