Country music is understood by the modern mainstream as being a stagnating genre. Post era of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, progressive politics within Country music has seemingly vanished in favour of what could be described as ‘stadium’ or ‘bro’ Country music. This ‘bro’ Country music leans heavily on the established cultural norms of male dominance and heteronormativity, and can also be blamed for the emergence and over saturation of drum machine loops in the Country music genre. The painful homogenisation and consequent stagnation of Country music sound are explored extremely well in this video essay by Grady Smith and can be considered indicative of a larger cultural issue with the genre. This issue is the simple fact that Country music is determined to assimilate into a pseudo-pop genre of music.
With Country’s slow slide into a mainstream pop genre, a slide which is neatly embodied in Taylor Swift and has been criticised by many older Country music artists and genre purists, the genre has been thrust into the mainstream spotlight. Consequently, the questionable politics and conservative cultural messages that have characterised most of the genre for the last 30 years are being scrutinised. Particularly, the almost existential question of whether or not Country music can accept and incorporate queer experiences and identities into the culture of the genre.
Country music has long been unfairly considered not only conceptually opposite, but also ideologically opposite to queer culture. Culture studies academics understand the historical stereotype of queer identity, and in particular, gay identity, as being associated with metropolitan, coastal, bourgeoise lifestyles. This stands as ideologically opposed to both the historical roots and modern audience of Country music, which still remains today as being overwhelmingly working-class, provincial, and conservative. Thus, up until this thrust into the popular limelight, Country music has mostly resisted the popular and political shift towards the normalisation and incorporation of queer voices in culture. Instead, choosing to continue pushing out stagnant heteronormative song after stagnant heteronormative song.
Country music and a queer identity have been likened to oil and water. Many queer people feel threatened, displaced, or unaccepted within the hyper-masculine, heteronormative culture projected by Country music. Conversely, but obviously, less justifiably, much of Country music’s target audiences feel threatened and alienated by what they don’t understand about queer culture. This oil and water phenomenon has resulted in Country music and queer identity existing parallel to each other, in the same cultural plane but never making any real attempt at intersecting.
This parallel lines attitude to queer culture and Country music has only encountered any change as a result of forced efforts from queer Country artists to marry their authentic selves with the genre they love. Dragging the genre kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Country stars such as Chely Wright and Ty Henderson came out in 2010 and 2014 respectively to mostly acceptance, even if some of it begrudging. There is also emerged a marked shift in the Country community from mere acceptance to some tentative celebration of LGBTQ+ experiences. Kasey Musgraves, a current giant in the Country genre having won six Grammys, has made herself known that, although cis and straight, stands as a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. Her 2013 hit ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was co-written with openly queer artists Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally and had been widely considered a song of queer acceptance, particularly evident with the chorus lyric ‘Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s something you’re into’.
The celebration of queer identity in Country is also coming from queer Country singers. Steve Grand, an openly gay Country artist has become a pioneer in the Country music genre with being one of the few artists to shoot a music video with two men in a romantic relationship. The representation in Grand’s videos such as that in ‘All-American Boy‘, has been integral to not only normalising the romantic relationship between same-sex couples but also legitimising queer romance within the Country genre.
Country music is historically a storytelling genre, leaning into emotionally heavy and lyrically dense thematic material such as romantic relationships, both budding and broken. Thus the incorporation and visualisation of queer couples work to almost subconsciously legitimise both Grand as a Country artist, but also the queer Country experience.
Country music has too long been defined by its cultural stagnation and refusal to adopt progressive politics. It feels as if the genre is at an ideological tipping point. Should Country continue to progress towards a more pop sound, attracting more and more mainstream fans in its wake, there will be no room for the stifling conservative beliefs that have been so dominant in the last 30 years of the genre’s history. Where it might once have seemed that Country music and queer identities were destined to never meet, doomed by the heteronormative and homophobic cultural history of Country music, the ever-growing cast of queer and ally Country music artists are now forcing a change to the narrative. A new-wave, progressive era of Country music is pressing down and shining through the cracks of the homogeneous, drum beat-loop, ‘bro’ heavy Country songs. Its been a long time coming but the era of queer Country might finally be upon us.