The Country Music Awards get it all wrong.
In retrospect, the Star Trek-esque logo for this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards was an ominous sign. Don’t get me wrong; my love for Star Trek is bottomless and immense. And there’s certainly room for cross-fertilization between sci-fi and country. But mainstream country’s current tendency toward the new, shiny, clean, and expensive is the reason I tend to turn the dial past WDEN 99.1 when I’m back home. The obnoxious boy-band sound of Rascal Flatts just kills my soul a little bit.
But the strange sight of a space-age visual cue was pretty appropriate. The ceremony was in Las Vegas this year, which is an improvement over New York, but they might as well go ahead and move the whole affair to L.A. The sight of Nicole Kidman on the red carpet for the CMAs inspires a moment of confusion: Was this the Emmys? The Grammys? The Oscars?
Not that it makes a difference. The Oscars and the CMAs are, fundamentally, industry events meant to reward what the industry deems a desirable product. While the Oscars encourages movies that are self-serious to the point of being asinine, judging from this year’s winners, the CMAs support fairly light, sing-a-long-friendly country music.
I can picture the rejection letter: “Thank you, Mr. Williams, but your music about drinking and crying just aren’t what we’re looking for. Besides, your illicit drug use and failure to live up to our family values, in conjunction with your refusal to go to rehab, beg for forgiveness for your sins, or to write songs about the redemptive power of a pure woman’s love, all make you an un-sellable commodity.
Some new voices did manage to break in; some decent music did make it onto the radio and into the nominees. I’ll allow Brad Paisley as Top Male Vocalist, even if he needs to lay off the novelty songs (“Alcohol” was one thing; “Online” is just out of control, and “Ticks” is nothing to write home about). George Strait’s “Give it Away” was a good choice for top song. It’s no “Amarillo by Morning,” but it reminds me of his older work from the early nineties (the golden era of top 40 country, as far as I’m concerned). As a rule, failed marriages make for better country music than happy couples.
This is perfectly illustrated by Carrie Underwood, who, despite her American Idol origins, very much deserved her Top Female Vocalist award. She has a fabulous voice, and “Before He Cheats” is one of the best things I’ve heard on country music radio in a long time. My only gripe is that she won best music video for it, because the video actually detracts from the song. It replaces the violence of the words with shorts of Carrie walking around and dancing very badly, wearing excessive blue eye shadow and exposing bright red bra straps.
The video is an almost laughable illustration of the old saw that says that for male singers you hear the demo first, then look at the head shot; for female entertainers, the head shot comes first, then you listen to her voice. There aren’t nearly enough shots of her busting up her cheating boyfriend’s pick-up, which itself doesn’t look like the suped-up redneck chariot the song encourages you to picture. Where are the Flowmaster stickers? The caked-on mud? It’s not jacked up nearly high enough, either. And why is it in a parking deck? Where is this, downtown Atlanta? I was picturing a rather rougher-looking establishment with a gravel parking lot. Is this Urban Cowboy? I’ll take my country music without John Travolta, thank you very much.
All the positive feelings established by these performances are erased by the CMA’s poorer choices. First, they awarded Rascal Flatts Top Vocal Group. Rascal Flatts isn’t the top anything. Boy bands were an unfortunate trend, period. Then Alabama had to go and make possible the existence of the country boy band, a veritable abomination and the most unnecessary market-created phenomenon imaginable. Rascal Flatts produces whiny adolescent nonsense. Listening to “Stand,” I’ve decided they couldn’t hack it as an emo band and so decamped to Nashville to become rich and famous bilking unsuspecting country music fans. The only thing good I can think to say about Rascal Flatts is that they aren’t Lonestar.
But their recognition of Rascal Flatts was dwarfed by the offensiveness of presenting Kenny Chesney with Entertainer of the Year not just once, but twice. This is the equivalent of desecrating Hank Williams’s grave and spitting on the memory of Johnny Cash. Not only is his Caribbean-dude persona completely unoriginal (stolen from the far superior Jimmy Buffet), it has little or no place in country music. He deals in cheap sentiment, feel-good pseudo-country b.s.
Take “Never Wanted Nothing More,” which is a three and a half minute glorification of the unexamined life. He decides he wants to marry the first girl he falls for, and he does it. He likes what the preacher says, and so he gets saved. Life is so easy! Major decisions are so simple! Everybody, sing along! It might make a great wedding song, but it’s as shallow as a mud puddle, a vision sustainable only in a world absent of pain and discouraging setbacks.
When the Carter Family, the original country music group, went on their radio show in the middle of the Great Depression and started singing about how you have to “Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life,” their lyrics spoke to people as a gentle encouragement, words of hope against a background of the Dust Bowl and the boll weevil. Kenny Chesney’s career is an affront to their memory and the opposite of everything that has historically made country music worth listening to. For shame, Academy of Country Music. For shame.
Kelly Faircloth ’08 (fairclot@fas) thinks a dirt sandwich is better than Kenny Chesney.