Bro-Country … What the Heck Is It?
In 20 years, fans of country music are going to look back on the era of bro-country like anyone under age 35 today looks back on the urban cowboy craze -- with much amusement and confusion.
“What was it?” they’ll ask with patronizing indifference to someone older that’s clearly looking to talk about it. The answer is … complicated, because over the last 13 months, the definition has shifted.
For the most part, when people utter the term “bro-country” they’re spitting it out like bad milk. Like so many umbrella words, the definition is overwhelmed by the connotation. In that way, you can compare bro-country to socialism and Macklemore -- concepts that when strictly defined aren’t too bad, but because they’re now associated with other ideas (communism and a bad haircut), you’ll be nearly stoned for celebrating.
Like kudzu or the Asian carp, there’s no solution for eradicating the word. It keeps adapting to stay alive.
New York Magazine writer Jody Rosen invented and defined the term "bro-country" on August 19, 2013. But that definition (which we’ll get to) becomes problematic as you read his entire article.
Rosen mostly takes aim at Florida Georgia Line and their mega hit ‘Cruise.’ “The top country hit of all time may, in fact, be the most generic song you’ve ever heard,” he writes in a clever article that makes many valid points. As for his definition of "bro-country"?
Bro-Country: “Music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”
Wait, what? No trucks? No tailgates? No objectification of women? No denim or bottle of something strong under the seat? No open field at the end of the dirt road?
Rosen points out that 'Cruise' (and other FGL songs) includes many of these listed tropes, but stops short of calling any of them necessary for a bro-country song. Thirteen months later, these five tenants are absolutely associated with bro-country. So what the heck happened?
Former Entertainment Weekly writer Grady Smith helped steer country fans off course. He’s the one behind the controversial “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013” video that has nearly four million views on YouTube. Smith has since left EW. His country credentials aren’t clear, but no artist before or after the vid was clamoring for the Grady Smith opinion of their music in the same way they do more reputable writers like USA Today’s Brian Mansfield.
(It’s worth mentioning that Smith left EW two months after the video went viral, and in another YouTube video released in May, he takes a subtle shot at his former boss before denouncing his life as a pop culture enthusiast.)
In three-and-a-half minutes, Smith connected clips of artists singing about trucks, dirt roads, hotties in trucks etc … to argue this was what every song released the previous calendar year was about. A deeper look into the songs that made a difference in 2013 reveals that Smith knows as much about country music as Tyler Farr does about vacuums. His characterization is as fair as saying all women are emotional or all New Yorkers are rude.
But the video went viral, and because it was in the shadow of Rosen’s article, it further put a face on (or perhaps changed the face of) bro-country. The idea of what the problem was -- and there was a problem -- shifted.
Zac Brown didn’t help. When he attacked Luke Bryan’s ‘That’s My Kind of Night,’ he further refined the bro-country definition without using the words “bro-country.” The Beanie was right … Bryan’s hit was not a song like he and his band might embrace, but it was fun in the same way Toby Keith’s ‘Red Solo Cup’ was fun. Nobody nominated it for a Grammy. Nobody seriously thought that was where country was headed. It was the extreme version of a few trends traditionalists hate, however, so it was subject to much, much much ridicule, even though, hey, it's a feel-good listen!
Finally, Maddie and Tae are responsible for Version 4.0 of the bro-country definition. ‘Girl in a Country Song’ objects to the objectification of women in country music. That’s a trend that goes back decades, but the modern male has turned up the volume. The duo is right in saying that women are often portrayed as being only good for "looking good for you and your friends on the weekend" in today's most popular hits, but the slight isn't reserved for bro-country songs, and it's hardly a new idea. They prove that point by mentioning Chris Young's 'Aw Naw' and Blake Shelton's 'Boys 'Round Here.'
Because they dropped in lyrics from songs that the new definition of bro-country bent to include, V4.0 now includes any song performed by a male that’s sexually aggressive, in addition to ones by tatted, young, white Americans and songs about trucks, girls and tailgates. It's unfortunate that Shelton finds himself wrapped in the Maddie and Tae song — there’s not a male in country music that’s done more for women, especially new female artists, than he has over the last five years.
The duo is right in saying that women are often portrayed as being only good for "looking good for you and your friends on the weekend" in today's most popular hits, but the slight isn't reserved for bro-country songs, and it's hardly a new trend.
But it’s all in good fun, right? We’ll find out soon enough. So, what is “bro-country”? Like kudzu or the Asian carp, there’s no solution for eradicating the word. It keeps adapting to stay alive.
Taste of Country staff recently worked to define bro-country and settled on songs that include trucks, some small amount of objectification of women, a clearing at the end of the road where physical affection will take place and some amount of strong alcohol (that one is crucial). We’re not anti-bro-country like so many -- in fact, we’re big fans of a lot of the songs that get stuck with the unfortunate label.
Interestingly, during our mini “Bro-Country Summit,” we never settled on a list of bro-country artists -- only songs.
Rosen's definition does the opposite. Aside from Florida Georgia Line's catalog, he doesn't specifically label too much else as bro-country. Bryan, he says, is "king" of bro-country, even though at 38 years old he's not young, nor is he tatted or gym-toned. Neither is Jason Aldean. He awkwardly lumps Zac Brown into the conversation as well, but defends Jake Owen to some extent.
This definition -- Music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude -- taken verbatim might seem too narrow to include these stars, but today few would argue that each of these artists (except ZBB) haven't released at least one qualifier for a bro-country song list. Combined, it created a quantity problem in 2013: there was too much of a similar sound on the radio. Blaming the artist or songwriters for the problem, however, is like blaming McDonald's for making you fat. Radio, record labels and listeners are ultimately responsible for what's played. How can you blame Luke Bryan for being so popular?
But people do, which goes back to the point of how we use the term "bro-country." The names of nasty ex-lovers are uttered with more compassion. Trucks, tailgates, dirt roads -- artists, tatted or not ... none of these themes really matter, because in the end, the true definition seems to be "anything sung by a country male that I don't like."
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