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The (31) Number One Female Country Songs since 2004: Summed Up by Yours Truly

2014-01-27_cw04-coverIn January, Country Weekly claimed 2014 to be the Year of the Woman in country music.

I replied with a new piece for The Ethos Review about how 2014… isn’t. Going. To be.

[O]ver the last ten years, songs by female artists make up only ten percent of country music’s number one hits (31 of 289). If that weren’t enough, these songs reached number one in part because they perpetuate country’s female stereotypes: 22 of them follow the cash cow country music narrative in which women do nothing but long for men, fall for “bad boys,” and marry uber-young.

Yes, I’m picking on country music for an issue that occurs in other genres. But country’s got an extra special dearth of gender equality. (Also, the Country Weekly headline kind of asked for it.)

The (31) Number One Female Country Songs since 2004:

(Total Number One Country Songs since 2004: 289)

2004 (4 out of 18)

Redneck Woman, Gretchen Wilson – In which the narrator confirms for all country-listening men that women are exactly what they think: happy in a small town, and ready to have sex. And babies.

Somebody, Reba McEntire – Listeners are encouraged to find a life-long love among whomever they happen to regularly run into in their small town.

Girls Lie Too, Terri Clark – Here women are empowered not by actually having power, but by lying to please the men who do.

Suds in the Bucket, Sara Evans – A country music favorite: young marriage. An 18-year-old falls in love and gets married, right out of daddy’s house.

2005 (3 out of 19)

My Give A Damn’s Busted, Jo Dee Messina – One of a few #1 hits in which a woman is not only angry at her man, but willing to leave him. For that, kudos.

Mississippi Girl, Faith Hill – in which Hill assures her fans that she really hasn’t had ambitions beyond her small town, and even if she’s “pursuin’ her dreams,” she’s (really truly she promises) exactly the same as she was back in Mississippi.

A Real Fine Place to Start, Sara Evans – In which Evans confirms that small town country gals really are enamored of men who whisk them off for sex out under the stars. In the bed of a truck, one assumes.

2006 (2 out of 22)

Jesus, Take the Wheel, Carrie Underwood – in which the narrator gives control of her life back over to God. Advocating for Christian faith is part of a longstanding recipe for country success, so this doesn’t stray from any Country Expectations. But no real complaints.

Before He Cheats, Carrie Underwood – This narrator is willing to do anything to get back at the man who’s cheating on her… except leave him. The song gives the impression of badassery, only to affirm the woman’s dependence on her cheatin’ man. She can mess up his truck, but she apparently can’t go anywhere. The song (and its video) also manages to make female revenge sexy rather than legitimately threatening. #revengefail

2007 (3 out of 25)

Wasted, Carrie Underwood – A rare anti-settling, anti-just-getting-wasted-to-deal-with-things song that made #1. Kudos.

So Small, Carrie Underwood – A nice “everything will be alright if you focus on love” tune that repeats a great deal of trite Christian genre content. Nevertheless a step up from high fivin’ with beers around a truck on a back road. Does not in any way stray from country music standards, but – no real complaints.

Our Song, Taylor Swift – In which the narrator confirms every male country writer’s notion of the ideal girl: the one who wants to go for a drive (she rides shotgun, obvs) and sneak behind her parents’ backs with a boy of whom they apparently disapprove. Pair with the 1st verse to the Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” for a match made in country heaven.

2008 (5 out of 25)

All-American Girl, Carrie Underwood – The antithesis of Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round” in which a girl falls in love at 16, assumes this boy is the best she’ll find, and gets married in a hurry – causing her boyfriend to lose his “free ride” to college. His dismissal of college in favor of youthful marriage (and a Musgraves-ian “having two kids by 25”) is celebrated as being all-American. (Also note that the girl herself has zero college aspirations. Marryin’ Young + Childbearin’ = All American Country Girl.)

Last Name, Carrie Underwood – Again, Underwood reps women as precisely the sex-eager fantasy girls represented in most male-penned country hits: girls who “lose their manners” over alcohol, get themselves lured into casual sex with who-cares-whom, get married in a rush, and have little to say later but “oh darn.”

Should’ve Said No, Taylor Swift – Ah! A woman who tells a cheatin’ man both what he should have done AND that she won’t give him a next time to do it. Kudos.

Just a Dream, Carrie Underwood – In a saccharine lyric playing on both young country love and military valor, a female narrator gets married as soon as she turns 18 (big surprise), and two weeks later her man has died in combat. Note that the young man is depicted as doing something quite honorable, while the young woman’s role is simply to wait back at home for him.

Love Story, Taylor Swift – In which Swift falls prey to the country-hit method of celebrating far-too-young marriage. She also manages to imply that women can’t take care of themselves (need daddy’s permission, need saving by a lover).

2009 (2 out of 30)

You Belong with Me, Taylor Swift – At least the two high school lovers aren’t getting married (yet), but here’s a young woman centering her life on a guy who doesn’t appreciate her. But it’s okay; she’ll just wait until he comes around. It’s not like she has anything or anyone else going on in her life.

Cowboy Casanova, Carrie Underwood – Ms. Underwood’s specialty is confirming the male country vision of women, which is in part why her songs become hits. This one’s no different: the narrator describes a “cowboy casanova” in such a way that her “complaints” about him make him sound exactly like what every male country writer thinks men are: so sexually irresistible that they consistently make girls go against their better judgment.

2010 (2 out of 28)

The House that Built Me, Miranda Lambert – A sentimental tune about a woman who tries to find herself by visiting to the home in which she grew up. While relatively harmless, it does affirm the country music belief that when you go out traipsin’ around the world, you lose something essential. (Better get on back to that small town.)

Undo It, Carrie Underwood – Like Swift’s “Should’ve Said No,” this song portrays a woman who stands up for herself and refuses to stay with a guy who “blew it.” Kudos. (Although by this point, if you’re like me, you’re wondering whether women can express strength in any way other than by getting rid of no-good men. This solitary version of Woman Power is getting pretty old.)

2011 (4 out of 34)

Turn On the Radio (Reba McEntire) – Ms. McEntire, always slightly less likely to give men their fantasy version of femalehood, here gives one the middle finger by suggesting that if he wants to hear her, he can just turn on the radio. Kudos. But sigh with the leavin-the-no-good-men thing.

A Little Bit Stronger (Sara Evans) – This narrator put up with an awful lot before she finally let go, but she did it. And she’s stronger without him: kudos. But.

Heart Like Mine (Miranda Lambert) – Like Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” it’s hard for country to resist a song that incorporates Jesus. This one’s no exception; not only is the woman tantalizingly different from the typical, “respectable” small-town girl, she loves her both some alcohol AND some Jesus. Hit song.

Sparks Fly (Taylor Swift) – In which Taylor’s female narrator again fits everything male country writers describe them to be: eager for sex, open to doing something they know they “shouldn’t,” and reliant on men to make life bearable.

2012 (5 out of 36)

Ours, Taylor Swift – Here the woman is her man’s comforter, assuring him that their love is everything, and other people’s judgments don’t matter. Relatively harmless, but certainly not straying from the country music narrative.

Over You, Miranda Lambert – Hard not to sympathize with a narrator who’s dealing with the grief of loss. It doesn’t stray from the country music narrative, but – no complaints.

Good Girl, Carrie Underwood – As in “Cowboy Casanova,” Underwood again tries to warn female listeners about a(n irresistible) “bad boy.” And like the cowboy tune, one can’t help but assume that a lot of male listeners will like the idea of being an irresistible bad boy with whom all kinds of good girls fall in love despite themselves. This track wins the Utter Ew Award with, “You want a white wedding and a hand you can hold / Just like you should, girl / Like every girl does.” #girlpowerfail

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor Swift – Swift tells the male both that he sucks and that he’s gone. Kudos.

Blown Away, Carrie Underwood – As an activist myself re: domestic violence, I appreciate the courage of this song’s representation of abuse – particularly as one of the many dangers of alcoholism. I also hope country writers and listeners who sympathize with this narrative will reassess their devotion to celebrating alcohol-as-coping-mechanism. (Not holding my breath.)

2013 (1 out of 44)

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor Swift – A holdover hit from 2012 (see above). And yes, the only #1 track by women in 2013.

2014 (out of 8 so far)

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“And there’s Jesus and Mary,
the wine and the water,
til you wake up one day
and you can’t believe either
And a hymn shapes itself
in your mouth but you say
‘well it’s over now; I guess
it’s over.'”

#newsongs
ellerymusic.com

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Dear Parents. Stop Saying Miley Was Degrading Herself.

miley + miley

Okay. It’s true that many women who use their bodies to make money ARE degraded, by others or themselves. It’s true that many women don’t have a choice in this, and/or don’t believe they’re worth anything “better.” And our desire to change the socio-cultural situation for the benefit of such women is admirable, and necessary.

But we must not fool ourselves that any woman who uses her body sexually is motivated by low self-esteem or poor morals. This assumption is simply another way to dehumanize the woman while feeling good about ourselves. By expressing disappointment in Miley’s decision to “degrade herself,” we access a rush of moral, psychological, or even feminist superiority, which can feel great. But such superiority relies on a willful skirting of Cyrus’ intellect, agency, and personhood. How do we know that she has degraded herself? And how CAN we know, unless we allow the woman to be a person – and to speak for herself?

The assumption that any woman who uses her body sexually is diminished as a person is a sign of our ongoing dissociation of female sexuality from humanity and agency. If we perceive female sexuality as “dirty,” “impure,” and/or intended strictly for male enjoyment, then the viewing of it all out in the open, seemingly of a woman’s own volition, will be troubling to us.

And it’s this very perception of female sexuality that we must question – particularly in a culture that, for men, readily embraces desire, lust, and a “healthy sex-drive” as symptoms of being fully alive. For women, when publicly revealed, these are symptoms of debasement, slutty-ness, and embarrassment.

i shall take herWhen it comes to women, we tend to think, Obviously, this sexy-fied woman is incapable of thinking or speaking for herself. So I’ll assume I’m the more intelligent, self-esteemed, morally-sound person, and blindly project onto this woman the degradation I’d feel if I were in her place. I won’t ASK her, or leave room for the possibility that she thinks differently (let alone intelligently!) about her work. Instead, because she’s using her body in a sexual manner, I’ll assume she doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t know who she is, doesn’t have good guidance, doesn’t have sound life goals, and certainly that she doesn’t have anything to tell me. In fact, I’ll assume she needs me. If only I could be her mentor!!

I’m not saying Cyrus was legitimately empowered, or that she was expressing her full agency as opposed to playing to the entertainment industry or to a sense of needing to shake off her Disney persona.
I’m just saying we don’t know. And we don’t seem to care to wonder.

It seems to me that, aside from transgressing cultural boundaries as a means of gaining media chatter, what Cyrus did on stage was: sing, dance, communicate a love of sex, touch herself sexually, touch others sexually, and make it clear that she’s a sexual being who’s sexually available. Men do this all the time, including on network TV, and no one blinks. Such men may be perceived as “sleazy” or as “douchebags,” but they’re not pitied. We don’t assume they lack control, agency, or brains. We don’t assume they need us.

We can’t know what led to Cyrus’ choices without treating her like a human being with a brain. That we assume her performance precludes humanity and intelligence – or removes her right to be perceived as a human being with thoughts – reveals volumes about our inability to reconcile a woman’s sexuality with her personhood.

A man can be overtly sexual, even sleazy, and yet be perceived by society as a human being who thinks for himself. I’m troubled that this is so rarely the case with women.

–> Idea time, hooray! <–
If you think Miley Cyrus’ performance was degrading, and if you also feel the need to discuss this with your children, consider describing your perception AS a perception, rather than speaking for someone you don’t know: “This would be degrading to me, and here’s why.” Consider communicating that, as a grown, successful woman, Miley Cyrus can make her own choices, and that we don’t know why she made this particular one. Don’t be afraid to say, “I wonder why she chose this? It’d be interesting to ask her, don’t you think?”
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