Country Music’s Bro Problem—and How Miranda Lambert Plans to Solve It

Pop, jazz, and classical.
June 5 2014 8:44 AM

Country Music’s Bro Problem

Can Miranda Lambert take the country charts back for female artists?

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Miranda Lambert performs during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards on May 18, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If there’s a musical equivalent for the cinematic Bechdel test, commercial country music right now is failing it. As has been widely noted, Nashville has been awash for several years with men such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton drawling about “girls” in tank tops and flip-flops dancing on bars and in the flatbeds of pickups at a never-ending dirt-road tailgate party.

This “bro-country” testosterone tide has all but shut female artists out of the upper end of the country charts—when they do show up, they tend to be in duets with guys or as the voices of otherwise all-male bands, rather than soloists. If we picture the charts as one big movie, it would mostly flunk Bechdel’s criterion that female characters have scenes of their own, apart from the men.

One of the few exceptions, and by default the leading champion for the cause of country womanism, is Miranda Lambert. Fortunately, Lambert’s new, sixth album Platinum, released this week, proves her as ready and able to undertake that crusade as any knight-errant, “only” (as she would wink), “prettier.”

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Platinum walks a double line: It’s the work of a successful insider who remains aware that she’s an outsider by dint of sex as well as sly intellect—in fact, Lambert strikes me as one of the smartest country superstars since Dolly Parton, female or male. And like a 21st-century Parton, she manipulates the materials of mass appeal to her own subversively gender-conscious ends. (She also happens to be married to Blake Shelton.)

This week, as has often happened before, she is the sole female solo artist in the upper reaches of the Hot Country Top 25, with Platinum’s lead single “Automatic” at No. 6. Its most recent single, “Somethin’ Bad,” a collaboration with Carrie Underwood, is No. 5. Both of them, 30 and 31, managed to build massive fan bases, partly via TV singing contests, before country underwent its current man-cave renovation. Their younger peers get no such pass.

Last year saw a wave of extraordinary albums by young female singer-songwriters such as Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe, but radio resisted. It was partly the content—just as Bechdel would demand, these songwriters frequently “talk about something other than a man,” including unladylike matters such as being poor and getting drunk or high, and uncountrylike criticism of small-town life. All that could only interfere with country radio’s pandering to that elusive demographic of dudely dudes with disposable income (and the ladies who love them).

That isn’t just a contrast to mainstream pop, which has been defined by female divas for so long it’s hard to remember it any other way. It is also a deviation from country’s recent past, when Taylor Swift dominated (she’s now mostly migrated away to pop), and the 1990s, when Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain ruled, flanked by Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, and many more.

Lambert isn’t having it. As she recently told Rolling Stone: “What are they calling it, 'bro country’? … I love those songs, but for a minute there, it felt like girls ran the show. We have to save this thing we've made — Carrie and Taylor and me.”

She started her career in a similar spirit to the country-grrrl class of 2013: Inspired partly by a Veronica Marsof-Texas childhood in which her parents were private investigators who often encountered domestic abuse and sometimes sheltered battered women in their home, she made her name writing and singing revenge fantasies such as “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead” that could have come with a #YesAllWomen hashtag. In those pre-bro-boom days of the mid-2000s, they ricocheted up the charts.

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