A platform for voices supporting women's rights
I came to Nashville to follow my dream of writing country songs. My uncle is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and I grew up watching his struggle, listening to his hits on the radio, cheering his successes.
At the age of ten – around the time my uncle’s biggest hit was about a girl named after a Vidalia onion – I had two things going for me: an overactive imagination, and nineties country music. When men sang about beautiful, sexy country girls, I pictured them in cutoffs and tied-up gingham shirts. Or maybe that was just the actual video for “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)”.
The Watermelon Queen, Bobbie Joe Gentry, Liza Jane, Fancy: these women were my idols. Some of them were sirens. Some of them were prostitutes. All of them won men’s hearts. As a young girl, I internalized the messages of these songs, tried to mimic their coolness and beauty.
Luckily, this was the nineties, so a lot of the songs sung by women were actually empowering. They told about the joy of being a female (“Man, I Feel Like a Woman”), the difficulty of being married (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”), and were sometimes even downright feminist (“Guys Do It All The Time”). We had Reba, Wynonna, Trisha, Patty, Martina, Pam – to name a few. I could list dozens more.
I grew up listening to these women sing songs that were complex, heartbroken, inspirational, nuanced portraits of womanhood. So, while I was, yes, cutting my old jeans diaper-short, knotting a t-shirt around my nonexistent boobs, and posing in the mirror, I was also singing along with Shania or Faith about a married woman who wants more. Or a smart woman who makes a poor choice. Or a sad woman who learns to let go.
These women absolutely taught me what it means to be a woman.
And the songs my uncle wrote? I’m proud to say those songs created robust female characters: in other words, pretty and smart, funny, interesting, talented, successful. The young woman in “Daddy’s Money” has “a wild imagination, a college education”. Bobbie Ann Mason was “way too cute, she was way too cool”, which isn’t very impressive – except in comparison with the flat female characters in today’s lyrics.
As a young girl, I was memorizing and over-analyzing all the lyrics on the radio. I was also inundated with hormones, changes to my body, peer pressure, and my imagination. I am still in therapy to work out what country music did to me. But as I said, we’re talking nineties country music, which meant a barrage of girl-power, female-centric songs for every sexist song objectifying a woman’s body.
But I can’t even begin to imagine how current country songs are affecting our nation’s young girls.
On second thought, I can – only too clearly. I can think about the girls, like Rehtaeh Parsons or Lizzy Seeburg, who committed suicide because they were raped. Or the girls who are suffering while a town judges them for pressing charges, like the cases in Steubenville and Maryville. I think about our general sexual assault problem at US universities. I think about how we are raising boys who post sexual assault evidence online, and laugh about it.
Let me speculate as to what these mainly white, mainly middle-to-upper class kids are listening to: country music radio, 90% of which is sung by middle-aged men wearing bedazzled shirts, singing about drinking, partying, and sleeping with “girls”. Today’s country music is no longer about the complexities of relationships, love, and life. Today’s country music is hardly even interested in women’s perspectives. We now have, in terms of female artists getting radio airplay, four women: Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Kasey Musgraves, and Carrie Underwood. Four women.
But the real damage occurs in the songs sung by male artists. In these songs, young women are accessories to a male’s life – or night. Not only are they constantly described as “little”, they are infantilized at the same time as they are hypersexualized.
I am telling you, first-hand, that girls are listening closely to these songs. They are internalizing the messages: to be beautiful (read: white, thin, small); to be silent; to be sexual; that a woman’s value as a human being comes only from her attractiveness to the opposite sex.
I cannot speak as directly to the messages our young men get from these songs, but it’s hard not to be alarmed by the violence and disrespect displayed by mostly-male audiences at country music concerts across the country. Added to the events at small towns and college campuses across the country, we have a problem.
We feed our boys songs that objectify girls. We can’t, then, sit back and wonder why our boys are objectifying our girls.
Plenty of Nashville songwriters are frustrated with the songs on the radio. I’m told things will change, to just wait a few years. But when young girls are killing themselves, I do not have a few years to wait.
I learned to be a woman from nineties country songs. What are our girls, and our boys, learning today?