A few years ago, all the boys on country radio seemed to be singing about pickup trucks.
They sang about drinking in the backwoods, about fucking in the back quarter, about ... well, doing whatever the hell it is one does deep in the holler. There were so many back roads to be sung about, and every one of them seemed to get a song. On “Something ‘Bout a Truck,” Kip Moore described a “farmer's field” where “a girl in a red sundress... will make a boy a mess.” Sam Hunt’s monster 2017 hit “Body Like a Back Road,” which stayed at #1 on the country charts for a record-breaking 34 weeks, promised sex “out here in the boondocks/With the breeze and the birds.”
In these songs, the idea that the dark, unpopulated edge of society might not be the safest place for a woman never arises, and consent is assumed, or at least never addressed.
Then, in 2018, a woman said no. On Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line's “Meant to Be,” which shattered Hunt’s chart record and has to-date spent 47 weeks at #1, a female voice slammed the brakes on all that endless male pleasure-seeking. "I don't mean to be so uptight,” Rexha sings. “But my heart's been hurt a couple times/By a couple guys that didn't treat me right/I ain't gon' lie, ain't gon' lie.” And when she joins in on the chorus, she disrupts the homosocial bonhomie of a typical Florida Georgia Line song. True, “Meant to Be” isn’t much of a song, and the lyrics are laughable, but progress isn’t always pretty.
In the past year, the boys have begun singing less about trucks and more about women. Not any individual, particular woman, mind you but Woman, in all Her generic, archetypal indistinctness. Keith Urban's “Female” lectures the ladies about their own political and social power, listing absurd false equivalences (“Sister, shoulder/Daughter, lover/Healer, broken halo/Mother nature Fire, suit of armor”) and then clumsily shoehorning a reference to sexual assault into the chorus. (Sara Boesveld has rightly skewered the track in Chatelaine.) Dierks Bentley's “Woman, Amen,” is about everything that another nameless woman does to the narrator’s poor heart (“pours love through the cracks” and so on), while Thomas Rhett's “Unforgettable” describes a single awkward encounter in a tone that is far from un-stalkery.
So we’ve gone from songs where women are just sex partners who seem to have come with the bucolic scenery to songs that ever so abstractly celebrate their feminine amazingness. But in neither case have we heard about the actual experiences of women—and, Rexha aside, we almost never get to hear the actual voices of women on country radio at all. Country music has historically been pretty on-point about the material realities of heartbreak—about domestic violence, about being broke. But as women are speaking up more than ever before about rape—in depositions, in the press, in Supreme Court nomination hearings—a genre with a historic commitment to women's voices has yet to follow suit.
Simply put, there have never been a whole lot of hit country songs about rape. The last significant one, Kira Isabella's “Quarterback” in 2014, was a harrowing track about social isolation and digital media, and that was more of a critic’s favorite than a radio smash. And then, last month, Chris Janson released “Drunk Girl” as a single.
It’s a melodramatic song, resting heavily on a bed of thick piano chords while a barely whispered male vocal tells us (presumably a male “us”) what to do—and, implicitly, not to do—with a drunk girl.
Let her sleep all alone.
Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone.
Pick up her life she threw on the floor.
Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door.
That’s how you know the difference between a boy and a man.
You take a drunk girl home.
As helpful as Janson advises us to be to the drunk girl in question, she remains an abstract figure, an object who doesn’t get to communicate. Like the bro-country songs about the backwoods and the back quarters and the hollers, like the songs that place women on pedestals, the “Drunk Girl” doesn’t talk back, doesn’t tell her own story. Singing about a woman in this way, Janson just makes the absence of a woman’s voice sadder and more obvious.
This year, women have made some of the strongest country music, told some of the most interesting stories. There’s the supergroup Pistol Annies’ Interstate Highway, with its tales of intergenerational trauma and its exhausted refusal of male privilege; Kacey Musgraves’ genius kiss-off “Space Cowboy”; Ashley McBryde and Angeleena Presley both charting the intersection of class and women’s lives; Ashley Monroe’s super-hot, super-consensual “Hands on You.” But you won’t hear that music on the radio.
I was staying at a music critic friend’s house in suburban Chicago this week when the Annies record dropped. I talked to fellow critics about the record endlessly online, then got into my friend’s car and we drove around the staccato rhythm of super markets, strip malls, and recently built housing developments, listening to country radio. I heard second-generation bro-country stars like Thomas Rhett or Chris Lane and even a few elder bro statesmen. I also heard the Chris Janson song, often. I didn’t hear any Pistol Annies singles, or Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty,” and the small movement that Musgraves made up the charts seems to have stalled.
Janson’s oleaginous song, which praises itself for its basic decency, sells better than the music of any women who might want to sing about the same material. Country radio gatekeepers are partly responsible: Radio consultant Keith Hill, who notoriously rails against the idea that women can sell records, gleefully tweets that the Annies are failures. Maybe it’s something cyclical, and we’re just waiting for a revival of women’s voices.
Regardless, we’re in the midst of an enormous cultural reckoning, one that clearly calls for the equivalent of a “Goodbye Earl” or an “Independence Day.” Yet Chris Janson, somehow, is the voice that gets to address sexual assault on country radio.