The CMT Awards began with what passes for traditionalism these days: ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, beards out, grooving through “La Grange,” a Texas blues-rock boot-scooter recorded 41 years ago. But before the opening medley was over, it quickly morphed into what passes for country these days. First came Florida Georgia Line, the good ol’ boys whose first big hit was a duet with Nelly, and Luke Bryan, the good ol’ boy who fell off the stage while dancing to Macklemore last week, doing their Drake-repping duet “This Is How We Roll.” Then R&B singer Jason Derulo showed up, and the lot of them sang his smash hit “Talk Dirty,” Bryan brazenly shaking his hips in a way that really puts Macklemore’s alleged cred deficiency in perspective.
The ensuing hours brought many more bros, of course — ever since Kenny Chesney took over country in the early years of this century by bringing Jimmy Buffett beach-bum music to a new generation, Nashville’s beers-babes-pickups chill-out economy is booming. But there was also Lindsey Stirling, the theatrical pixie who hit it big playing violin over dubstep beats, and R&B legend Lionel Richie, accepting an award for duetting with Bryan. Babyfaced balladeer Hunter Hayes, country’s own Ed Sheeran, sang “All Of Me” with John Legend, a soul singer who has long been affiliated with Kanye West, and Jennifer Nettles, the Sugarland singer who brought reggae patois to country radio. Brantley Gilbert, the backwoods broseph who’d have the #1 album in the country right now if not for Coldplay, sang “Bottoms Up” while wearing a camo tank and waving his hands not unlike a rapper. Dierks Bentley performed “Drunk On A Plane” surrounded by dancers in old-fashioned stewardess costumes. Little Big Town, decked out in all white, did a large-scale version of the splatted-with-paint stunt Rita Ora pulled on The Tonight Show. Despite claiming that “Boys Round Here” don’t know how to do the Dougie, Blake Shelton’s performance featured the word “redneck” sampled and manipulated in a manner that wouldn’t have happened without hip-hop. Eric Church, the cagey outlaw/marketing genius who turned the equivalent of Metallica’s “Black Album” into a country smash hit, performed too, with Lizzy Hale of modern rockers Halestorm. Vince Neil was there, but not Vince Gill. And don’t forget the ads for Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry’s episode of CMT Crossroads, a series that previously merged the Band Perry with Fall Out Boy.
Country is in a weird place, and it’s mostly a good weird. The rest of the pop spectrum is exerting an unprecedented amount of outside influence on the genre, resulting in a flurry of ideas not unlike all those colors that landed on Little Big Town. Some of them turn out pretty ugly, but if you squint, even many of the more awkward experiments look like new possibilities. As always, there are definite rules in country — check that monotonous montage from last December for the proof — yet those rules are changing faster than ever, growing ever more lenient. And as with any popular genre, you’re just as likely to find success breaking the established code of conduct as hewing to it.
You can thank Miranda Lambert for that, at least in part. When we named Lambert’s Four The Record Album Of The Week in 2011, Tom called her the best thing to come out of Nashville’s blockbuster country machine in years. First as the solo artist behind explosively titled vengeance anthems like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder & Lead,” then as a member of the saucy supergroup Pistol Annies, Lambert has continually paid homage to country’s traditions while following her muse in all sorts of non-traditional directions. Look no further than “Something Bad,” her duet with Carrie Underwood that closed out last night’s awards broadcast. The influence of ’80s hair metal isn’t exactly new in country — I could imagine Garth Brooks or Shania Twain singing something like “Something Bad” in the ’90s — but the song’s wholehearted embrace of rock ‘n’ roll sleaze, at the exclusion of traditional country signifiers like cowboy hats and fiddles, means something.
Lambert’s new Platinum, out this week, brilliantly strikes that balance between old-fashioned and pioneering. It’s a record as reverent as it is wild, with personality that manifests itself in myriad ways. MySpace’s Caitlin White was right to describe it as “a sprawling cat’s cradle.” The feminist streak that runs through Lambert’s career is there as ever, right from opener “Girls” (which asserts that women have something other than a man’s love to live for) and again in “Little Red Wagon” (“I play guitar, and I go on the road, and I do all the shit you wanna do… I love my apron, but I ain’t your mama”) even as the Lambert-penned “Bathroom Sink” is bracingly honest about the pain in her life: “It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see in my reflection.” The Little Big Town collaboration “Smokin’ And Drinkin'” is a gorgeous shimmering ballad; it’s followed immediately by the rollicking “Priscilla,” which faces the tabloid rumors about Lambert’s marriage to fellow country star Blake Shelton head-on. “God knows that shifting gears ain’t what it used to be,” she sings on the convenience-bemoaning “Automatic,” but she’s helped lead her genre out of those days and into shifts of its own. It’s unlikely we would have seen convention-busters like Musgraves and Brandy Clark find such a wide audience without Lambert blazing the trail.
That said, country is still a big business, and one of the results of its more porous borders is more crossover with other pop-star machines. Taylor Swift got huge in part by making the leap from country to top-40 pop songs co-written by Max Martin. But while Swift, along with ABC’s massively successful Nashville, was blurring the lines between country and pop at large, lots of other figures began crossing over in the opposite direction. One prime example is Lucy Hale, star of ABC Family’s immensely popular Pretty Little Liars. As numerous advertisements during the CMT Awards informed us, Hale’s Road Between is out this week too. It’s as formulaic as you’d expect from the debut album by the star of a teen drama — utterly professional but also utterly predictable. What’s worth noting, though, is that Hale’s handlers didn’t block her from going the country route. They see it as a viable mass market, and having heard her album, they probably understand how much that market bleeds over into the sort of straight-laced pop that Miley Cyrus started out making. Road Between is accurately titled in that it bridges country and pop signifiers. It doesn’t stand out because that’s how so much country already sounds these days.
Again, you can trace a lot of those changes back to Garth and Shania, some more of them to Big & Rich and Kid Rock, still more to Tim McGraw (who invented the Nelly country duet a decade before Florida Georgia Line) and especially his fan-turned-collaborator Swift. These sorts of dynamic shifts have been in the works for a while, only now so many changes are happening at once that country feels like it’s going through some sort of bizarre genre puberty. I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of mature beauty it blooms into when it’s all grown up — even if there’s a chance the genre will keep looking like a horrifying mutant instead, and even if we have to put up with the bros and their trucks for a little while longer.
Coldplay and Brantley Gilbert sold way less copies of Ghost Stories (83,000) and Just As I Am (69,000), respectively, than the six-figure debuts they pulled last week, but that was still enough to maintain the top 2 spots on Billboard’s album chart ahead of Mariah Carey’s latest. Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse moved 58,000 copies, good for a #3 debut but probably not what she was hoping for considering it’s her lowest debut sales week ever for a non-holiday album. To put Carey’s woes in perspective, the Frozen soundtrack, 2014’s only genuine blockbuster, sold almost exactly as many copies as Elusive Chanteuse this week, and it’s been out for six months.
Entering at #5 is Austin Mahone’s debut EP, The Secret, with 46,000; Billboard notes that the EP is a warm-up release for a full-length album later this week. Now 50 is in at #6 with 46,000, followed by Michael Jackson’s Xscape (#7, 35,000) and the Black Keys’ Turn Blue (#8, 32,000). Christian singer Crowder enters at #9 with 22,000 for Neon Steeple, and Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic rounds out the top 10 with 18,000.
Similar story on the Hot 100: #1 and #2 remain in Azalea’s grasp thanks to her own “Fancy” with Charli XCX and her guest spot on Ariana Grande’s “Problem.” (Billboard points out that Azalea will be doubly on top of the charts for her 24th birthday this Saturday.) John Legend’s “All Of Me” stays strong at #3, while DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” leapfrogs Pharrell’s “Happy” to reach a new high point at #4. Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” keeps climbing to #6, passing Katy Perry & Juicy J’s “Dark Horse.” Two upward movers are up next: At #8 it’s Canadian reggae-pop act MAGIC! with “Rude,” followed by Calvin Harris at #9 with “Summer.” The Jason Derulo/Snoop Dogg hit “Wiggle” remains at #10 for a second straight week.
Bastille – “Bad Blood (Lido Remix)” (Week In Pop Premiere)
Before Bastille took over your radio with “Pompeii,” they released numerous singles from their album Bad Blood, including the propulsive title track. Norwegian electronic producer Lido was commissioned for this remix, which turns “Bad Blood” from the sort of synths-and-guitars arena anthem that’s Bastille’s specialty to a slinking, skittering bit of futuristic songcraft. NOTE: Lido has his own EP called I Love You coming 6/23 on Pelican Fly. Pre-order that here and get single “Money” right away.
OneRepublic – “Love Runs Out”
OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder has written hit songs for many a pop superstar, including critical darlings such as Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, and Ellie Goulding. So as with Australian song-doctor supreme Sia Furler, it’s good to see him getting the chance to be out in the spotlight sometimes. Still, the Imagine Dragons-ness of this whole production makes me wish Tedder would stay behind the scenes. The song itself makes me think of Fitz & The Tantrums covering something from Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight, which is just gross.
The Ting Tings – “Wrong Club”
In which the group behind “That’s Not My Name” stays up all night for good fun and tries to ride the “Get Lucky” wave. As disco-inflected pop songs go, “Wrong Club” is perfectly fine, but its blatant attempt to jack Daft Punk’s swag is more than a little off-putting.
Agnez Mo – “Coke Bottle” (Feat. Timbaland & T.I.)
As esteemed music critic Maura Johnston pointed out over the weekend, “Coke Bottle” boasts the best Timbaland beat in recent memory, a popping, locking, sputtering series of blips and bleeps that sounds quite a bit like fizz emanating from the beverage in question. The production is so good that we can forgive Tim for deigning to rap on it. As for the others, Mo’s attempt at a hashtag-worthy hook is not entirely without merit, and it’s quite nice to hear Tip riding Tim’s rhythms on a guest verse again a la “My Love.”
Ameriie – “What I Want”
Remember “1 Thing,” Amerie’s Rich Harrison banger that matched up well against Beyoncé’s own Harrison-produced “Crazy In Love”? (Maybe you remember Amerie’s other music too; she landed two albums in the top 10 back in the aughts.) Well, Amerie — now known as Ameriie — is back with her first single since 2009’s label-drama-damaged Love & War. It’s not going to change your life, but I’m glad to have her back.
Stine Bramsen – “Move Forward”
Our first preview of Alphabeat singer Stine Bramsen’s solo album was “Prototypical,” a concise blast of soulful pop. “Move Forward” is even more impressive, a sleek disco-pop hybrid that slow-builds to euphoria.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Rihanna promises a “history making announcement” today in Paris. [That Grape Juice]
- Iggy Azalea is already working on the follow-up to The New Classic and hopes to hit the studio in August. [Instagram]
- Crazy how much “Stay With Me” changes when you swap out Sam Smith’s voice for Ed Sheeran’s. [BBC Radio 1]
- Will.i.am would rather make 45 Vines than a new album, which is totally fine with me. [The Vodafone]
- Leona Lewis, who won the UK’s X Factor in 2006, has departed Simon Cowell’s label after seven years to sign with Island, though some reports suggest Cowell was the one who cut ties with Lewis. [PopJustice]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Just remember while your all at home online cracking jokes about artists etc that Most of you have done NOTHING. NOTHING! With your lives.
— IGGY AZALEA (@IGGYAZALEA) June 2, 2014