The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Instead Of Going Big, Kacey Musgraves Goes Home

Chris is out on paternity leave so I’m taking over The Week In Pop for a couple of weeks…

Two years ago Kacey Musgraves rolled her major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, right down the Grammys red carpet and picked up country music’s two most coveted awards: Best Country Album and Best Country Song (for “Merry Go Round”). Many saw this achievement as proof of a sea change within the genre and pegged Musgraves as the woman who would stare down Nashville’s rampant sexism; a woman who would bring music with real heart and true grit back to the national stage. She seemed poised not to make the move to pop, as Taylor Swift was in the process of doing, but to bring country itself into the realm of pop. This was a country artist who was winning over staunch genre haters. She was steeped in tradition but revitalizing country’s legacy with lyrics about same-sex relationships and marijuana smoke. The world was hers for the taking. Except, she didn’t take it.

Instead, two years later on Pageant Material Kacey Musgraves is back in her tiny home town, issuing a lecture on politeness. Personally, I wish she’d decamp to a big ol’ city, Taylor Swift style and erect some fierce, fiery songs that reach sky-scraping heights. She’s certainly capable of that and most anyone who’s heard “Mama’s Broken Heart” — a song she co-wrote and gave to Miranda Lambert — is itching for a whole album in that vein. Pageant Material is anything but. This record is Musgraves’ second for a major label, and it is so clearly the album she wanted to make that any discussion must begin by applauding the execution of her artistic vision. After that, I have to say that it deeply disappointed me. On one of its earliest tracks, “Dimestore Cowgirl,” Musgraves muses that for a minute she might’ve gotten “too big for [her] britches.” I wish she’d bust the hell out of those britches and assume her crown; she has the talent to be so much more than just the girl from Golden, Texas who made good. Pageant Material is a beautiful, pristine record that’s so regressive it could be a period piece if it weren’t for the weed. It’s a silvery, ’70s-sighing meditation on America’s smallest characters and biggest emotions. Yet it’s the equivalent of a tiny town’s most successful transplant returning home to her trailer park. We are living during an era in which sexism is so entrenched in country music that a well-respected radio consultant compared female artists to salad toppingsand he wasn’t even worried about it. This is not the era for “Dimestore Cowgirl”‘s humility.

I have seen critics claim this record is more Nashville-friendly. It is not. I have seen it called a masterpiece. It is not that either. It’s a stubborn streak in album form, and for that reason I have to respect it. But Musgraves has refused to carry the burden that she was poised to assume. I’d certainly pinned my hopes on her. This is an artistic statement whether or not she wants it to be. Regression is an odd choice for a woman who was widely lauded as the perfect blend of the future — gay-friendly lyrics, a woman touting pot’s benefits — and country’s historical roots. So what are we to make of this almost tepid, alarmingly middle-of-the-road record? It’s unlikely these songs will do much better on radio than Trailer’s highest-charting single “Merry Go Round,” which ended its run at #10. Most programmers have already pulled the new album’s lead single “Biscuits” from rotation, as Musgraves noted onstage at Bonnaroo earlier this month. Sonically, that track is one of the likeliest of the bunch to chart, and it still didn’t gain traction. Most of this record actually reminds me of Caitlin Rose’s similarly quiet and lush 2013 record, The Stand-In, which scarcely made a dent in Rose’s hometown of Nashville. Pageant Material is the album Musgraves wanted us to have, but it is not the album we needed from her. I’m not saying she had to go full Max Martin, but she gave us tea and I wanted bourbon.

After Macklemore and Musgraves dominated in the 2013 Grammys (he won in corresponding Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song categories), I used rap as a comparison to illustrate, for the second time, that she’s more similar to Lamar than Macklemore, “simultaneously upending and restoring the genre to its former glory.” But while we have K.Dot pushing his genre to the very limit to fight against social injustice — even possibly working in “post-rap” — Musgraves sat back on her heels. Pageant’s steel guitar-driven “Somebody To Love” is practically the same song as the wistful “Merry Go Round,” and this happens more than once. Trailer’s “Step Off,” “Blowin’ Smoke,” and “Follow Your Arrow” cover the same ground as Pageant’s “Biscuits,” “This Town” (or “Dimestore Cowgirl,” honestly) and “Cup Of Tea,” respectively. The problem is the Same Trailer Different Park versions were mostly better. I do like this album, but I hoped it would surpass Trailer. As NY Times’ Jon Caramanica put it, the album is “jogging in place.”

The Fader put Kacey Musgraves on its cover, making her the first country artist to gain that distinction. The story pegs her as country music’s savior, the artist who is “making country music good again.” This narrative is so exhausting for those of us who were born and bred on country music and continue to follow and love it. It doesn’t need to be saved. It suffers from entrenched sexism, as does much of the music industry, but it doesn’t need to be made good again. It is good. Even if it doesn’t reach the mainstream or catch a popularity bubble with genre tourists. Exalting one artist above the rest of the genre is a needless erasure. It undermines the community. Is Musgraves better than Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, or Carrie Underwood? Hell yeah. Even when she delivers a slightly tepid album, she’s still better. Her songwriting is precise and clever, and country is one of the last places in mainstream music where cleverness is still rewarded. She toes this line occasionally; one of the album’s most poignant love songs, “Die Fun,” is probably the canniest tune Musgraves has ever written (the Kesha pun has to be intentional). The love songs on this album are the only ones that churn with real electricity — “Late To The Party” is its best cut and a song about how time itself loses value in comparison to the leisurely pacing of a two-person world. Or there’s “Fine,” a lovely, façade-as-lifestyle long-distance relationship mourner that is the only time she gets close to the wry, intimate bent of her idol John Prine. “Fine”‘s hidden bonus track duet “Are You Sure” sees her actually enlisting an iconic artist from the past, fellow pot-lover Willie Nelson. It’s her love for writers like Prine and Nelson that proves she isn’t remaking country music at all, but simply skimming from the past. Musgraves’ innovation and rebellion mixed with traditional sensibility made Same Trailer Different Park glimmer, but there’s not much of the former here. In fact, the people who are “remaking” country music are Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt … the ones who are blurring genre boundaries and mixing twang with pop and rap. You can moralize these hybrids as destructive, or view them as the natural progression of a genre. Musgraves, however, is not a revolutionary; and despite her liberal politics, she’s often reactionary in style and lyrics. There’s enough puritanical scolding on this record to frustrate most listeners under 50.

My biggest issue with this album concerns its title and visual aesthetic. It pretends to subvert a pageant narrative while employing all the symbols — sash, gown, tiara — to market the record. It assures that Musgraves gets all the benefit of society’s positive relationship with the pageant aesthetic while simultaneously positioning hers as the casual cool girl; too savvy to actually care about a beauty contest. It’s very much an “Us vs. Them” rift, whereas most country functions very inclusively, and Musgraves especially does. I personally don’t want to be in a pageant, but if a woman wants to, that’s her prerogative. It seems so strange to organize a whole album around the motif of a beauty contest when the intent is to skewer pageant culture. It reminds me a bit of Lily Allen using gyrating female bodies to “mock” the idea that a music video needs sex appeal in “Hard Out Here,” or when Taylor Swift pretended to be gawky and clumsy and not the smoldering sex symbol she actually is for the “Shake It Off” video. Because while Musgraves eschews being judged up on a stage, the “Biscuits” video has her in a strapless, frilly, hot-pink frock, acting the part onstage for almost the entire time. Is it sardonic? Sure, but she’s still up there. I can’t get around the way “Pageant Material” falls squarely into the “I’m not like other girls” rhetoric; the obvious subtext here is Miranda Lambert, who put out an entire album called Platinum about owning her own femininity and sexuality. Platinum was an extremely female-positive album and embraced the salon, curls, and curves with delight. We’re all tempted to define ourselves by what we’re not, but this is an age and a genre in which female artists are being reduced to data points (if not salad toppings). This is not the time for one of the genre’s strongest voices to throw other women under the bus.

It’s also worth noting that Musgraves is slim and tall, undeniably beautiful. She told Cosmopolitan earlier this year that she travels with a 17lb. beauty case and has mentioned several times that she was in a pageant at the tender age of 3. She is pageant material even if she rejected that road. It’s fine not to love beauty pageants and feel like you don’t fit into that mold; I hate ‘em too. It’s also OK to love makeup and hair, wear short dresses and prance around a stage. But asserting that you’re not a specific brand of femininity isn’t the strongest way to build your own. In fact, defining femininity at the expense of other women’s expressions — no matter how cloying they may seem — is rather toxic. No woman needs to define herself by fleecing stereotypes of other women.

There comes a point in which entrenchment against the present time becomes an industry cog in its own right, and similarly fails. This is partially why Maddie And Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” didn’t appeal to me as widely as it did to others. Industry-specific reactionary music is often too self-referential, too haughty, to become transcendent. I can’t think of a song I’d rather hear breaking country radio’s glass ceiling than this album’s pointed patriarchy call-out “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” But here’s another lyric that sticks in my craw: “Another gear in a big machine/ Don’t sound like fun to me.” This clear allusion to Big Machine, the label that Taylor Swift put on the map, is another comment that’s, well, pretty mean. Why jab at a female peer on a song about how men shut out women? Musgraves won at the Grammys anyway, not Taylor Swift. Why does Swift’s empire have to be a threat to Musgraves’ willful independence? Why must we always be pitted against each other when we could be working in sync to dismantle the Good Ol’ Boys Club? The limpid translucence of industry-first music lets us see the same cogs spinning over and over, but Pageant Material’s defiance of that is almost as transparent, and almost as distracting. If she’s going to spend this much time preaching about manners and respecting the individuality of others, she better get to practicing. You can stick to your roots, maintain grace and authenticity, and still outgrow your hometown. The key is, you still have to grow.

CHART WATCH

After a 45-year wait, James Taylor scored his first #1 on the Billboard 200. I’d like to think our Q&A had something to do with this, though it’s probably just due to the strength of his new album, Before This World, which sold 96,000 copies or 97,000 equivalent units. Right behind Taylor is another Taylor — his namesake Taylor Swift — who is still selling thousands of copies of 1989. She came in at the #2 slot with 57,000 copies sold and it is her 34th straight week on the list. Adam Lambert’s new one, The Original High, entered at #3 with 47,000 units sold, and Ed Sheeran’s X claimed its highest position since February, creeping back up to #4 with 39,000 units sold. This means that Hilary Duff’s first album since 2007, the decent Breathe In. Breathe Out., earned a #5 spot, selling 39,000. That’s pretty good for an album pinned to a Tinder stunt roll-out.

Sam Hunt continues a four-week streak of gaining sales, selling 32,00 for a #6 slot. If you’re unfamiliar, make sure to check out Chris’ old column on Hunt, which deftly explains why this album is sticking around. Nate Ruess of Fun. and formerly the Format (pour one out) gets a #7 debut for his first solo album, Grand Romantic, with 31,000 units. Meghan Trainor’s treacly Title is still firmly selling, hitting #8 with 27,000 units this week, and Maroon 5 follows right on her heels also selling 27,000 copies of V. Rounding out the top 10 in a three-way tie is Mumford & Sons’ Coldplay-core Wilder Mind, which also sold 27,000. Their album was priced down to $6.99, and accordingly, downloads jumped up by 50%. It should be noted that the sales of Title, V, and Wilder Mind were separated by less than 300 equivalent units, hence the rounding.

TRACK CITY

Selena Gomez – “Good For You” (Feat. A$AP Rocky)
Critical consensus on Selena’s newest Adult Pop single “Good For You” is that it’s not very good. I, for one, love her segue into Lana Del Rey-esque heavy-lidded sensuality and pillowy pop, plus it looks like the video will see her embracing the Spring Breakers aesthetic her character mostly rejected in the film. In a perfect world she’d have traded the tepid A$AP feature for a raunchy Schoolboy Q verse.

Ginuwine – “Leave It In” (Prod. LAMB)
Though it’s no “Pony,” the ride Ginuwine is describing on “Leave It In” dips past sensuality into baby-making territory. Sure, sex is tried and true R&B subject, but procreation itself sometimes gets neglected or maligned in the process. Not here.

Years & Years – “Foundation”
Early Years & Years tracks like “King” dove into confetti-pop brightness, but “Foundation” stakes their claim firmly in the realm of ominous and yearning. Olly Alexander’s voice is just as suited to the bright as it is dark, and this song is basically post-Autre Ne Veut or The Weeknd-lite.

Pentatonix – “Evolution Of Michael Jackson”
Pentatonix are the five best kids from my jazz choir and theater days funneled into a pop package to be mass-consumed. This MJ tribute is Glee for King Of Pop fans. Technically, we should all hate this, but damn, they’re good at what they do, and I’m a sucker for multi-part harmonies.

Ivy Levan – “Killing You” (Feat. Sting)
Sting hasn’t sounded this torn up and hoarse since “Roxanne” and honestly, it suits him. Newcomer Ivy Levan gets the boost from his star power on a macabre ballad about sabotage. It pulses with the same unmistakable Police-esque energy that made “Locked Out Of Heaven” appealing.

Flo Rida – “I Don’t Like It, I Love It” (Feat. Robin Thicke & Verdine White)
Welcome to the great rehabilitation of Robin Thicke. He’s playing in a fire hydrant with neighborhood kids, grooving on a stoop with Flo Rida and some red cups, laughing on the street with women. His voice is flawless, but he still looks like a creepy uncle who snuck into the block party.

Jess Glynne – “Ain’t Got Far To Go” (Acoustic)
Jess Glynne’s voice is velvet and gravel and gospel. After her huge guest appearance on Clean Bandit’s Grammy-winning “Rather Be,” keep an eye out for her debut album out on 9/11 via Atlantic. Guess she didn’t need any dance-glitch to make a song sound incredible.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Pharrell’s “Freedom” soundtracked the commercial that introduced Apple Music, and it will also be the service’s first exclusive. [The Verge]
  • Ricky Martin’s old boy band Menudo is officially looking for a new member. Telemundo is sponsoring the search, which will obviously be conducted via social media. How else could you possibly find a budding star in 2015? [Adweek]
  • At New Kids On The Block’s MSG concert on Monday night Marky Mark (excuse me, Mark Wahlberg) joined the group onstage for the first time in over 20 years. But he didn’t rap. They got 50 Cent for that. [YouTube]
  • Lady Gaga caught Saturday Night Fever and joined Dirty Pearls onstage at the Gramercy Theater for a rendition of Van Halen’s “Panama.” Mostly she just head bangs, but Eddie would be proud. [Billboard]
  • Kesha loves animals and I love Kesha. Following a federal bill from the House Of Representatives that would phase out testing beauty products on animals, Kesha has unveiled another PSA for the Humane Society. There are lots of bunnies. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME