Two seemingly contradictory reports from Billboard this week: Bro-country is over and Luke Bryan has another #1 album. Bro-country, as coined by Jody Rosen (then of New York Magazine), indicates “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bryan has long been one of that scene’s dominant figures, the Alan Jackson of country’s tight jeans and baseball cap era. In his definitive Bryan analysis, Rob Harvilla (then of Spin) dubbed 2013 single “That’s My Kind Of Night” an “overeager hick-hop mouth-breather that shouts out both Conway Twitty and T-Pain” and noted “nary a song of his fails to nod to his Chevy, his four-wheel-drive, his high beams, and the fields/creeks/peanut-dust clouds therein illuminated, his tailgate and the sun-kissed menagerie of white-teethed, ripped-blue-jean vixens gyrating atop it, if not him.”
Those lines, it should be noted, are from a positive review. With Bryan — as with twin tribal-tatted biceps Florida Georgia Line, his co-conspirators on the gleefully and irresistibly dunderheaded Hank/Drake wet T-shirt contest “This Is How We Roll” — you either recoil from the cheese or you divorce yourself from the concept of shame and devour that fucking cheese, goddamn. His willfully basic songwriting, overwhelmingly toothy grin, and “Throw your hands in the air, y’all” demeanor have always given off the air of trying so hard that they skip past awkward and back to charming again. Watching him gracelessly hulking around stages like an overgrown high-school quarterback at a pep rally — and often falling off those same stages — you wonder how he ended up in music and not politics. But like the congressional candidate brewing inside, he knows how to plaster on a smile and play to his constituents.
Like rap, DIY punk, or any other genre tied deeply to a subculture, country never stops recycling its familiar narratives, tropes, and talking points, but its delivery system for those narratives is constantly evolving. Bryan’s music has always reflected an understanding of that. Over the past decade, postmillenial country shifted away from Kenny Chesney’s laid-back nü-Buffetisms to a 24-hour keg party spanning from the corn fields to the shoreline. Bryan was at the forefront of that trend, releasing seven annual Spring Break EPs from 2009-2015 along with singles like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “Crash My Party” (that one’s a sultry slow jam; very sneaky, Bryan). So if bro-country is on its way out, how can its mascot-king be besting Dr. Dre’s long-awaited comeback album and putting up the third-best first-week sales figure of 2015? First of all, I’m not so sure bro-country is dying, and secondly, I’m not so sure Bryan is making bro-country anymore.
As for the purported demise of the much-ridiculed, mighty profitable subgenre, Billboard’s report tells a tale of moderation, not extinction. The prevailing theme is that fatigue has set in and the bandwagon jumpers who captialized on the bro-country boom are now pushing the format back toward traditional country sounds. One industry expert called it a “self-correction”; another posited that those who rode bro-country to stardom will have to develop their sound if they want to survive for the long haul. But everybody seems to agree that even if it’s no longer a monolithic force, the movement has become a permanent fixture of country’s sound. Country radio no longer comprises wall-to-wall down-home debauchery, but the bro-country archetype seems to be settling in as one of many country songwriting staples alongside outlaw anthems, honky-tonk dance music, tears-in-your-beer laments, American-freedom-core, etc. And the likes of Sam Hunt will probably continue to find creative new ways to bring rock, rap, and R&B influences to bear on country. Country remains in flux, but its weird transitional phase is starting to even out.
Bryan seems keenly aware of the shifting currents. This year’s Spring Break…Checkin’ Out marks the end of his beach party EP series, and Kill The Lights, his blockbuster new album, leans heavily on the adult-contemporary side of his sound. In keeping with the notion that bro-country’s sonic evolutions are here to stay, there are still traces of other pop genres in this music: the neutered Thriller-era groove on “Kill The Lights”; the synth burble beneath “Way Way Back”; the laser keyboards and programmed drum fill on opening track “Kick The Dust Up,” an arena rock anthem about farmers throwing a killer party in a cornfield; the misty Noah “40” Shebib smears on Karen Fairchild duet “Home Alone Tonight,” a song about the highly Drake-ish business of texting photos of tonight’s fling to your ex. You won’t mistake him for, say, the traditionalist twang of Chris Stapleton (although Bryan is a fan). Yet the album feels targeted at listeners too old to be classified as bros. Bryan just turned 39, and — perhaps realizing that his audience is aging along with him — he seems to be divesting from his teeth-clenching party-hearty side and going all in on the grown-and-sexy cheeseball persona that has always been his truest self.
Thus, Kill The Lights boasts an overabundance of sensuous slow jams (“Strip It Down,” “Home Alone Tonight,” “To The Moon And Back”) and their midtempo cousins (“Kill The Lights,” “Just Over,” “Love It Gone”). And among the requisite paeans to small-town livin’ (“Kick The Dust Up,” “Scarecrow,” “Huntin’, Fishin’ And Lovin’ Everyday”), you’ll find a pair of tunes targeted specifically at listeners on the precipice of middle age. On “Way Way Back,” Bryan urges an old flame to pop a scratched-up CD in the car stereo, cruise down to their old stomping grounds, and rekindle their passion “like it wasn’t all that way, way back.” And then there’s “Fast,” a nostalgia-tinged cliché disguised as a ballad about how the years just fly by, you know? Neither song comes close to “Play It Again,” Bryan’s greatest good-old-days love story and the best song on 2013’s Crash My Party. But like the rest of Kill The Lights, these songs suggest that like fellow Georgia native Future, he knows how to serve the base.
As indicated above, Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights beat out Dr. Dre’s Compton on Billboard 200. Their combined total of 640,000 equivalent units (345,000 for Bryan, 295,000 for Dre) jolted an albums market that had been severely flagging lately. And indeed, Billboard reports that Kill The Lights and Compton sold more than albums #3 through #32 combined.
The best of the rest (in terms of numbers, not quality, my lord) is Now 55, entering at #3 with 76,000. Then comes ex-DC Talk dude TobyMac’s This Is Not A Test, debuting at #4 with 38,000. (His last album, 2012’s Eye On It, debuted at #1.) The rest of the top 10 is filled with familiar titles: Taylor Swift’s 1989 (#5, 33,000), Ed Sheeran’s x (#6, 33,000), Future’s DS2 (#7, 31,000), the Descendants soundtrack (#8, 30,000), Sam Hunt’s Montevallo (#9, 27,000), and Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (#10, 21,000).
Over on the Hot 100, OMI’s “Cheerleader” returns to #1 for the fifth time after a one-week interruption by the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” which returns to #2. The Weeknd, by the way, has two simultaneous top-10 hits again with “The Hills” returning to the chart’s upper echelon; it rises from #11 to #5, a new peak. Speaking of peaks, Silento’s “Watch Me” is back up to #3, Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On” reaches new heights at #4, and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” climbs to #6. Fetty Wap continues to have two simultaneous top-10 hits; this week “Trap Queen” is at #7 and “My Way” is at #8. Male rappers paired with female pop stars inhabit the last two spaces in the top 10: Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood” at #9 and Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s “Good For You” at #10.
It should also be noted that Lana Del Rey appeared to have a #7 hit with “High By The Beach” until Nielsen Music reprocessed its numbers. Instead, the song debuts at #51. Not sure how the original tally could have been that far off, but it’s another reason for Del Rey to mope around that coastline mansion and waiting for the next helicopter to shoot down.
Lady Gaga – “Till It Happens To You”
For her anti-rape PSA song, Gaga went with a theatrical rock power ballad a la Meat Loaf, and I’m all for it.
JoJo – “Say Love,” “Save My Soul,” & “When Love Hurts”
If JoJo had released these a little earlier, I would have written my column about her this week. Hopefully I’ll get around to her later, but in the meantime, check out her “Tringle” (three singles released at once).
Khalil x Kehlani x Justin Bieber – “Future”
Yet another example of late-period Bieber jumping on a quality track, helping shed some light on deserving talent and borrowing some cool from them in the process.
Becky G – “Break A Sweat”
That opening vocal run that serves as the song’s first hook reminds me of both Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” and Nate Ruess’ “AhHa,” and while “Break A Sweat” has less personality than either of those songs (the Dr. Luke effect), it’s the one most likely to carry you away (also the Dr. Luke effect).
Fifth Harmony – “I’m In Love With A Monster”
Fifth Harmony’s Reflection remains really great, but due to their sizable teen fan base and B- or C-list pop group status, they still make dumb soundtrack songs for kids movies. “I’m In Love With A Monster” is no “BO$$” — it’s not even as good as “Worth It,” the Frankenstein’s monster of trends that became their biggest hit so far. It’s not even as good as the jingle from their new Candie’s commercial!
Steve Aoki – “Back To Earth” (Feat. Fall Out Boy)
Musically, “Back To Earth” is the Steve Aoki/Fall Out Boy hate-listen you never realized you wanted. It sounds exactly like you imagine it does. The video is pretty cool, though.
Shaggy – “Only Love” (Feat. Pitbull & Gene Noble)
No shocker here: The Mr. Boombastic x Mr. Worldwide combination results in the worst music I’ve encountered this week. I’d rather listen to my newborn child wail uncontrollably.
Jess Glynne – “Gave Me Something”
With every excellent single from her upcoming I Cry When I Laugh, Glynne inches closer to transcending “that girl from the Clean Bandit song” status. “Gave Me Something” is ace gospel-pop with barely detectable traces of the house music that helped put Glynne on the map.
Ne-Yo – “Friend Like Me”
Our first taste of that Disney covers comp is Ne-Yo singing Robin Williams’ genie introduction song from Aladdin with about 1/4 Williams’ charisma. What a weird pairing of song and artist.
R. City – “Locked Away” (Feat. Adam Levine)
Remember when Adam Levine sang the hook on Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say” and then joked it up with Andy Samberg over an Aphex Twin sample? Remember how good those songs were, and how it made you reevaluate your whole stance on the guy? In case the past decade of Maroon 5 output wasn’t enough, this song is your reminder that your original instinct to recoil from the guy was absolutely correct.
AJae – “Fleek”
AJae is Ashley Jackson, Jesse Jackson’s 16-year-old daughter. Her single “Fleek” is fierce and surprisingly awesome despite being built around a slang word that didn’t exist last year and might be extinct by next year. I especially like the reference to 2 Chainz’s chorus from Lil Wayne’s “Rich As Fuck.”
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Iggy Azalea says she’s not a heroin addict. [Spin]
- The Spice Girls are reuniting to tour for their 20th anniversary, but Posh Spice isn’t participating. [The Sun]
- Calvin Harris and Zayn Malik squared off in a Twitter battle regarding Harris’ girlfriend Taylor Swift. [MTV]
- Here’s Kelly Clarkson covering Lana Del Rey. [YouTube]
- And here are photos from Madonna’s birthday party. [TMZ]
- Sara Bareilles’ first musical, Waitress, opened earlier this month. [NY Times]
- The Weeknd appeared with the cast of Empire in a new Vogue spread. [Vogue]
- Snoop Dogg’s son quit football. [UCLA]
- In happier news, Nickelback have cancelled their tour. [Kerrang]
- Miley Cyrus unveiled the newly designed Video Music Awards moon man. [MTV]
- Steven Tyler will continue his country makeover by singing with Hayden Panettiere on Nashville. [Rolling Stone]
- Shakira joined the cast of Disney’s animated Zootopia. [Slashfilm]
- Rihanna swiftly and brutally shut down NBA player Matt Barnes after he coyly played along with rumors that they’re dating. [The FADER]
- Nate Ruess plays “a goddamn rock star” in a new short film. [Vulture]