The 2019 CMA Awards Drama & “Boyfriend Country,” Explained

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After the women of country music took center stage at the CMA Awards last night (minus a gross oversight in not giving Carrie Underwood their Entertainer of the Year award), the men who program country radio are doing everything they can think of to justify not playing their records today. 
There’s been a war brewing between country radio, fans, and the industry for a long time. Women have become more and more underrepresented over the last 10 years, and we have the data to prove it. According to the Annenberg Inclusionist Initiative, women only received 16% of radio airplay from 2014 to 2018. It’s a big deal because in country music, radio is still king. Apparently, that king has no want for a queen.

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PHoto: Taylor Hill/Getty Images.
Jennifer Nettles, a huge solo star in her own right in addition to being part of the duo Sugarland, wore a statement outfit on the red carpet because she’s Ready To Talk About It. Her Elvis-inspired jumpsuit, made by Christian Siriano, had a message to radio programmers literally written on the pink-lined cape: play our fucking records, please and thank you. On the back was the phrase “equal play.”
“What’s more womanly than using fashion to point a subversive finger and tell you to play our records?” Nettles said to Access Hollywood on the red carpet. She was taking a chance by wearing the outfit and speaking out at all, because the men who are gatekeepers in country radio do not like to be told what to do — or be called out for their exclusionary playlists. Radio programmers and personalities are pushing back against Nettles today with some absolutely wild tweets, from “make records that sound more like men” to “make better records.” The Women of Music Action Network, an advocacy group made up of artists, songwriters, and women in the country music industry, cataloged some gems.
And while the CMAs were making time to showcase women, the men who program country radio were making up a new genre: boyfriend country. A little trend piece on this made-up subgenre ran ahead of the CMAs, trying to tag the “sensitivity” of several CMA nominated songs from a “new breed” of male singers into something that honors women and the #MeToo movement by not...cheating on women and treating them like humans deserving of love? 
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TL;DR description of “boyfriend country” (which is not adjacent to Bachelor Nation, nor is it a funny concept in the slightest): Country audiences don’t need to let women tell their own stories because the loving men in their lives can do it for them.
The CMAs took a swing this year by doing something to work towards acknowledging women in this genre and legitimizing their voices — and addressing the ageism women face in the industry. The Annenberg report from earlier this year found that while the average age of men topping the country charts was 42, women hit a wall before they turn 30. The show was hosted by country music’s biggest star, Carrie Underwood, along with Rebe McEntire and Dolly Parton, both icons. Loretta Lynn, who rarely makes public appearances due to her poor health, was in the front row while a slew of women sang, very pointedly, the chorus of her 1971 hit “You’re Lookin’ At Country.” Women whose faces were old and new to the genre lined the stage and the audience. But CMA announcers never explicitly said anything about what point the performance was making — or urged equity for women artists — which feels like a huge missed opportunity. 
The thing is, women are making absolutely killer country records — and no, they don’t necessarily sound like the records men are making. The Highwomen serviced a classic country single, “Redefining Women” to a format in October that has been virtually ignored by country radio stations, despite it having Maren Morris on the track — she took home the CMA Album of the Year award, has a No. 1 record in the format, and her single “Girl” (itself a feminist statement) went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. But that wasn’t country enough for country radio’s gatekeepers. It seems like no women make music that is, unless they’ve got a duet with a man or they manage to squeeze into one of the very few allotted slots for women. 

Kacey Musgraves has catapulted to superstar level in country music since her last album, Golden Hour; was the only person to directly address radio play inequity for women from the stage of the CMAs. She added a notch to her belt by winning the CMA Female of the Year last night and took a direct shot at the notion of “boyfriend country” in her acceptance speech. “I feel that the female creative spirit, the female energy — it’s really needed right now,” Musgraves said. “And so whether it’s me that’s up here or any of the other women in this category, I just think it’s a beautiful thing.”
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