Point: Pop Go the CMAs, and We’re Better for It
In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins' character Andy Dufresne opines that one should "get busy living, or get busy dying." Country music and country music awards shows got the message in about 2005.
That's the year the CMA Awards went to New York City. It's the same year Carrie Underwood — country music's first Hollywood-born star — made her debut. Record ratings came with the 2005 broadcast, and while numbers have wobbled over the last decade, it's hard to argue that the format hasn't found new air to breathe.
Clean, smog-free, pop air.
This stings the traditionalist's heart, but by asking for the genre to return to its roots, you're asking to turn back time. How has that worked out for other styles of music? Rock radio is a rumor — at best it's a format reliant on old music and stars that are dying. The content of what's on country radio is debatable (and it surely has been), but few can deny our format is thriving on the radio and on television. For better or worse, it's musical gentrification.
In recent years the two biggest country awards shows have hit and missed with pop collaborations. Ariana Grande joining Little Big Town in 2014 was a hit. Meghan Trainor joining Miranda Lambert to sing "All About That Bass" at that same year's CMAs was delightful.
In 2015, Fall Out Boy teamed with Thomas Rhett at the CMAs and their performance was widely panned. But that same year, Justin Timberlake teamed with Chris Stapleton and frankly, we haven't stopped talking about it.
The ACMs tend to be even more daring. Dolly Parton teamed with Katy Perry last April (a hit!) Nick Jonas also shared a stage with Kelsea Ballerini and, well, we're still trying to get that five minutes back. Sometimes the collaborations are forced. Cam teaming up with Fifth Harmony at the CMT Awards was a mistake that insulted the "Burning House" singer's talents. When there's chemistry (see Stapleton/Timberlake), there's a chance for a universally celebrated musical moment.
It's a risk, but without risk the CMAs, ACMs (and ACCAs) risk tasting vanilla. A night full of controversial performances isn't a loss for the broadcast or country music as a whole — a night that no one can remember one week later is what stokes apathy. There's an old rule in radio that applies: Make 'em love you or make 'em hate you, just make 'em feel something.
Awards shows are country music's best opportunity to attract new fans, and that's absolutely essential to avoid apathy or atrophy. The core fan is going to watch all three hours. But stars like Timberlake, Jamie Foxx, Natasha Bedingfield and Gwyneth Paltrow (it wasn't pretty, but that happened) are who the tepid or on-the-fence fans are coming to see. And hopefully they stick around to learn to love the Luke Bryan, Keith Urban and Tim McGraws of the format. If your non-country auntie is texting you the next day to talk about (insert artist here), the show has won.
Sam Hunt is working on new music, and frankly, that terrifies those hoping 2017 is the year Juice Newton stages her comeback.
If Fox News, Today or The View are talking about a performance or pairing, country music wins. If no one but the core country music audience is discussing what happened, we all lose.
Artists recognize this, which is why there's more outside influence than ever on the radio. Pink and Elle King have country hits right now, and Los Angeles-based songwriters are pairing with Nashville's best at regular clip. The guy behind "Uptown Funk" was behind one of the best country albums of 2015, Cam's Untamed. Sam Hunt is working on new music, and frankly, that terrifies those hoping 2017 is the year Juice Newton stages her comeback.
Get busy living or get busy dying. We're all moving forward or we're moving backward. There's no shame in longing for yesterday's style of country music — some days just require Waylon and Willie — but those at the head of our format (like the Country Music Association) need to keep pushing forward to ensure the many three-letter awards show aren't replaced by three different letters: R.I.P.
The Boot and Taste of Country’s collaborative Point / Counterpoint series features staff members from the two sites debating topics of interest within country music once per month. Check back in October for another installment.
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