Since her emergence in 2005, country superstar and season 4 American Idol champ Carrie Underwood has been the most consistent female at country radio. Every single one of her 18 officially promoted singles to country radio has made the top 2 and 17 out of those 18 singles have hit #1 on the Mediabase/Country Aircheck chart. If you look at the Billboard Country Airplay chart, which has been around since January 20, 1990, Carrie Underwood has notched 12 solo #1 hits (13 if you count “Remind Me,” her duet with Brad Paisley, with her other 5 official singles reaching #2), more than any other female in that chart’s existence (Reba is 2nd with 11 solo #1s, but Reba also had 13 solo #1s prior to 1990). This success comes in the same era that hasn’t seen a solo country female back up her 1st solo t10 country hit with another t10 country hit since Miranda Lambert did in late 2009 (when “White Liar” became her 2nd t10 hit after “Gunpowder & Lead.”). It also comes in an era when the last time a solo female backed up her 1st solo t20 country hit with a 2nd consecutive t20 country hit was in 2007, when Lambert, Kellie Pickler, and Taylor Swift all pulled off the same feat.
Therefore, when Carrie Underwood speaks up about country radio and on the issue of how steep an uphill climb it is for women on the format, her comments reflect the thoughts of the format’s most relevant female of the past decade. So, what does Carrie have to say?
In a new interview with Phyllis Stark of Billboard, Carrie makes pointed comments about the number of talented women trying to break into the format, the unbalanced treatment of new females compared new males, *and* how the dominance of what New York mag’s Jody Rosen calls “bro country” (see: here and here) seems to be working against women at country radio. Carrie observes:
“There is certainly not a shortage of talented ladies out there that want so badly to get their fair shot in this business. But there seems to be only room for only a few…there seem to be so many male singers out there who can be viewed as similar, and there seems to be plenty of room for all of them.”
After 2013 saw plenty of new bros like Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, and Tyler Farr hitting #1 while the closest any new female got to the top of the airplay charts was Kacey Musgraves’s #10-peaking “Merry Go Round,” Carrie talks about the difference while crediting American Idol for her own breakout:
“We see new male artists have their first single reach No. 1 on the charts, but it generally takes a female a lot longer to build momentum. I know that I am an exception to this, but I [also] know that if I hadn’t made my place in country music via ‘American Idol,’ I probably could have tried to make it for the rest of my life and never made any progress.”
Not only did Carrie arrive at country radio with a big fanbase, she also arrived with national name recognition and a certain amount of audience familiarity, which may have helped her weather what she describes as the extra level of scrutiny to which females are subjected:
“It seems women are expected to be so much more than men, which means we have to work that much harder. We’re the ones under the microscope. We’re expected to sound perfect. We’re expected to look perfect all the time. We’re expected to be style-setters, whereas the boys roll onto the stage in their jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps.”
Sound familiar? That’s a parallel to many a discussion we’ve had here at MJ’s about the reign of the WGWG on American Idol.
Picking up on her comments about the format supporting an abudance of “male singers…who can be viewed as similar,” Carrie also responds to a question about the dominance of “bro country” songs at country radio in a time when women are singing about wider and deeper slices of life:
“I don’t think women can get away with the partying, beer-drinking, hung-over, truck-driving kind of music that a lot of the guys have gotten away with lately.”
Country star/Season 16 Dancing With The Stars champ/Season 5 American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler, who has had 6 career t20 country hits (based on the Mediabase/Country Aircheck chart) but hasn’t seen the t20 of the airplay charts since 2009 despite widespread critical acclaim for her last 2 albums, agrees and also points out that the women who do get airplay pick up more sales per spin than their male counterparts:
“It does kind of seem like it’s a big party right now. All the women that are played [on the radio] are outselling the men, and people are listening to what they have to say, so I don’t know why more women aren’t played.”
Kellie is right about the women who do get radio support outselling the guys. Consider Kacey Musgraves, who has sold 315k copies of her critically-acclaimed and now Grammy-winning album, Same Trailer, Different Park off 1 t10 country hit, another single that peaked in the t25, and another that didn’t make the t40. Musgraves had the highest first week and total sales of any mainstream country act releasing a debut country album in 2013, far outpacing new and even some better-established acts with more radio support, including Eldredge, Randy Houser, Rhett, Farr, and more. Just last week, Jennifer Nettles (who, just to be fair, is known from multi-platinum act Sugarland, which hadn’t released a new album since 2010’s Incredible Machine), opened with 54k in 1st week sales for an album whose lead single barely made t40, exceeding the first week sales of hitmakers like Chris Young (who released his latest album on September 17, 2013), Billy Currington (who also released his latest album on September 17, 2013), and Jake Owen (who released his album on December 3, 2013).
Country singer-songwriter Suzy Bogguss, who was part of the 1990s wave of female artists who were able to break through in a time when country radio was much more open to new women, also contributes criticism of today’s bro country overload and talks about the importance of female listeners speaking up and demanding songs that speak to their lives. That’s a point Carrie had previously made in her September 2008 Allure cover story, saying:
“Look at the top ten songs on the country charts right now-one, maybe two may be female. A lot more men than women have record deals…I know [the record companies] figure out their target audience is thirtysomething females. So they get guy singers in there, thinking that will appeal to them. But there’s nobody left for these thirtysomething women to relate to!”
She followed those observations with additional comments in her February 2013 Allure cover story:
“It’s like there are a hundred spots for men to be able to take, but when it comes to women-and I don’t mean to say this in a bragging way at all-but unfortunately I’m the only female this year who spent three weeks at number one on the country charts. Three weeks! And that’s two different songs-‘Good Girl’ and ‘Blown Away’ that it took to make those three weeks. I think that for some reason there seem to be less spots available for women.”
One of the reasons the situation for women at country radio has only gotten worse is country radio’s apparent wooing of the male 18-34 demo that is migrating away from rock radio and looking for a new home. As those of you who read some of my tweets and Callout America reports here at MJ’s know, some weekly snapshots of the preferences of the male 18-34 demo’s favorite tunes reveal a major preference for truck/tailgate/beer party songs and a real lack of diversity and openness to females in their tastes compared to other demos. The country airplay charts of 2013 showed much more similarity to the preferences of the male 18-34 demo that I’ve seen than to the preferences of any other demo. It’s not unusual for country radio to chase after a new demo, but what’s unusual about last year’s trend is how much it narrowed the field of what country radio would play to truck/tailgate/beer/party songs (something Billboard has written about), and how (arguably) the charts overserved one demo at the expense of the diverse, multi-generational appeal that’s been the basis for country radio and country music’s broad fanbase.
What do you think of Carrie and Kellie’s comments, and do you think their speaking up can have any impact on country radio?