The country music world finds itself in the middle of a heated discussion this week over the airplay fortunes of reigning CMA Vocal Group Of The Year Little Big Town’s current single “Girl Crush.” In the following, we recap the controversy and look at what the data has to say about the song’s impact in the market and at country radio.
“Girl Crush” – The Song
Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” written by the Love Junkies, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose, went for adds on 12/15/2014, the follow-up to their #1 Country Aircheck/Mediabase & #2 Billboard Country Airplay-peaking “Day Drinking,” and the 2nd single off their Pain Killer album. It’s a smoldering waltz that takes a phrase common to pop culture parlance, one about innocent envy that a woman may have of another woman, and takes it into “Single White Female” territory:
I want to taste her lips, yeah ’cause they taste like you
I want to drown myself in a bottle of her perfume,
I want her long, blonde hair, I want her magic touch,
Yeah ’cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much.
I got a girl crush.
One of the reasons for its selection is that the week Pain Killer was released, “Girl Crush” had shot up to #5 Itunes country after a spin on the
Clear Channel iHeartRadio-syndicated Bobby Bones Show, ahead of all other album tracks. Another may have been the enthusiasm the song was generating among their fellow artists. A month after the album came out, for example, Kelly Clarkson broke out a cover of the song in a live show, and country superstar Miranda Lambert and Voice alum Gwen Sebastian would follow suit about 7 weeks later.
When the song was released, the band was aware that it might be a risk. Karen Fairchild (who sings lead on the song) said as much in a this Rolling Stone interview:
“It could be a bit of a game changer on country radio right now. There are not many women on the radio and not many ballads with that kind of lyrical content. I’m excited.
For that matter, at least 1 of the songwriters didn’t expect the band to want to cut the song, but both Kimberly Schlapman and Jimi Westbrook talked about how the song took their breath away when they 1st heard it.
“Girl Crush” has been a fixture in the t10 of the Billboard Country Digital chart for weeks, and sits at #4 this week with 25k copies sold (270k total to date). Meanwhile, the song has been charting for 15 weeks at country radio and sits at #32 on both the Billboard Country Airplay and Mediabase-based Country Aircheck chart. But it appeared to have hit a wall at country radio over the past week and a half, suffering a loss of its spin bullet on the Mediabase rolling chart (-116 spins on the 3/25/2015 chart).
Anti-Gay Prejudice, “Girl Crush,” & Country Airplay
Bobby Bones was the 1st mass media personality to start banging the drum over the sales/airplay gap for “Girl Crush.” On 3/17/2015 (just as “Girl Crush” had started its recent stall), he had Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman on his morning show and asked them if they were frustrated that some stations weren’t playing it because they thought it was “a lesbian song” (even though it isn’t, and all involved with the interview agreed that even if it were, it shouldn’t matter). It was not unreasonable to think that country radio programmers were fearful of offending conservative listeners who might misinterpret “Girl Crush” as a song representative of a lesbian’s point of view – this exact thing had happened just last year with Kacey Musgraves‘s “Follow Your Arrow,” which bricked outside of t40 on country radio but went gold and won its writers Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Musgraves the CMA Award for Song Of The Year anyway.
A subsequent For The Country Record guest post from an anonymous Texas country station Music Director (later identified) appeared to confirm Bones’s assertion. The post explained that in the wake of complaints from “more than a handful of people” who asserted that by playing the song, the station was “promoting the gay agenda,” his/her boss suggested that they move “Girl Crush” from medium to light rotation (less than 14 spins per week). That was followed by this Washington Post Style Blog post quoting a named source, Alanna Lynn, morning co-host on Boise country station Wow 104.3FM, about the barrage of listener complaints that followed her “Girl Crush” spins. Lynn posted her own thoughts on her station’s website:
Would you be surprised to hear that I have fielded more angry phone calls and emails on this song in all my years in radio…and it’s been a few. =) I absolutely adore this song. I can see where some would deem it inappropriate but it’s really not. It is about a woman who is longing to find out what it is about the woman who stole her man. Please don’t think I don’t understand why some people find this song offensive, I absolutely do, and I respect that, but really when you listen to the lyrics, it’s a beautifully, haunting song of love lost.
This was enough to set off a movement among a wide swath of Nashville songwriters and artists in support of the song, among them Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally, Brothers Osborne, America’s Got Talent alum Emily West, and Charlie Worsham (in 2 pointed tweets here and here).
But in a Billboard Midweek Country Update column that surveyed 12 country radio programmers about whether they were hearing the kind of complaints about “Girl Crush” already described, Phyllis Stark pushed back against the above claims, reporting that the programmers to whom she had spoken reported few to no complaints. She went on to make the following assertion:
Whatever ones there are don’t seem to be hurting the song’s performance: It’s bulleted at No. 32 on the April 4 Country Airplay chart after 15 weeks, well within the range of what would be considered a normal chart climb. (The singles just above and below it on the chart are at 17 and 20 weeks, respectively.) Even more tellingly, on the same chart, “Girl Crush” received plays on 139 of the week’s 145 reporters, according to Nielsen Music.
So the magnitude and significance of the complaints against “Girl Crush” is in dispute. But what about Stark’s claims about “Girl Crush”‘s airplay progress? Were people overreacting, as Stark implied?
“Girl Crush”‘s Country Radio Chart Run: A Comparative Look
Stark’s characterization of “Girl Crush”‘s airplay can be disputed on a few grounds. 1st, as noted above, “Girl Crush” had actually lost its 7-day spin bullet on the rolling Mediabase chart as of 2 days ago. 2nd, the neighboring songs she referenced, Rascal Flatts‘s “Riot” and Dustin Lynch‘s “Hell Of A Night,” are hardly reasonable comparison points. They represent releases from a superstar group with a waning radio presence whose previous single peaked at #21 and a relatively new act that is building a solid track record at radio (his previous single went to #1) but would not be expected to move as fast as an established act like Little Big Town.
In addition, while Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” currently sits atop the Itunes Country chart (and #11 all genre), “Riot” sits at #80 Itunes Country (#386 all genre) and “Hell Of A Night” sits #68 Itunes Country (#283 all genre) . Neither has made anywhere near the market splash that “Girl Crush” has, and unlike “Girl Crush,” whose airplay is lagging in a major way behind its sales, “Riot” and “Hell Of A Night” are seeing sales lag behind airplay. This is not a one-week phenomenon spurred by a television performance or a spike in buzz – “Girl Crush”‘s sales have tracked well ahead of its airplay for weeks now.
The sales/airplay disjuncture is noteworthy on its own, and we’ll pick up that topic later. But in an effort to make more of an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to airplay, let’s look at how Little Big Town’s previous 5 singles were doing at the same point in their respective chart runs.
The above chart history helps illustrate the reason for concern about what’s going on with “Girl Crush.” The song’s week 15 airplay & its week 14-to-week-15 progress looks most like that of “Your Side Of The Bed,” which peaked at #27. That song, too, was a favorite among radio programmers, who gave Little Big Town a standing ovation when they performed the song at UMG Nashville’s Lunch At The Ryman showcase at CRS in 2013, and it earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Country Duo/Group Vocal Performance. But also noteworthy here is how “Girl Crush” is tracking well ahead of its airplay on the multi-metric Hot Country Songs chart, which incorporates sales & streams (as well as airplay on other formats, which is not yet a factor here), indicating a level of public interest that radio has yet to acknowledge.
The above chart history also points to another factor that is likely adversely impacting “Girl Crush”‘s airplay at this time. Little Big Town’s faster movers, “Pontoon,” “Tornado” and “Day Drinking” were all faster songs, and 2 out of 3 of them were upbeat. The slower movers have all been ballads. So the discussion about why “Girl Crush”‘s airplay is lagging behind its sales would probably be best-served if it were to widen beyond the debate over its provocative lyrics to incorporate other issues. Let’s consider some of those other factors now.
Ballads Vs. Uptempo Songs
Recently, R.J. Curtis reported that his discussions of Eric Paslay’s current single, “She Don’t Love You” and Jake Owen’s current single “What We Ain’t Got“ with radio programmers have elicited the following comments:
“career song,” “powerful” and “his best-ever performance,”
“I can’t play it; it’s a tempo killer.”
Here is the week 15 airplay data for the Owen and Paslay singles:
While the airplay gap here is closer than the gap between Little Big Town’s uptempo songs and ballads, “Girl Crush” is still tracking 19% behind “She Don’t Love You”‘s week 15 audience impressions (16% in detections) and 23% behind “What We Ain’t Got”‘s week 15 audience impressions (9% in detections), despite tracking well ahead of both songs on the multi-metric Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In addition, the fact that “Girl Crush” trails further in audience impressions than it does in detections/spins points to the song’s spins being relegated to lower-rated times of the day (overnight, for example) than the other ballads.
The Tempo Factor – Callout Data
In an effort to see how much of the current airplay response to “Girl Crush” can be chalked up to radio/listener resistance to slow ballads, let’s look at how “Girl Crush”‘s callout and that of the aforementioned “She Don’t Love You” and “What We Ain’t Got.” 1st, the data from Mediabase/Critical Mass Media:
Now, the data from Callout America:
All 3 slow ballads rank in the top-10 most negatively rated songs on the Mediabase/CMM survey, though “Girl Crush”‘s negatives are significantly higher than those of the other 2 songs. Both “Girl Crush” and “She Don’t Love You” score comparably high negatives at Callout America, where “What We Ain’t Got” fares considerably better overall. “What We Ain’t Got” also fares better on total and net favorable ratings than both songs on both surveys, landing in the middle of the pack across most categories. Not coincidentally, “What We Ain’t Got” is the highest of the 3 songs on the airplay charts right now.
All this suggests that while it may be difficult in the current environment for a ballad to score across-the-board favorables and low negatives, it’s not impossible for one to at least rate moderately highly on current callout surveys. Additionally, a breakdown of callout for “Girl Crush” reveals that its tempo is not getting in the way of the song connecting especially well with some listeners, and that “Girl Crush”‘s current airplay issues connect to country radio’s gender problem.
Gender & Callout
Country radio’s failure to solve its gender imbalance problem is a much-discussed topic, and there are other quite recent examples of female-voiced country singles who outperformed male-voiced country singles in the market but whose airplay lagged behind those male-voiced singles. The disparity boils down to male-voiced singles that benefit in testing from not standing out from their predominantly male counterparts, with melodies and lyrics that are often quite similar to those of their male counterparts – this makes them safer to add and play in high rotation. The fact that “Girl Crush” is a ballad with an atypical lyrical orientation, and voiced by a female does, as Karen Fairchild pointed out in the quote noted above, make it stand out. Songs that stand out drive greater investment and can lead to greater sales (as it happening here), but can be tougher sells at radio in a climate where programmers shy away from songs that elicit a high negative response.
To wit: here is the current week’s callout on Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” via Mediabase/Critical Mass Media, broken out by gender and age group of the listeners:
In addition to the raw numbers, consider this: among females between the ages of 25 to 34, “Girl Crush” ranks #17 (out of 35 songs tested) overall, has the 2nd highest percentage of people in the demo who consider the song a favorite, but also the 2nd highest percentage with a negative opinion of the song. Among females between the ages of 35 and 44, “Girl Crush” ranks #18 overall, has the highest percentage of people in the demo who consider the song a favorite, but the 3rd highest percentage with a negative opinion of the song. Among males between the ages of 25 and 34, “Girl Crush” ranks #30 overall with low overall favorables despite the highest percentage of people in the demo who consider the song a favorite, and the 3rd highest percentage with a negative opinion of the song. Among males between the ages of 35 and 44, “Girl Crush” ranks last among of 35 songs, 28th in the percentage of people in the demo who consider the song a favorite, and has the highest percentage with a negative opinion of the song.
Here is last week’s callout data on Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” via Callout America, also broken out by gender and age group of the listeners:
As for how “Girl Crush” ranks by demo among the 35 songs tested:
Females, 18-24: #7 overall, #7 favorite, #25 most disliked
Females, 25-34: #5 overall, #14 favorite, #17 most disliked
Females, 35-44: #29 overall, #20 favorite, #2 most disliked
Females, 45-54: #24 overall, #24 favorite, #6 most disliked
Males, 18-24: #26 overall, #27 favorite, #6 most disliked
Males, 25-34: #35 overall, #34 favorite, #1 most disliked
Males, 35-44: #28 overall, #16 favorite, #4 most disliked
Males, 45-54: #32 overall, #29 favorite, #7 most disliked
Broadly speaking, both surveys should put to rest the notion that this is a case of female listeners not supporting a song performed by female, especially when it comes to female listeners 34 and younger. In fact, both surveys show that both the strongest favorable ratings for “Girl Crush” and the lower negatives come from female listeners, while the lowest favorable ratings and the highest negatives for the song come from some male listeners.
At the same time, there is some evidence of a polarized response to “Girl Crush,” regardless of gender, with the song rating highly in both the “Favorite” and “Negative” categories compared to other current songs being surveyed in several demos. The high “Favorite” rankings correlate with “Girl Crush”‘s stand-out performance in the downloads market, but the high “Negative” rankings likely explain its recent airplay struggles.
Whatever the reason for the polarized response to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” the way that country radio weights the negative response to the song against the high positive passion the song is inspiring will provide a key glimpse into whether country radio is truly trying to escape the homogenizing shackles of bro-country domination from the past few years. That phase in country radio was, as noted by songwriters Craig Wiseman and Shane Minor (both here) and superstar Eric Church (here and here), highly targeted towards male listeners, particular those who were former rock radio listeners. Current callout surveys suggest is it that demographic of listeners that isn’t enamored of “Girl Crush” (and female-voiced singles in general) but also point to an opportunity to draw extra tune-in from younger female listeners should country radio support the song.
This week’s lead story in Billboard Country Update was but the latest trade article to declare bro country on the wane, and it affirmed the idea that country radio needs to “re-establish variety as the format’s key facet” to avoid “another cyclical implosion of the format” in the wake of the decline in 18-34 listeners since December 2012. As country radio transitions out of bro country domination, it’s only natural that the fans of that phase who have stuck around might resist the opening and the change that a song like “Girl Crush” might represent. But future audience depends on radio programmers identifying and supporting the songs with the potential to bring new listeners in to offset the ones that are leaving anyway, and the market appeal and passion inspired by “Girl Crush” suggest that it is such a song. This morning’s Mediabase update saw “Girl Crush” up by 83 spins and 558k in audience impressions in a single day – here’s hoping it’s a sign that country radio is starting to look forward.