Country music may be one of the last great bastions of sexism. The genre has come under fire from artists such as Miranda Lambert, who has repeatedly vocalized her frustrations about the lack of female airplay on the radio. And in the last decade, a new form of country has cemented itself in the redneck patriarchy: bro country. Artists like Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, and Jason Aldean represent this new country sound. So what exactly is bro country, and what do the artists who represent it have to say about it?
An article in Vulture aptly defined bro country: “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” It’s the kind of country that is popular on the radio and with masses of fans, but exactly the music that fans of “real country” find appalling. The themes of bro country mainly center on summer, drinking, women, and outdoors. One could argue that these themes are fairly timeless in country music (Hank Williams had a tear in his beer, of course). However, bro country takes them in a different direction.
Instead of crooning about the emotion associated with the pursuit or loss of women, bro country focuses solely on the conquest. Women are merely objects to be had. Their role is to simply exist as the object of male lust. Similarly, Johnny Cash sang about drinking. But it was in the context of larger existential themes. Certainly one of the fairest critiques of bro country is that it is style over substance. And what’s more, bro country lacks the maturity that earlier country music promoted.
Values of Classic Country
As Vulture described it, “That classic country vocal style wasn’t just ornamental. It stood for a masculine ideal, for stoicism and resolve in the face of hardship. It bespoke country’s devotion to realism, to songs about Saturday night’s hootenanny and Sunday morning’s moral reckoning, not to mention the kitchen-table truths of Monday through Friday. Country has always been pop’s most mature genre. If rock strives to ‘hold onto 16 as long as you can,’ as Mellencamp once put it, country aims for the opposite. Young country singers have learned to project gravitas beyond their years, singing songs about home and hearth and other grown-up stuff.”
Bro country is a return to youthful recklessness, the abandonment of responsibility, and the idea that life is an endless summer fling.
One great example of bro country is the song “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. The song lacks traditional country instruments, such as fiddle or steel guitar. But beyond that, it’s just a song about summer, whiskey, and bikinis. It’s generic at best. Yet it was incredibly popular.
This isn’t to say that all bro country is the same. There are varieties, though they are more variations on the theme than a new melody. Some of these new sounds incorporate more hip-hop and rock than others. And the artists range from the bad biker (Brantley Gilbert) to the highly metrosexual (Luke Bryan) to the redneck cowboy (Jason Aldean). But all of it is a movement toward an ongoing adolescent male fantasy that pushes country away from tradition in both sound and theme.
Father of Bro Country: Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan has often been referred to as the father of bro country, which admittedly isn’t a compliment. It’s an inherent criticism, assuming that it isn’t coming from a fraternity chapter that is grateful for the artist who finally ‘gets’ them. Similarly, Bryan has also been called the frat boy of country music, despite the fact that he is now in his 40s.
But Bryan isn’t taking the criticism lightly. He said that he finds the label offensive, both because it degrades his music and stereotypes his fans.
“I take a little offense,” he told Cleveland Entertainment. “I feel the initial term ‘bro-country’ was created to be kind of a little degrading to what’s popular, to what country artists are doing right now… It just seems like a term that was invented to cheapen me as an artist.”
He went on to complain about how the term describes his fans. “My fans are there because my version of music is what they love, and that’s what I’m all about,” Bryan said. “When people say ‘Luke Bryan fans are nothing but beer drinkers,’ that makes me mad because I know they’re more than that. They are the people who make this country go round and round.”
Notice that Bryan failed to consider why he received the label of father of bro country in the first place. Many women love Luke Bryan and his music, which is fine. But that doesn’t mean that it is isn’t degrading to women.
Bryan’s music has become increasingly sexually explicit. And the terms he uses to describe women paint them as infantilized creatures existing to satisfy male desire. A singer who consistently calls a woman “little girl” is offensive to some. As the Dallas Observer described them, “In nearly every Luke Bryan song, women are described exclusively as nameless conquests, certainly not the kind of sex that is associated with enthusiastic consent and, God forbid, women’s pleasure.”
But there’s more to Bryan’s sexism than his songs. When asked about the lack of female airplay or promotion, he said that women can’t “hang with the guys” because of the demands of makeup.
“They kind of have to be able to hang with the guys but also be feminine and pretty,” Bryan tells EW. “Some girls on radio tours, it will take them two hours to get all dolled up to do three songs for a radio guy.” Meanwhile, men can “wake up, throw on a hat,” and hang with the guys.”
With this statement, Bryan completely ignored the role of record executives, labels, and radio execs. He also ignored the fact that pop music is not experiencing the same level of sexism that country is. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Beyonce somehow managed to make their mark in spite of the glam demands. This problem is unique to country music.
So though Bryan doesn’t like his music being called bro country, it isn’t because he dislikes the music. He is fine with the sound and the themes. He just doesn’t like the criticism of it.
Gilbert is another bro country artist, though his music is not as obvious or explicit as Bryan’s. To be fair, Brantley Gilbert does produce music that has quite a bit of substance. His “Just As I Am”, for example, is a deeply introspective work about his struggle with addiction. But in a review of his fourth studio album, The Devil Don’t Sleep, writer Jewly Hight notes that Brantley Gilbert “doubles down on bro country.”
As she describes his album, it’s “clear that he’s committed to not only inhabiting but thoroughly exploring a particular kind of bro-ish identity: the tough guy tentatively wading into introspective territory…he projects the persona of the prickly-yet-repentant bad boy who leans on his swagger even as he exaggerates the labor of confessing his hidden sensitivity.”
Hight goes on to note the imbalanced gender roles in Gilbert’s music. Take his song, “You Could Be That Girl.”
“Well, I’m lookin’ for a Bonnie,” Gilbert sings, “lookin’ for a P.I.C. — a little partner in crime; come hell or high water she’s down, she’s ridin’ with me. Little miss watch-for-blue-lights, while I drive you can hold that .45. Go down in a blaze of glory; I always loved that story.” But in the second verse, he talks about her religious devoutness– including how she will pray for him.
Women are often subject to conflicting demands. They are both terrestrial as Mother Earth and ethereal as angels. Brantley Gilbert seems to expect his woman to readily comply with both roles while accepting him for exactly who he is (“Outlaw In Me”). And he doesn’t seem to be changing anything in his playbook.
Artists have taken enough criticism over the bro country ethic that some change has occurred. Bryan noted that his What Makes You Country has a more country sound. And artists like Chris Stapleton and even Garth Books continue to dominate the industry. But women still lack a significant place in country music and they aren’t the only minorities that country music fails to adequately represent, particularly as artists.
No one expects country music to be a feminist utopia. But it is difficult to look at the state of country music today and not see a regression to a more adolescent, hyper-masculine ideal that relies on an extremely simple formula to sell records. And perhaps that is as much the fault of the audience as it is the artists and industry executives. Perhaps we need to demand more because we do expect more.
What do you think about all this?