Full disclosure, I prefer the musical stylings of Arcade Fire to Kenny Chesney. In fact, by the time the 2013 Grammy-winners for best album wrap up their current world tour at the end of this month, I will have seen it on two stops -- Minneapolis and Chicago. In contrast, by the time Mr. Chesney wraps up his last tour, of his last album, ever, I will likely have seen him perform live exactly zero times. These aren't judgments, they're just numbers -- numbers meant to save you the time of speculating about my possible bias. Now that I've got that out of the way, let me ask you: when did country music turn into such a zealous advocate for blackouts and binges? Has inebriation always had the drop on moderation when it comes to the creative output of Nashville's finest? I think the answer is probably: sort of, but never like this.
Currently more than 10 percent of the top country songs contain drinking references in the title alone, which has more than doubled from a year ago. But, that's just the titles. Spend an hour listening to any country music station these days and you may quickly notice that most songs make at least some reference to booze. Last month, when Billboard Magazine itself was prompted to ask whether country music needs an alcohol intervention, they noted that eight songs of the current top 10 devote lyrics to alcohol. Eighty percent? Maybe it's no surprise that Diet Coke-endorsing Taylor Swift has left country behind with her latest album.
But the problem is not just the stunning lack of diversity in current country lyrics. It is, after all, a genre and genres are characterized by similarities in form, style and subject matter. The problem is what that lack of diversity reflects, and how it may be manifesting in a recent outbreak of violent crime, mass arrests, self-endangerment and trashing of cities. Taken as a whole, these beer-slamming, tequila-shooting, long-night-having refrains and choruses have come to represent something known as "bro country." And bro country is big business. The bestselling digital country song of all time -- the standard bearer for the bro country movement -- is 2012's "Cruise" by the duo known as Florida Georgia Line. Described as representing the "male-fantasy endless summer" of drinking, plentiful "girls" and cool cars, even a moderate dose of bro country will leave you with one boldfaced, unambiguous impression: getting drunk is good. The bros, it seems, could use some more positive role-modeling.
Whether it's mass alcohol-related hospitalizations at a Keith Urban concert, allegations of rape after hours of tailgating at the same show, or the tragedy of a 22-year-old being found dead in a landfill after getting extremely intoxicated at a Jason Aldean concert, this summer has seen more than its share of hard-partying country gone awry. Lots of tailgating, lots of red Solo cups full of booze, lots of problems. So why is this? Why is Nashville's ability to pass a Breathalyzer more dubious than ever? Are the bros just so valuable to the bottom line that their lyrical thirsts must be quenched, consequences be damned? Or, is it the other way around, and is country music responsible for cultivating a new generation of fans hooked on its unhealthy messages and the strong buzz they pack?
Chances are, it's some of both.
While the link between music and problematic behavior has been debated for decades and spanned everything from rock to rap, the amount of drinking in 2014 country music is in a league of it's own -- a league that you could easily imagine having corporate sponsorship from Anheuser Busch or Jack Daniels. And I'm not suggesting that songs about drinking are limited to country -- recall Jamie Foxx's formerly ubiquitous "Blame It (On the Alcohol)" -- or that they are, in and of themselves, a bad thing in moderation. But again, the current situation with country is different, and it's sad to see.
My whole life hasn't actually been spent on the opposite side of the record store from country. In fact, I grew up humming along to classics like "The Gambler," "Always on My Mind," and "Elvira," just to name a few. More recently, I kinda like Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood. Across all the years, artists don't get more timeless than Loretta Lynn. But where I and many other children of the 70s or 80s might have had the chance to get a taste of country without the throat burn of whiskey, today's biggest hits just don't offer that opportunity. "Bartender" and "Drunk on a Plane" -- songs about getting blackout drunk in a bar and, well, on a plane -- are currently at numbers four and five on Billboard's Top 10 Hot Country Songs. For the bros and anyone else who might be listening, the message is loud, if not a bit slurred: deep intoxication is a great solution to your problems.
You've probably heard the old joke that when you play a country song backwards, you get your wife, your dog and your truck back. In 2014, it seems that you might sober up.