I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.
I do. I do. I do.
—Bikini Kill, “I Like Fucking”
Even if you don’t like Luke Bryan, it would seem reasonable to think that he was one of the more important stories in country music this year, with his EP collection Spring Break, Here to Party, and his full-length album Crash My Party. It’s not just the sales—though they are impressive, with the former going fold and the latter receiving eventual platinum designation—but the world around Bryan. A bit of a standard bearer for populism, and very much a man who advocates pleasure for pleasure’s sake, he has become the latest victim of this dual nature of money versus critical acclaim. It seems you can buy Bryan’s records, go to his concerts, be a “fan”, or you can be critically engaged. There is an idea that Bryan’s work is badly written, or badly performed, or that he is stupid. This backlash against his popularity has been the swinging ax of Nashville this year: Success, and then backlash, with a very contemporary collection of Twitter pissing matches. Snipes about the genre’s purity, bad notices in the big city papers (the discussion of him in the New York Times was brutal), a string of sold out concerts, and awards won and lost.
All of this is vital to an understanding of the genre, but it forgets something. Crash My Party might have been the best country album of the year: witty, well-constructed, beautifully sung, and cleverly written. Even more than that, his sentimentality and his heartbreak are where he is at his weakest. His best work is work that foregrounds pleasure, both the singular pleasures of sex and the communitarian works of what happens in bars and backwoods. Country music has always been about the tensions between Sunday morning and Saturday night—though Bryan knows Sunday morning well, his work about Saturday night works as a bracing corrective to the pieties that occurred before him.
This idea of pleasure, of the loose swing and the obsessive grinding, becomes the central way that we talk about Bryan, and often the central way that Bryan talks about himself, especially this year. Even before the two releases, like a good politician laying the groundwork, he hosted the ACM awards in April, with Blake Shelton, and the patter from the beginning joked around—about who had a bigger dick, about who was stupider, about the dress code. They together, on the safe side of blue, mark the rest of Bryan’s work for the year, and although he won that year, what he won (Entertainer of the Year) might be useful to remember. The rest of the year was Bryan working with some success to be that entertainer, and if that is the case, the reaction is to both people inside and outside of Nashville working on what entertainment means.
In August, just after the album was released, Zac Brown Band—not a band known for its own traditionalism, but rather for its work with or variations on the themes of Jimmy Buffett—called it the worst work that they had heard. Almost immediately, Jason Aldean—thinking that this was as much as about how he and Bryan flirted with rock and hip-hop signifiers as the music itself—went on to Twitter, and tore the Brown Band apart. Country has always had a gentleman’s code: What is said inside the community is not said outside of it and any problems with the aesthetic of an album means less than defending it against outsiders. When the moment becomes public, it is often about what is traditional, and about questions on the outside edges of taxonomy.
Thinking about how public this feud got was like being reminded of the Alan Jackson and George Strait song “Murder on Music Row”, on the cusp of the millennium. If Jackson and Strait claimed that country music was murdered, then much of the discussion between Brown, Bryan, and Aldean was about what to do with the corpse. The interesting thing is that Strait and Jackson have this line about the problems of rock ‘n’ roll—“For the steel guitars no longer cry / And the fiddles barely play / But drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars / Are mixed up in your face.” Aldean and Bryan are unapologetic—about the carnal pleasures of sex, food, dancing, and drinking, but also the formal pleasures of music, about listening to T-Pain, about performing hip-hop in concert, in thinking that, in the words of another member of their crew, Brantley Gilbert, that “Country Must Be Country Wide”. Country has been declared dead since its creation, but it keeps mutating, working wider than it has been before.
The internecine battle inside Nashville might be less nasty than the external notices that Bryan received, that refused to understand exactly what he was doing. The most telling might have been USA Today‘s Brian Mansfield, who wrote that Bryan “comes across as just another backwoods party animal with an amped-up sound and indiscriminate taste in women.” The problem is that Mansfield intends this to be a criticism, and a weirdly puritanical one, but the best thing about Bryan’s work and his presence in country—why he is important—is that this is both true and delightful.
Mansfield’s take is less interesting than that of New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, who wrote a blistering take down, mostly centering around Bryan not being country enough. That he does not twang enough, that he stumbles over country signifiers, that he has no attitude, that he has moved country to the cities and suburbs. I have been talking about Bryan’s late 2013 release, Crash My Party—and working against talking about his EP collection Spring Break, though Spring Break might be useful in offering some context. I don’t think that anything that Caramanica writes is accurate—and Spring Break offers an argument against the Times’ notice. Listen to Bryan sing “Georgia Boys”, listen to him leer like a good ol’ boy remake of Tex Avery’s wolf, or listen to him describe how working class country’s social mobility happens in these non-places like South Padre or Miami Beach—think about Spring Breakers without the contempt or the accusations of slumming, or think of The Bling Ring, but being happy with where you are.
If Crash My Party tries for depth, the bacchanalia, tailgating/tail shaking/tall tale telling of Spring Break is a delightful admission of where country is. One of the things that Strait and Jackson failed to mention was that with the pop country of the ‘90s, the social values of country music were also tightened. There were some domestic melodramas, but for a variety of political and social reasons, there were songs like Faith Hill‘s “It’s Your Love”—contained, tight, beautiful, and fidelitous. The pleasures, when awarded, didn’t seem wide enough or interesting enough, and the production was slick, but not creamy—the ‘90s country boom was ironically parsimonious. Bryan’s external and internal critics seem to want to narrow country, from the music that it can cadge from (Why can’t Bryan quote Prince, when Jimmie Rodgers made sure that Louis Armstrong played on the Blue Yodel sessions?)
The tension between the 2013 ideas of pleasure—the fear of pleasure and the refusing of that fear—is a country message. The economy is in the shitter, still, people are broke, the word is kind of exhausted, and the core of the community is worn to pieces. The pleasure that is rewarded in critically beloved country music is similarly false, a spoon of sugar for the medicine to go down, an imagining of how rural working class lives are lived.
Bryan is exuberantly straight, and his homosocial epics of sex and booze are never about boys having sex with boys or girls having sex with girls. But in comparison to, say, Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”, which is beloved by the critical class and by much of Nashville, but isn’t selling well as it could be, with its talk of love, its moral core, and its little scrap of meat to the supposed liberals in the audience, Bryan is more disruptive and gloriously queerQueer in the sense of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, queer in the sense of avoiding containment, queer in the sense of critiquing love, queer as disruptive, as liquid, as overflowing. As the radical slogan goes, “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you”; Bryan shifts and repositions that—it’s not sex for love, it’s sex for fun, and queer as in “fuck me”.
Bryan’s tensions between what sell and what succeeds critically is central to his reading against the critical consensus. He won the populist Academy of Country Music Award, but lost the Country Music Association award, and though he has had a decade-long career as a performer and writer, he is not a member of the Opry. This suggests that though he might be loved by his audience and that Nashville is curious about the money he is bringing in, but his genius for pleasure, his libertine sexuality, means that he is not taken seriously—as a writer, as a musician, and as a general performer. His profligate attitudes towards music, towards bodies, towards drinking, and towards his bawdy humor are in stark contrast to how much we still police pleasure in 2013.
Luke Bryan works the meta-contextual problems that surrounded these two releases, mapping the fissures of Nashville’s new establishment. I would sooner follow his arrow than Musgraves’, because I know from this year’s best song, the shame of being a “Buzzkill”.