[8 December 2008]
Among the wonderful and terrifying things about massive awards shows is their ability to contain contradictions and present the viewer with surprises that call more for puzzling than rejoicing. Sometimes it takes the form of the rocket from the crypt, as with the appearance of Morris Day and the Time at this year’s Grammys. Sometimes it’s the all-star tribute, like Sting and Puffy getting together to admit how much they’d be missing Biggie Smalls. Occasionally, it’s the sworn-enemies team-up edition, like the unforgettable pairing of outspokenly homophobe Eminem and outspoken homo Elton John at the MTV Music Awards. And every so often, it’s a simple WTF juxtaposition, like Celine Dion following/trampling Elliott Smith at the Oscars.
This year’s Country Music Association Awards, held in November at the Sommet Center in downtown Nashville, were certainly no exception. The gala ran the gamut from teen-pop to flag-waving (actually, there was plenty of flag-waving) to the downright inexplicable. First awarded in 1967, the CMAs are administered by the Country Music Association, the organization that also oversees the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Country Music Association was founded in 1958 to promote country music as a distinct genre, one of the first genre-specific industry organizations of its kind.
According to its own vision statement, the CMA “is dedicated to bringing the poetry and emotion of Country Music to the world… We will take risks, embrace change, and always exceed the expectations of those we serve.” The Country Music Association Awards are the primary showcase for this mission, a chance for country to step out of the cable ghetto of Country Music Television and onto the main stage of network TV.
Traditionally broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry, this year’s awards were aired from the larger Sommet Center, an arena in downtown Nashville with seating capacity for 20,000 that has served as the show’s home since its one-year sojourn to Madison Square Garden in New York in 2005 at the behest of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. While the CMAs and NYC didn’t make for a permanent match, that broadcast did garner a daunting 36 million viewers, an all-time high for the show, while providing the country-music industry the opportunity for a different type of networking. In the week leading up to the 2005 CMAs, country stars popped up at high-end fashion and culture events across the city; even Project Runway underwent a country makeover.
This year’s show roped in an estimated 15.9 million viewers (about the same number of people who’ve bought copies of Shania Twain’s Come on Over, the best-selling country album according to SoundScan statistics, which only date back to 1991) and presented the world with a fractured vision of what country music looks like. Sure, the stalwarts were out in full force, with George Strait picking up enough statues to make him the biggest winner in CMA history, Alan Jackson turning in a solid performance, and Reba McEntire pairing up with Brooks & Dunn for an old-fashioned bar-room rocker, while a surprise visit from presenter Shania Twain, who’s been largely hidden away for the past four years, certainly made the CMAs feel familiar for long-time country fans.
Last year’s Best Male and Female vocalists and this year’s hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, served as the shiny, cherubic faces of country-to-come with style and sufficient reverence to their elders, each taking home repeat wins in the top categories and ensuring their spots as next year’s hosts. Underwood provided arguably the show-defining moment, following an introduction by the widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan with a devastating version of the war widow’s lament, “Just a Dream”. But more than anything, the CMAs seemed to be not just in a generational crisis, as young stars still finding their own outshone established acts, but an identity crisis, as the show scrambled to include a broad array of genres and left itself looking like the Grammys done up in boots.
Solid performances by American Idol alum Kellie Pickler and 18-year-old Taylor Swift, who took the Horizon Award for new artist last year and was garnering more press than any other performer coming into the awards with her top-selling sophomore album released earlier in the week, spotlighted country’s next generation but came off as not particularly country-sounding. Swift’s pro-marriage ballad was pure teen pop with a slight Southern accent, while Pickler’s whip-smart performance recalled equal parts Shania Twain and Britney Spears. You know, before Britney was sad and depressing.
But nothing underlined country’s generation gap as clearly as the Cyrus family. Standing next to Miley, his media empire of a daughter, Billy Ray looked like he’d stepped onto the stage directly from 1992, confused by the lights and sounds of country music 16 years after “Achy Breaky Heart”.
Taylor Swift performing at the CMA Awards
Filed under “rocket from the crypt” (or possibly “reunion addicts”), the Eagles were in attendance, performing the limpid “Too Busy Being Fabulous” in business suits, highlighting the style-over-substance California slickness that has so often managed to derail their country efforts. Brad Paisley introduced the band with a parable about remembering who dug the well you drank from. “These men dug the well,” Paisley affirmed. Unclear on which well Henley and company had dug, by the middle of the song, I found myself wishing they’d dig a few more holes and crawl into them.
And then there was the reggae.
You might not have caught it in Carrie Underwood’s quick introduction, but that sure enough was the remains of the Wailers backing up Kenny Chesney on a medley of “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” and Bob Marley’s hit “Three Little Birds”. Which would have won the best mash-up of the evening hands-down if it hadn’t been for Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”, a surprisingly poignant hybrid of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (although the live version leaned heavily toward the former) which has become Rock’s first hit on the country charts, performed with rapper Lil Wayne possibly playing guitar alongside a gentleman who looked oddly like AC/DC’s Brian Johnson in a “Joe the Strummer” T-shirt.
Kid Rock’s performance was a wild clash of symbols, with Detroit-born Rock’s unabashedly white trash appropriation of urban style grafting onto Skynyrd’s oft-misunderstood call not just for Southern pride but a reevaluation of the stereotypes of Southern culture. With his oversized Titans jersey, Lil Wayne at his side, and huge American flags projected behind him, Rock seemed ecstatic to be part of country music, and the audience seemed thrilled to have him there.
The surprise performance of the evening came from, of all people, Darius Rucker, better known as Hootie and the Blowfish fame. Sounding more like straight country than any performer but, well, George Strait, Rucker’s “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” eschewed the polish and sheen of the rest of the awards and delivered the kind of heartfelt weeper that has defined country music for decades.
Of course, those decades are long gone and their departure leaves the question of what defines country now. While the CMA’s mission statement includes verbiage about providing a unifying vision for country music, ultimately, the CMA is a trade organization driven first and foremost by sales. And as with the music industry as a whole, the numbers don’t look good. But strangely, the sales of country albums are slumping less than other genres, due at least in part to a spirit of inclusiveness adopted by country music.
While Rucker’s label was quick to ask him to tone down the country in his new album, fearing it would hurt the album’s potential on the pop charts, the country-music industry seems more than happy to throw whatever sells into the mix, be it country’s close cousins in the rock sounds of the Eagles and Skynyrd or distant sonic relatives like the Wailers. Traditionalists have been crying the death of country music at least since Faith Hill dared to utilize the vocoder effect made popular on Cher’s comeback single “Believe”, but we might be seeing something bigger than the death of a genre.
In an age where every possible type of music is instantly available to new audiences, where American Idol prioritizes vocal prowess while tossing soul, R&B, pop, and country into the massive blender of Celebrity, and the number of listeners who staunchly self-identify as fans of one particular genre dwindle without new devotees to replace them, the country-music industry seems to have made an astute decision. When more kids are following MySpace phenom Taylor Swift to Country Music Television than are looking to CMT for their next Taylor Swift, it might simply be that the first genre to unify in order to protect and encourage its own financial interests back in 1958 is, 50 years later, the first to embrace the death of genre as a concept.
The folks holding trophies at the end of the night were certainly cut from the same piece of denim as the last decade worth of winners, and reinforced the fact that neo-traditionalism remains a fringe element in the country-music industry. But the performers and the crowd’s reaction to them pointed to a future country as the ultimate genre of inclusion, where the only thing necessary to be classified as country is a desire to join in and sing.