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The Beautification of Country Stars

You can call 2013 the year that country-music album covers looked like advertisements torn from fashion and lifestyle magazines.

You can call 2013 the “year of the woman” in country music or the “year of men singing about partying by the creek”. Or the year that country-music album covers all looked like advertisements torn from fashion or lifestyle magazines.

This didn’t start in 2013, though, but it is the direction country has been headed in. To look at all of Tim McGraw’s album covers lined up in a row is to watch the small-town cowboy turn into a fashion icon, without losing his hat. The first three covers have him in jeans, standing relaxed against a wall or truck. Then take the same and stylize it in black and white, then dress him up and paint it in fashion colors of the time (for 1999’s A Place in the Sun). Then they keep pushing in that direction, with varying angles – close-up on chest; t-shirt model look; face cast in shadows – until you reach 2013, where it looks like an ad from a lifestyle magazine or a still from a TV commercial. McGraw, in a shiny black shirt, open to his chest, stands in a rigid pose, with a stoic, determined look. He’s transparent, super-imposed on an artsy blurred image of a highway. It’s meant as an obvious play on the title, Two Lanes of Freedom, but also casts him in a contemporary glow.

You can see similar patterns with most big country stars. Most of the other best-selling country albums of 2013 have covers that fit this trajectory. Look at Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party. All four of his main albums have basically the same cover: a portrait of Bryan meant to look casual and friendly. In the first three he looks purposely scruffy, the boy next door, and the cover designs (especially that of 2011’s Tailgates & Tanlines) look quickly Photoshopped together by an intern. We reach 2013’s Crash My Party and his hair is more carefully groomed, his shirt is open a few buttons down (a theme), and he’s looking away from the camera. The background and photo quality mark it as a fashion photo, or an advertisement.

Portraiture has long been the main tactic country musicians use for album covers. A few decades ago, you might occasionally find conceptual portraits, where the artist has put him or herself in a certain scene or setting to match the songs’ themes. Think of Porter Wagoner’s The Cold Hard Facts of Life, where he’s walking in on his woman with another man, or his Soul of a Convict cover, where he’s behind bars, for an album of prison songs. Or even the iconic Old West outlaw photo of Willie Nelson on Red Headed Stranger.

That can still happen, I suppose, but the recent examples I can think of are also portraits with a fashionable look. For example, on her acclaimed 2013 album Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves acts out a stylized trailer-park scene that in its stylization does still look like an ad. Or there’s Carrie Underwood’s 2012 album Blown Away, where her portrait suggests being blown away by the wind – her hair and dress flowing in a wind-blown way – but she also looks like she just walked off the fashion runway.

In the last year or two, most major commercial country albums had a similar sense of ‘fashion’ to the cover art. The photo on the Band Perry’s Pioneer cover looks like an H&M ad – partly it’s their youth, but mainly attire, hairdo and pose. Lady Antebellum, no strangers to this stylization trend, have a golden haze cast over their photo on Golden, a trick similar in tone to the McGraw cover. On Tornado’s cover, Little Big Town are dressed like they’re on their way to an awards show, but standing in an empty parking lot of a motel that looks like a movie set. Compare that to the snapshot on the cover of Little Big Town or even the Silver Dollar City-looking ‘antique photo’ look of A Place to Land and it looks like they’ve come into some serious money. More likely, it’s an attitude, an approach that’s swept country music.

Even when the stars are dressed-down, not glamorous, it’s a purposeful look, like an ad for the Gap (see Darius Rucker on True Believers, or Florida Georgia Line relaxing by their vehicles on Here’s to the Good Times). Or the covers combine that casualness with the manipulated, Photoshopped look of ads for clothing, electronics, automobiles or other products (Kenny Chesney’s scrapbook style cover for Life on a Rock, Blake Shelton’s “ruminative” cover for Based on a True Story…, Brad Paisley flying in the air on Wheelhouse, Jake Owen’s gold-tinted boat ride on the cover of Days of Gold). Jason Aldean’s Night Train even looks like a still from a TV ad, though he looks less comfortable with the pose than some of the others.

Even George Strait has been affected. Love Is Everything’s bare setting – him with jeans, hat, guitar against a white background – is nonetheless more advertising-world-like than any of his 25 previous covers.

Why does this matter? What does it say about our times? It probably doesn’t say any one thing about our times, but it is interesting – a movement in a very particular direction. You could try and make a connection between the glitz of these covers and the supposed glitziness of country music’s sound these days, but like that argument about the music itself I’m not sure it completely holds up, or is worth the effort.

This trend must mean something, though. Is it the dawn of the metrosexual cowboy as country music’s iconic figure? Has country music as an industry become fed-up with some of the previous visual tropes? Is it about the mainstream celebrity culture draining the country music industry of its own individualized type of celebrity culture? Or celebrity culture invading America, period? (I think of a recent Bill Moyers interview with author Mark Leibovich where they talked about the celebrity/awards show culture infiltrating Washington DC/politics.)

Is this just the look of our era, in other words? Since country-music generally relies on artists portraits for cover art, do each decade’s country album covers tell us something about the look of that decade, beyond country?

There’s also the notion that this trend matches up with the diversification of country music’s audience, of the audience for the music going more mainstream, meaning more upper-middle-class, suburban/urban; not the small town, working-class audience you might imagine (See the Billboard articles "New Statistics About Country Music Fans Revealed…" and "Country Music Fans Generally Wealthy, Married, Digitally Engaged, Says CMA").

After all, if cover artwork is really just an advertisement for the music, then the artwork is trying to attract buyers who want to see their stars, or their life, or their world, in this pretty kind of way.

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