Girl Crushing It: On the Queer Failures and Successes of Country

There are reasons why a country song that could be considered queer broke through at the same time that male homosociality retreated.

For a band that has lasted for more than a decade, Little Big Town has had renewed success in the last couple of years, including the award-winning platinum-selling single, “Pontoon”. This was a lead-up to 2015’s monster single, “Girl Crush”. Not only did it spend more than 11 weeks at the top of the chart, the song proved to be a cultural monster. Miranda Lambert, on the cusp of divorcing her husband, and after releasing a queer camp joke of her cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon” (a delightfully polymorphous song regardless), sang a haunting acoustic cover of it, with Karen Fairchild (the original singer) and Gwen Sebastion (an up and comer).

“Girl Crush” was written by Lori McKenna, who has penned hits for decades for the likes of Faith Hill in the last decade to Hunter Hayes last year. According to the Washington Post, it has been pulled from several radio markets across the nation, including one in Boise where the director of the station told press that she heard from her listeners, that it “sponsored the gay agenda”. It makes one wonder what the “gay agenda” would look like in Nashville.

Liberal critics have noticed that country music is in the middle of a gay moment, both within the songs, and in the scuttlebutt around Nashville (see the out Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, or that line in Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow“, which ended up winning the Grammy). “Girl Crush” pushes a question with a two-sided example: is it pushing a gay agenda, either for those who worry that Nashville was the last safe place against a cultural invasion or for those country listeners who hope for inclusion in a genre that has found them historically problematic?

Looking at the gay potential for this kind of songwriting; the hope is for more gay potential and not less, more desire. I want Brandy Clark And Shane McNally to write a great country love song that recognizes the potential of their lives. I’m thinking about the documentary about the Lesbian and Gay Rodeo Circuit, Queens and Cowboys, recently released on Video on Demand. There are the usual stories about underdogs found in sports stories, and about AIDS and coming out, the garden variety queer tragedies.

But there are also brief moments; a middle-aged bull riding butch lesbian, flummoxed and flirting with a blonde newbie, or an old hand at the rodeo, trying to make his nut in order to ride one last time. In all the discussions of their lives, in travel, in pickup trucks, and at home, none mentioned the songs their presence cleared. The filmmakers didn’t even film a dance.

There is an assumption that “Girl Crush” is part of this queering, and there can be comfort in finding a queer potential text where one is absent. It was before “Girl Crush” was released, but the potential of a gay rodeo band always appears and never quite fully manifests. In the big one near Calgary, Terri Clark played last year and is booked as the headliner this year. The movie mentioned straight cowboys playing the gay rodeo because access was easier — there is potential that the work is the work. But it also talked about stock people and other rodeo folks having themselves and their animals being blacklisted from straight rodeos because of queer rodeos.

All of this might be happening here, but it might also be a safe coming out, considering the rumours of Clark’s taste. There’s a difference when someone ostensibly heterosexual like Miranda or Karen Fairchild sings it, and when someone who might not be like Terri Clark does.

But we work with what we have. There are lines in “Girl Crush” that lend themselves to an explicit queer reading, the homophobe from Boise is not wrong at picking them out. The track’s narrative is simple: a woman obsessively wishes to be her ex-lover’s new woman. But the details about that narrative:

I wanna taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you/

I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume/

I want her long blonde hair, I want her magic touch/

Yeah, ’cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much as she wants you

The song has a suggestion that this song is about lesbian love, that she does not want to sleep with the husband, but with the wife.

But it’s also a song that knows its country music history, both currently and historically. Part of the ambiguity found in the Little Big Town track is a kind of homosociality, or friends in same-gendered groups who hang out together. There’s a sense sometimes that these homosocial groups, especially homosocial groups that feature men, have a sexual subtext, In recent country music, there are all kinds of boys in the woods, singing about being boys in the woods, sometimes with women, but often not.

The temptation is to think that who we call “Brocountry” — Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Justin Moore, Thomas Rhett — may not just be friends. I don’t think there was gay panic about this potential, but I also think that there was a sense that the boys had to grow up. That boys might be boys, but anything that they could possibly do in the woods was forgivable as a child but not serious enough as an adult. Luke Bryan put away his brilliant, loose, and liquid Spring Break albums, the best expression of a destabilizing redneck pleasure principle. Eric Church had half an album that was about sex and drinking, but whose second album seem to beg forgiveness, maintaining songs about his child, and his domesticity.

There were reasons that a song that could be considered queer broke through at the same time that male homosociality retreated. Men are less threatened by women, and “Girl Crush” allowed for an escape clause: a male, heterosexual partner in the mix. I wonder, on the other side of the coin, if one of the reasons why Blake Shelton moved from Miranda to Gwen Stefani so quickly, aside from the commercial potential of a showmance, was that two straight boys kidding about fucking each other is cute if there’s a woman present who thus normalizes the game playing.

The enmeshed networks of desire and pleasure — between friendship and the potential of sexuality, this kind of game playing has fascinated critics of homosociality, who, from the ’70s onward have paid a lot of attention to what men do together — often because what men do together hides a multitude of sins by its blankness. One of the ways that this song is ambiguous, is how it reverses bro-coded masculinities, how it talks about women’s relationship to women, possibly in a sexual way but also possibly in a way that reflects the failure of homosocial friendship. This could be coded, in a mirrored way, think of it as Siscountry, but you know with Sister Wives.

That idea of sister wives, or even about how forms are coded that allow for (perhaps inadvertent) dual messages, can be seen not only in the homosocial here but how “Girl Crush” constructs melodrama. The song is getting all of the attention for its queer possibilities, but homosociality has potential outside of erotics or optics. It can be seen in melodrama as a form. Though this form is a Nashville stalwart, in the last few years, there is a renaissance of it as a tool. This could be a more interesting story that is ignored by this collapsing the song into a singular reading.

Melodrama in the last of the 20th century has been a question of both gender and class. It’ often assumed to be a form where working-class women strive for a kind of respectability (Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls) or where middle-class white women scrabble to maintain the slight privilege that they have, often against racialized others or social lessers. Melodrama, in many ways, was a way for women to talk through women, a kind of shibboleth of gendered representation.

It became like gossip, or the romance novel, or weepies, or country music, a reclaiming of the dramatic from masculine power. The study of melodrama has been usurped by men (critics of Sirk, or even Sirk himself are the readiest examples) and these usurped readings of the melodramatic space often preclude conversations about class. One of the problems is that stories of country women, are often not reclaimed or even usurped, and are rarely taken seriously.

One of the things that made the encoded melodrama a period piece (see Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley or the recent Carole, by Todd Haynes) was that disclosure is less of a danger and is more expected. As the Canadian agenda, hyperqueer singer-songwriter Rae Spoon sings, in a single released last week, “When I Said There was an End to Love, I was Lying”, allowed that a folk song or a country song, did not have to live in the secrets or live with discretion. It could be any number of things to any number of people. But for Spoon and their very limited audience, it could be seen that queer country was resting on melodrama and it didn’t need to. Listening to it in the same week as watching the same stories being told in Kings and Cowboys, gave hope that there were new stories being told.

“Girl Crush” might lead itself to a lesbian reading, with the dearth of queer female representation in Nashville, that queer reading might be considered revelatory. But it is not the only reading, and it might not even be the best reading. I keep listening to and thinking of this canon of songs, where a woman begs another woman not to talk her man, or a woman begs a woman not to usurp her power, or where a woman talks to another woman about a third woman. This talk is obviously about gender, but also about money and sex.

There are eight decades worth of examples: The Carter Family’s 1936 track “Single Girl, Married Girl” begins with a conversation about the city girl dressed so fine, and then moves onto a discussion of how the married girl cannot dress in such a way, cannot go out and enjoy herself because she is rocking a cradle. The tension between what is allowed and what is forbidden, what has access, and what has restrictions, is the originating question of chart country. It continues with each genre shift, with each revival.

From the proto-feminist reworking of chauvinist bullying, in Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels“, a work where the blame for philandering comes through is placed on ‘us women’ with Well’s voice providing the emotional incontinence that her lyrics prevent. Melodramatic lack of emotional cohesion also works with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, where a woman begs another woman not to act on her base impulses, the woman keening her rival’s name with raw mourning. There are other examples: the slick production of Tammy Wynette’s “Womanhood“, a song whose capitulation to men, is an act of fierce political will:

I am a Christian Lord, but I’m a woman, too

If you are listening’ Lord, please show me what to do

I’ve tried hard to be what mama says is good

As I step into my womanhood.

This quality of performative femininity, of a kind of drag act, is something that marks “Girl Crush”. It’s not that she wants to fuck her rival’s lover, it’s that she wants to be her rival’s lover. These works of melodrama became this loaded text, and kind of a code. In recent years, country becoming ironic and self-aware as any genre has taken these genre signifiers mixed them and reused them.

As Nashville critic and noted clog dancer, Jewly Hight has written about, these remixes and rewrites occur within East Nashville itself. There are dozens of drag queens, whose burlesques of Christian piety, and of Nashville’s hyper-feminine excesses, allow another way out; if the earnestness of Spoon is one way forward, the last step of this ironic quality is a gospel brunch in a honky tonk in Nashville, singing “Stand By Your Man”.

The drag remixes, self fashion outside of the escape valves and, to quote Audre Lorde, compulsory, heterosexuality that is often found on the market. Queerness allows a way out, where the conventional femme performance found in high melodrama, as resting on the discreet lesbian potential of “Girl Crush”, reinforces a straight acting, straight desiring self. So, “Girl Crush” is not only a historical text, but one that fits into work like The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”, a sumptuous reimagining of liberation as tragedy. Even more so, it resembles Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” with its discussion of the widows of a bigamist finally meeting at her funeral: its material concerns, its discussion of the slick caddies as a symbol for gaining the world and losing your soul, having a over the top camp majesty, in last year’s track “Little Toy Guns” it’s even more explicit: her song plays with puns about pistols and damp squibs, flirting with a castration motif.

Just as “Girl Crush” wouldn’t exist without this history of female constructed melodrama, Underwood would not exist without the potential of “Girl Crush”. Country radio is shifting, and the genre is being worked out, and nobody’s quite sure what the next level is, and the homophobic and homophilic response to “Girl Crush” must be part of the understanding of the song: all readings are legitimate, as are the disappointment of male intimacy being refused outside of certain distaff readings.

Even outside of county radio (see Rae Spoon or Mary Gauthier), or even in the midst of the controversy (and each of the songs mentioned here has had its share of controversy) each of these songs was thought to be too scandalous to be part of the country mainstream, with the possible exception of Wynette.

“Girl Crush” then, becomes an act of female autonomy, and part of a tradition of female autonomy, a discussion that a woman has with another woman, in the form of the melodramatic, with emphasis on the drama. It feeds into the ambiguity of the subject making the discomfort around women’s bodies into an informal and political one. But it still strikes me, problematically, as against that autonomy, sententiously.

I’m not sure that actually writing about queer desire would not be more autonomous, though.