It is a well-known fact that the country genre is one of the most celebrated genres in the United States, especially in the South and the Midwest, where there is an overwhelming influx of Caucasian audiences.

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Image from Keith Whitley Facebook fan page

There has always been a staple of how a man is portrayed by country music. It has celebrated the idea of a strong, blue-collar type of masculinity. However, recent studies show that there has been a shift going on with the narrative.

Shifting Views on Masculinity and Others in Country Music

There are several studies that show more than 40% of the country’s population listens to country music. The genre is also the most consumed form of radio media in the United States, with a country music listener consuming more than five hours a day of playtime.

US Sociology professor Braden Leap and the Mississippi State University came out with a study that analyzed the lyrics of several chart-topping country songs that were released from the 1980s to the 2010s. The findings suggest that there is a shift in the celebration of the traditional picture of rural masculinity.

“In the mainstream country hits that I’ve analysed, there are increasingly representations that facilitate the reproduction of racial and gender inequalities. These sorts of portrayals do or can promote unequal relations between men and women and [lead to] bad outcomes.”

At its very core, country music is a celebration of the working class and how their lives revolve around their work ethics, as well as their strong beliefs and integrity. He details that the narratives of country songs are often centralized on the working-class, and their everyday lives. 

“[Country songs are often about] how working-class people, even though oftentimes they face very precarious economic conditions, are still able to really get by and not lose their integrity.”

Professor Leap further describes that men in the country genre have been traditionally painted as ‘resilient and hardworking,’ having the picturesque strong family man.

However, there is a noticeable shift over the past decade that shows a different side of what being a man is defined as. Particularly zooming in on the country chart-toppers, the traditional ideas of how men should be hardworking have developed into the type of masculinity that is defined by the chase of a woman.

“Contemporary country celebrates heterosexual men in blue-collar occupations just like the genre did in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. But the ideal rural man is now depicted as a particular type of heterosexual provider, while white women have increasingly been represented as the ideal sexual objects to complement this masculinity.”

He mentions that a perfect example to show this shift is Dierks Bentley’s “Say You Do” – which not only topped the 2014 Billboard Country Charts, but it perfectly shows the shift in perspective. 

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via Jason Kempin/Getty Images/ Us Magazine

“[Now] it’s a type of provider that provides women with alcohol, transportation, and places to hook up in order to potentially enable physical intimacy. In the lyrics, he wants to hook up with his ex again and even if she doesn’t really want to, he’s willing to provide her with alcohol in order to make that happen.”

True enough, the lyrics read:

If you really don’t mean it, I don’t care
If you need a little buzz to get you there
Then baby I’m buyin’
Well couldn’t you
Say you do
Say you might
For tonight
Have a heart
Bend the truth
Even if you don’t
Couldn’t you

He also cites other examples, such as Jason Aldean’s “Night Train” and “Burnin’ It Down,” Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane,” Luke Bryan’s “Crash My Party” and “Play It Again,” and Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl.

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via Billboard

“Songs from the 1980s through the 2000s included similar depictions, but these [hedonistic] representations became far more common in the 2010s.”

So what causes the shift? Well, art in itself is a reflection of the society of which it was created, and music is no different. Since the climate in the rural communities is changing, so is the music. Professor Leap theorizes that the loss of blue-collar jobs in rural communities play a big part in the changing narrative. 

He also pointed out that while these themes were shown to rise in several hits as the years pass by, there is a simultaneous ‘decline in representations of providing for children’ and would argue that this may also reflect the difficult economic prospects for non-college-educated men in rural America.

“Our masculinity is reformulated in response to shifting economic conditions oftentimes … class and masculinity intersect and complicate each other. Rural masculinity is changing at the national level and oftentimes … masculinity is reformulated in response to shifting economic conditions.”

Professor Leap also notes that previous research has found that men “facing increasingly precarious job prospects put a greater emphasis on heterosexual virility as a means of [proving one’s] masculinity.” This ideal is more often than not reflected in many country hits. 

In addition, “whiteness is celebrated far more often than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.”

He cites examples such as Toby Keith and Willie Nelson’s “Beer For My Horses,” which he says “portrays a period of time where lynchings were used to reproduce inequalities as a sort of ideal past.” 

This could be seen as a trend that has been exhibited in recent years, with the turbulent sociopolitical climate and the prominent rise in identity white politics, particularly in rural areas where country music is mostly rooted and targeted in. 

Professor Leap has also reported that several country hits have “increasingly depicted women as sexual objects instead of employed equals.”

“The increased emphasis on sexual conquest and whiteness in mainstream country music could put rural men, and the communities in which they live, at a disadvantage in regional and global labor markets. If rural men embrace this new masculinity, or if employers operating at the regional and global scales believe they do, rural men can be excluded from labor markets by employers seeking men they believe can work cooperatively with both men and women.”

The conversation of women and people of color in country music continually evolves in a way where everybody seems to be either tired of the conversation or is actively trying to participate in it.

The question remains whether country music would like to remain in its conservative roots or will it continue to evolve into a shadow of its former glory in trying – and failing – to resist to change for the better.