By James Barker, Staff Writer
The 2020 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Wednesday night were, in many ways, a car crash. The CMA attempted to have a “business as usual” approach while we’re in a pandemic with a president attempting to destroy America’s democracy and in a year where the importance of tackling white supremacy, the country industry’s racism, and supporting Black voices is more important than ever.
The CMA approach to these vital issues? “No drama.” Basically, “Shut up and sing,” and if you’re queer, you’re not here. That’s not to say there wasn’t still some great music — you can find out the winners here.
The “no drama” approach has no moral justification, but the CMA undermined this stance, even on its own terms. As Marissa R. Moss has pointed out, an extended tribute to Charlie Daniels — who spent his last few years veering more to the right, attacking Black Lives Matter, and his estate has been retweeting Trump’s lies about the election — surely that counts as drama?
The CMA seemingly took a leaf out of Trump’s book by their approach to the media, where they wanted to restrict what the Associated Press could record, probably to stop them capturing the event’s dubious social distancing and COVID. The CMA’s supposed neutrality was in fact just enabling reactionaries.
As LGBTQ+ people in country, along with people of color and women in the genre, we know that “shut up and sing” was always going to be used disproportionately as a tool to silence our voices.
Just as radio play is below 0.01% for LGBTQ+ artists, there were no openly queer artists at the CMAs this year. As Jada Watson has pointed out, the criteria to be nominated requires a hit on the country charts, which is nearly impossible for a new artist without airplay. So it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where the radio, record labels, and industry bodies all shirk responsibility.
The CMAs, of course, overlooked this entirely. Presumably because talking about equality and justice would be considered drama. The CMAs ignored issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion entirely, and when it came to approaching racism, the CMA PR machine was at work.
Andrea Williams, whose analysis of the industry provide the clarity that others often refuse to see, has called out the CMAs for their use of tokenism particularly of a few select Black men to provide PR cover for the industry’s persistent white supremacy. This is not to take anything away from individuals like Darius Rucker who co-hosted the event and Charley Pride’s long overdue life-time achievement award. However, the CMA is no further on addressing structural racism than it was before.
With all these issues, why even bother to cover this event at all? Why not leave this sorry show and industry to wither away into further irrelevance? As someone who loves country music, and especially as a sucker for mainstream country artists, it was the music! Charley Pride and Jimmie Allen’s performance of “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin” was a touching and incredibly powerful moment. Country radio, for all of its many faults, has featured some great songs this year, and it was great to see artists like Ingrid Andress, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris perform their hits live.
There may not have been openly LGBTQ+ artists on the stage, but it is also important to recognize queer participation in the genre as listeners. In particular, and I must admit my own bias as a fan, Miranda Lambert’s performance of her single “Settling Down” particularly resonated with me and my own conflicts within the genre.
Country taps into my desire for roots and stability, while at the same time not wanting to close off to others and progressive alliances: “I could love a picket fence if it wrapped around the world,” as Lambert sings. Women in country have been producing fantastic music that resonates with me this year, and in many ways distills the storytelling power of 90s country, which I love.
Success within mainstream country this past year has so far been limited to white women, none openly LGBTQ+. Maren Morris drew attention to this in her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year Award, where she used her platform to pay homage to under-acknowledged Black women in country including Linda Martell, Mickey Guyton, Yola, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer and Rhiannon Giddens. In arguably the show’s silver lining, a moment the kind that the organizers’ “no drama” tag was almost certainly trying to discourage, Maren Morris made an important first step towards recognizing the work country music needs to do to tackle racial inequality.
My main take from this year’s CMA Awards is that the central dilemma facing many fans of mainstream country — loving the songs while feeling increasingly alienated by the industry — has come into even sharper focus.
Ratings for the ceremony are 40% less than last year, indicating that perhaps the CMA’s current approach is not even working commercially anymore — not that equality should ever need to be justified by money.
The CMA has a choice: they can take the Trump approach of blaming and projecting their faults and responsibility onto everyone else, or they can shape up, tear their exclusionary structures down, and rebuild for the full diversity of people that make up and have always made up country music.