Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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We’re Queer, We’re Not Here: LGBTQ+ Representation on Country Radio

Queers Make Common Cause with Women and Black Voices In Country Radio

By James Barker, Contributing Writer

In recent years, country radio has quite rightly come under scrutiny for its lack of representation of women. Branded online as ‘tomato-gate,’ radio consultant Keith Hill advocated for radio stations not to play too many women, describing them as the ‘tomatoes’ on the country music salad. Pretty fucked up, right? Now is the time to approach this situation from the perspective of LGBTQ+ artists, who are barely given a platform at all on mainstream country radio. 

Thanks to Dr. Jada Watson and SongData we have access to data that demonstrates the scale of the problem, while also pointing to some possible solutions, should country radio have the political will to implement them. SongData has been tracking country airplay through the Mediabase reports, and provided Country Queer a 6-month update covering the period 4th January 2020 to 11th July 2020. You can read the full report and more about the ongoing project here. (A special thank you to Dr. Watson for the support, data and providing this infographic that represents the current situation of country radio for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ artists.) 

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Airplay of LGBTQ+ artists on country radio is so low that it barely registers. Out of 261 artists played by country radio in the 6-month period, 4 were LGBTQ+: Brandy Clark, Brandi Carlile (as a member of the Highwomen), Lil Nas X and (curiously) Sam Smith; accounting for a mere 1.5% of artists played on country radio.  The situation is even bleaker when we look at the proportion of airplay these artists received, none of them appearing on the Billboard Airplay or Mediabase chart this year. Altogether airplay of LGBTQ+ artists accounted for less than 0.01% of total spins. 

Most of the airplay went to the Highwomen’s ‘Crowded Table,’ which was played for nine weeks (see Annalisha Fragmin’s article in these pages for more on this song.) Brandy Clark’s songs ‘Who You Thought I Was’ and ‘Bigger Boat (ft. Randy Newman)’ also received airplay, for two weeks and three weeks respectively. Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ and Sam Smith’s ‘How Do You Sleep’ were played for two weeks and one week respectively. Airplay for LGBTQ+ artists has remained consistently low. As in nearly nonexistent.

This means that country radio audiences are barely hearing LGBTQ+ voices at all. This perpetuates the idea of country music as an inherently ‘straight’ or heteronormative genre, which only makes it harder for upcoming LGBTQ+ artists to carve out a career within the mainstream country market. Just one non-binary artist received (minimal) airplay at all this year. Trans and non-binary artists are generally utterly absent from country radio. 

Watson has also drilled into the data to analyze the representation of people of color on country radio. Again, general aggregate categories such as ‘people of color’ obscure deeper inequalities. Even though there was some consistent airplay for artists of color on country radio, around 5.8% of total spins (although by no means is this enough), Mickey Guyton is the only Black woman signed to a major label in country music. Despite critical praise for her songs ‘Black Like Me’ and ‘What Are You Gonna Tell Her,’ including within country radio, neither song received enough airplay to chart. There remain double standards around what radio stations will do to support White men compared to Black women. 

This is a damn shame, as Guyton’s music is what country radio listeners need to hear. In my article on the Chicks’ latest album, I wrote about the need for a reckoning in country music. ‘What Are You Gonna Tell Her’ is as close to that reckoning as we’re going to get. Guyton’s song reckons with the broken promise of the American dream that if you work hard enough or want it hard enough you can make your own success: ‘Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked? And gay or straight or White or Black, you just dream and anything can happen.’ Mickey Guyton has continually had our backs as LGBTQ+ participants within country. We should have hers in return. 

There are some positives to report about country radio and indeed some opportunities that could and should be grasped within the industry. There has been an increase of 5.3% in airplay for songs by women over the first six months of this year. With Miranda Lambert’s ‘Bluebird’ having recently topped the country airplay chart, there have been double the #1 songs by women in the first 7 months of 2020 as there were in the whole of 2019. The importance of diverse voices in country music and on country radio is being more widely acknowledged and talked about than ever before. 

Yet there are long-term structural issues that need to be addressed if there is going to be real change. Due to the way the country airplay charts work, often once a single has peaked, it will fall from the chart. As there are few country songs by women entering the bottom of the chart, the improvement of the first six months of 2020 looks unsustainable. Further, the increase in airplay of women was not at peak times (the morning and afternoon slots) when more listeners will have the opportunity to hear them. That this increase in airplay of women has done little to increase the airplay of LGBTQ+ artists or artists of color, is also an issue. We need to look beyond the positive news stories on the surface if we are to achieve proper representation.

If there is a silver lining for LGBTQ+ country artists, it is that some LGBTQ+ artists have fared better within Americana. In the chart on 11th August 2020, Indigo Girls and Brandy Clark are in the top 50 Americana radio chart. LGBTQ+ artists are not only being played more but are actually charting! Indigo Girls’ album Long Look, released earlier this year, is also featured on the Americana Radio Album Chart. It’s fantastic that music with a country aesthetic by LGBTQ+ people is (to a limited extent) being showcased in Americana; however, as Indigo Girls’ song ‘Country Radio’ off that album suggests, this is no replacement for mainstream country radio.

“But as far as these songs will take me
Is as far as I’ll go
I’m just a gay kid in a small town
Who loves country radio”

For LGBTQ+ listeners and musicians it’s important to have options. For those who ‘love’ mainstream country music and country radio, it is important for that avenue to be available. In my conversation with Watson, we discussed the issues raised by the comparative representation of LGBTQ+ artists in Americana. It may be that artists feel safer within Americana. It is unclear how the decision to release under the genre ‘Americana’ was made, and whether the choices are based on what best fits their music, or whether releasing under ‘Americana’ is the best of the limited options available. Americana has its own dynamics that will not suit every LGBTQ+ artist. (For instance, it’s a poor fit for the more mainstream country sounds of Brian Falduto or Brandon Stansell.)

Watson has highlighted some good practice within country radio, namely Sirius XM’s The Highway that has played nearly double the national average of songs by women, although at 23.9%, this is still nowhere near equal. Further, the Highwomen’s ‘Redesigning Woman’ was the #1 song on the station for a week in August 2019. As a station, The Highway appear to play a broader cross-section of country, and are more prepared to take a chance on different songs that others may have written off, such as Carly Pearce’s ‘Every Little Thing’ in 2017. 

This culture and attitude is not only good for those artists, but for the vitality of country music in general. Although this is clearly a step in the right direction from The Highway, their airplay of LGBTQ+ country artists was still low, and trans people and women of color in particular were absent from their playlists. There is still a long way to go. Country music cannot just continue with what the genre has been commonly thought to look like and sound like, nor can the industry plod along waiting for someone else to lead the way, proving that LGBTQ+ artists can sell. Play them like you would a cis straight artist and they will sell. 

Overall, LGBTQ+ artists need more support from country radio, but as Watson points out the responsibility does not just fall to the radio stations themselves. Labels should be signing more LGBTQ+ artists and promoting the LGBTQ+ artists already on their roster. One solution Watson suggests for the industry is for demos to be recorded in multiple voices so that different singers have the opportunity to ‘hear themselves in the song’. Structural changes like this are needed. As the relative success of artists in Americana has shown, and as readers of this publication know, there is great country music being made by LGBTQ+ musicians that deserves a fair shot at mainstream attention and success.

Editor: Between the writing and the publishing of this article, Apple debuted a radio channel, Apple Music Country, with two shows that are of particular relevance: Color Me Country, hosted by Rissi Palmer, and Proud Radio, hosted by Hunter Kelly.