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Notes From the Underbelly: The 2008 CMT Awards

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 15, 2008

Sisqo and Tim Daly: Now officially country-approved

My relationship with mainstream country has always been a troubled one at best. For northern pop music would-be critics like myself, country (or country-pop, C&W, or whatever you’d like to call the commercially dominant strain of contemporary country music) represents a sort of final frontier in popular music–it’s been easy for me to reconnect with the rock, hip-hop, pop and R&B sides of the top 40 since I listened to and loved all that stuff growing up, but like many, I never really had that country background, and partly as a result, most country still sounds pretty foreign to me. My ex-compatriots over at Stylus found something to champion in Miranda Lambert’s commercially-middling but critically-darling Crazy Ex Girlfriend, but the album failed to grab me much. If anything, I was more impressed by Taylor Swift’s couple of country-pop crossovers (which) provided some of the more unexpectedly pleasant Top 40 hits last year), whose singer/songwriter status, pop production and stunning starlet looks landed her in more familiar musical territory for me. But aside from her, and despite my genuine belief that all pop music was created (more or less) equal, I’ve yet to find enough relateable on any level–musical, lyrical, or ideological–in modern country to justify a concerted effort into keeping up with the genre.

Still, I’ve been kept moderately abreast of goings on in popular country thanks to my internship at Sirius, at which I find myself working on the New Country station more than almost anything else on the dial. I don’t actually get to listen to it much, but through editing song transitions I’ve probably heard the intros and outros to just about every song on the country charts about a half-dozen times. I’m also kept informed on song titles (Rodney Atkins’s “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)” is still probably my favorite), on covers (Clint Black doing The Hollie’s “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)–meh), and by listening to the DJ breaks, even current events, so when it was pounded into my head today that the CMT awards were on tonight, I decided to give ’em a shot. Wasn’t quite worth livebloggin’, but I have some thoughts to share on the occasion nonetheless…

  • I’m trying to think of what the Rock equivalent to Billy Ray Cyrus hosting an award show in 2008 would be. Tom Cochrane? Ugly Kid Joe?
  • It’s sort of comforting to know that award show banter is some of the most awakward and cringe-inducing dialogue to ever be found on TV, regardless of on what side of the Mason-Dixon line it happens to be filmed. Billy Ray and Miley, though…not going to be invited to co-host the VMAs any time soon.
  • The gap between LeAnn Rimes and Christina Aguilera is getting to be too close for comfort. Please, please keep this girl away from dark makeup, facial piercings, and Linda Perry.
  • The thing that nearly all the female winners on this show have in common is that they all act positively shocked to have won anything. LeAnn swears that she “didn’t expect this at all,” Taylor mimes checking the envelope herself to make sure they didn’t read it wrong, and Kellie gets so flustered at the surprise of her win that she makes a final thank-you comment along the lines of “To all the people I didn’t name, I haven’t forgotten you…well, actually, I did forget you, but, uh…you know what I mean.” You’d think these girls were all in a cup size competition against Dolly Parton or something. Someone has to win, you know.
  • Snoop makes an appearance to pimp his new country single (and no, I haven’t heard it, and no, I can’t fucking wait). When asked of his country past, Calvin claims that the “G” in “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” stands for “Git ‘er done, y’all.” First The View, then Wrestlemania, and now the CMTs–does this guy have to be liked by everybody?
  • Check out these chorus lyrics to the Tim McGraw & Faith Hill duet “I Need You.” Points for not resorting to old cliches, I guess:
  • I need you
    Like a needle needs a vein
    Like my uncle Joe in Oklahoma needs a rain
    And I need you
    Like a lighthouse on a coast
    Like the father and the son need the Holy Ghost
    I need you

  • While we’re at it, the third verse to Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy”:
  • These days there’s dudes getting facials
    Manicured, waxed and botoxed
    With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands
    You can’t grip a tacklebox

    Yeah with all of these men lining up to get neutered
    It’s hip now to be feminized
    I don’t highlight my hair
    I’ve still got a pair
    Yeah honey, I’m still a guy

  • The one legitimately huge surprise of the evening, Sugarland comes on with a bunch of guest artists I don’t know to perform a cover of “a classic from the 80s.” I quickly recognize the opening chords to The Dream Academy’s much-beloved (by me, anyway) “Life in a Northern Town,” but instantly laugh it off as coincidence, as I can’t imagine what a bunch of country dudes from Atlanta would possibly find cover-worthy about a British folk-rock ode to Nick Drake. Sure enough, though, I hear the opening “As the Salvation Army Band played…” salvo and my mind is officially blown. They don’t even do something lame like tweak it to be “Life in a Southern Town” or anything like that. And the cover isn’t half bad. Cool.
  • A good-looking female “fan” bum-rushes the stage, hugs Toby Keith and then dances provocatively at the front of the stage during Keith’s performance of feminist anthem “She’s a Hottie.” I figure this is just part of the act, until security escorts the girl off the premises and I remember that in some parts of the world–some parts of this country, even–Toby Keith doing “She’s a Hottie” is not only not considered repulsive, but is probably roughly on par with Prince doing “Kiss.” Wow.
  • Billy Ray gives the obligatory “Support Our Troops” shoutout, which is met with a standing O and thunderous applause. The Dixie Chicks, unsurprisingly, are nowhere to be found.
  • There’s the “Wide Open Country” video category, which appears to be the closest thing to an “alternative rock” category equivalent that the CMTs will have. The award is supposed to be given to an artist who stretches the boundaries of what country music can be. The nominees? Allison Krauss & Robert Plant, Jack Ingram, Willie Nelson, and The Eagles. Hm.
  • The amount of violent female revenge songs in country is getting damn near troubling. Carrie’s “Before He Cheats,” of course, but Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” is gaining momentum, and now even sweet little Taylor has a “Picture to Burn”. And you’re telling me Joe Nichols and Billy Currington have better things to write about than crapping in their exes’ shoes or something for cheating on them? Get in there, dudes!
  • Iggles Timothy B. Schmidt and Joe Walsh present video of the year, with Walsh’s attempts to address the crowd as “y’all” fooling no one. Taylor wins for “Our Song”–my least favorite of her three big ones, but I’m still glad to see it beat out Carrie and Kenny. Taylor seems…less surprised this time around. Doubt she’ll ever be terribly surprised ever again.

Ultimately, what watching these made me realize that what really alienates so many people like me from modern country isn’t necessarily the music itself (or the artists themselves), but the uniformity across the board in the culture. And I don’t mean that in that diminuitive “every song sounds the same” way, because that’s not really true. I mean that there’s a decided, almost jarring lack of iconoclasm to be found anywhere in these proceedings. Get a bunch of the biggest rock acts together and you’ll be under no pretensions that acts like Nickelback, Maroon 5, Radiohead, Fall Out Boy and System of a Down all like and support each other’s music, and get a bunch of the biggest rap acts together and you might (and often do) have a brawl break out before the ceremonies are done. But get a bunch of the nation’s biggest country acts together, and it’s one big happy family. You’re not going to see Taylor Swift snubbing Kellie Pickler for being an American Idol product and not writing her own songs, you’re not going to see Willie Nelson moaning about how “no one writes real country anymore,” and you’re not gonna see Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney beefing over album sales and celebrity girlfriends.

And that’s not totally a bad thing–it’s deifnitely sort of heartwarming to see these people so completely enamored with and so earnestly united by their music culture, and in that way it’s even sort of enviable. But as someone raised on alt-rock, I’ve been bred to long for the existence of at least a touch of punk attitude–someone being really arrogant or antagonistic in an acceptance speech, or someone from either the old or new guard attempting to create some sort of us vs. them dynamic, or someone expressing some sort of unpopular (or at least not universally accepted) political opinion. But it’s more or less a complete whitewash (and I don’t even mean racially–hi, Sisqo!), as everyone seems to have the same musical, political and sexual views (rowdy and fun loving, but ultimately conservative and above all old-fashioned), and no one seems willing, or even desirous, to upset the apple cart in any way. No wonder the Dixies were considered such pariahs–I knew their opinions were unpopular, but I didn’t realize how revolutionary simply having a different opinion is around these parts. And while I hate bringing politics into pop music, and while I wouldn’t even consider myself the most liberal of guys, it makes it really difficult for me to get down with a genre when it seems to so exclusively preach a life ideology in which, for the most part, I don’t see myself included.

Now admittedly this is a bit much to be concluding off of cursory genre knowledge and one award show, and frankly, if there are readers out there who’d like to explain to me why I’m misreading this, why my reading of this doesn’t have to be such a negative one, or simply why I’m an elitist asshole for saying any of this shit, I would honestly love to hear it, because I really do hate the idea of closing my mind off to such a large section of the pop realm. But as it stands, I think I’m just gonna have to stick with having an encyclopedic knowledge of these songs’ intros and outros, and not go exploring too much further than that.

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