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How the Country Music Association awards tried, and failed, to sidestep political sentiment

At this year’s awards, country music got political — relatively speaking.

Brad Paisley wears a “Unity” shirt alongside his CMA Awards co-host Carrie Underwood.
Disney ABC Television Group

A week before the 51st CMA Awards, the Country Music Association all but ensured its annual awards show would become politicized by demanding it not be politicized.

On November 2, the organization issued media guidelines threatening to revoke the credentials of press who, in their coverage of the event, focused on “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like.” By the next morning, country star Brad Paisley, who in 2017 marked his 10th year co-hosting the event with Carrie Underwood, had called out the move on Twitter, urging the CMA to “do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines.” Less than two hours later, that’s precisely what happened, but the shadow of the attempted censorship loomed over Wednesday night’s awards, particularly in Paisley and Underwood’s opening to the show.

"Now Brad, I don't know if you've heard about this, but the CMA has given us guidelines with some specific topics to avoid,” Underwood said, continuing, “This year is a politics-free zone." That was setup for a twist on the pair’s tradition of parodying popular songs during the awards show, wherein Paisley lamented all the potential sendups they couldn’t do, like “Hold Me Closer, Bernie Sanders,” “Harper Valley DNC,” “Stand By Your Manafort,” and other lyrics tweaking Hillary Clinton and Anthony Scaramucci.

But the ribbing got a little more intense as Paisley turned his attention and guitar to the subject of Donald Trump, in a parody of Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” that took aim at the president’s social media habits: “Right now, he’s probably in his PJs watching cable news and reaching for his cell phone,” Paisley sang as Underwood feigned mortification. The song continued:

Right now, he’s probably asking Siri

How in the hell do you spell ‘Pocahontas’”

In the middle of the night from the privacy

Of a gold-plated White House toilet seat

He writes little Bob Corker, NFL, and Covfefe

And it’s fun to watch it, that’s for sure

Until Little Rocket Man starts a nuclear war

And maybe next time he’ll think before he tweets

Paisley called back to the bit later in the night, referencing other lost opportunities like “I’m So Indicted,” and a “Huey Lewis and the Fake News” medley.

As Trump takedowns go, Paisley and Underwood’s was both safe and smart, given an audience that, in general, is less welcoming of anti-Trump rhetoric than most awards shows tend to be. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s tweeting, and in focusing on that one aspect of Trump’s presidency, Paisley and Underwood were essentially winking at the potential for controversy without actively courting it, a canny balancing act that took into account the nature of their venue and audience.

The CMA represents mainstream country at its most conventional. Its annual awards show follows suit.

Carrie Underwood feigns mortification as Brad Paisley sings the Trump parody “Before He Tweets.”
Disney ABC Television Group

The softball nature of Paisley and Underwood’s opening bit didn’t stop some from criticizing the awards show for dipping a toe into politics, however gently. The morning after the broadcast, the hosts of Fox and Friends debated the segment, with host Steve Doocy complaining that the program was not supposed to “get political,” and co-host Ainsley Earhardt bemoaning, “Really, it’s hitting country music now? Isn’t country music supposed to be conservative?”

Whether country music is supposed to be conservative is a subjective matter, but it’s true that the genre, and the CMA in particular, tend to avoid overt political sentiment, particularly that which is critical of conservative ideologies. “Tradition” is the name of the game with the CMA Awards — recall the uproar that resulted when Beyoncé joined the Dixie Chicks, no strangers to tweaking the conservative country establishment, at last year’s show — and any deviation from that game is extremely rare.

As such, aside from Paisley and Underwood’s opening, the 2017 edition mostly took a “thoughts and prayers” approach to commenting on current events, with Underwood herself tearfully performing the show’s “In Memoriam” segment, which included photos of the 58 people who were killed at a country music festival in Vegas last month. Little Big Town’s acceptance speech for their Vocal Group of the Year win contained a Maya Angelou quote, with singer Karen Fairchild saying “tonight should be about harmony, about what we can do together to change things,” a feeling that was echoed by others throughout the evening, as when Paisley appeared wearing a T-shirt that read “unity.”

In a similar vein, singer Keith Urban also gave the debut performance of a new song titled “Female,” which he touted in the leadup to the awards show as being a response to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations. In practice, the song is far less direct than that framing would suggest, with precisely one lyric that just barely glances at the issue of sexual assault — “When somebody implies that she asked for it / just because she was wearing a skirt / Now is that how it works?” — amid a litany of platitudes that boil down to “women are good,” culminating in a final line that pretty well sums up the song’s thesis, such as it is: “Mhm, female.”

“Female” is as good an encapsulation as any of the strain of indirect, inoffensive political speech that was mostly on display at the awards, putting a lighthearted and/or heartwarming spin on the social issues deeply dividing the country at large, if not necessarily country as a genre.

Just outside the CMAs, a more direct act of political speech was taking place

However, the story was slightly different outside of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where the ceremony was held. That’s where Grammy-winning country singer Sturgill Simpson set up shop during the show, where he busked for hundreds of onlookers, raising money for the ACLU and joking about how he wasn’t allowed into the awards themselves; he streamed the whole thing on Facebook Live.

Simpson performed with a sign reading “I don’t take requests, but I take questions about anything you want to talk about because fascism sucks,” and spoke in between songs about issues like gun control and civil rights — the exact sort of discussions the CMA was apparently attempting to curtail with its initial ban on political speech.

Simpson’s (excellent) 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth topped Billboard’s country music chart and won the Grammy for Best Country Album; it was also nominated for Album of the Year, which it lost to Adele’s 25. Despite that success, he’s positioned himself as a country music outsider, openly criticizing the safe and formulaic nature of mainstream country — hence his jokes the night of the CMA Awards about not being allowed inside the event.

So while the 2017 ceremony was arguably more political than the awards have ever been, Simpson’s presence just outside the arena — and just outside the community honoring itself inside — highlights the relative nature of that distinction.