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Maren Morris distancing herself from country music underscores its existential crisis

“After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

Maren Morris performs during MerleFest at Wilkes Community College on April 29, 2023 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Jeff Hahne/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Maren Morris, a progressive chart-topping country and pop singer known for hits like “The Middle” and “The Bones,” has announced that she’s distancing herself from the genre of country music. Morris, an artist who’s been outspoken about her support of trans rights and abortion rights, said that her decision was driven by the fact that country music has refused to reckon with the sexism and racism that’s rampant among some artists and songs in the genre.

“After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” she told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “It just revealed who people really were and that they were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic.”

Morris’s announcement comes as a number of country singers have recently released hits with clear far-right and racist messages. Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” for example, was criticized for a music video and lyrics featuring racist dog whistling that slammed protests of police violence, and obliquely alluded to lynchings of Black people.

[Related: What’s going on with these viral, right-wing country music hits?]

The song briefly topped the Billboard Hot 100, a feat matched by Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which contained QAnon references, derision for the poor, and also seemed to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Ahead of each song’s debut, Morgan Wallen, one of country’s biggest stars, enjoyed 16 weeks in the top Billboard spot thanks to “Last Night,” a single from his third album and the first to chart since he was caught on video casually using the n-word.

Aldean’s and Anthony’s songs in particular were celebrated by the right, with the latter even becoming the first topic discussed at the first GOP presidential debate. Both songs contain conservative themes and make implicit endorsements of right-wing policy, from the anti-Black Lives Matter, MAGA-esque messaging of Aldean’s song, to the limited government, fiscal conservatism of Oliver’s. Increasingly, country artists’ sympathy with far-right politics has been evident outside of lyrics as well: Morris previously got into a Twitter feud with Aldean and his wife, Brittany Aldean, after Brittany posted transphobic statements.

Morris is one of a handful of high-profile female country artists who’ve taken very public political stances that aim to counter some of the racist, sexist, and homophobic biases that are increasingly associated with the genre. Others, including singers Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini, have also spoken out in favor of issues like LGBTQ rights through their music as well as in performances. Mickey Guyton, the only Black woman to ever be nominated for a country Grammy as a solo act, has been vocal, too, about her experiences with racism growing up.

Morris’s decision highlights the existential questions that country music continues to face: In the past, there’s been significant scrutiny regarding how the genre treats women artists and artists of color, including when it comes to how much radio play and institutional support they get. Such disparities — combined with the misogynistic and racially coded messages in certain country songs — have raised the question of whether the genre is actually willing to grapple with its problems and make room for everyone. Now, the success of Wallen, Aldean, and Oliver has made that question even more pointed.

Country music is at a crossroads

Even prior to the recent culture wars, country music has long been criticized for the genre’s unwillingness to fully confront its flaws on race and gender.

Enduring points of tension include the lack of radio play that women and Black artists receive from country music radio stations, misogynist and racist lyrics, and a dearth of institutional support minority and women artists have received from awards shows and record labels.

The imbalance in radio play has persisted for years and reduces the amount of exposure that women artists and people of color have, as well as their ability to have chart-topping hits. As The 19th reported, women artists made up just 11 percent of airplay in 2022 on the 156 country stations that report their data to Mediabase, according to a study from musicologist Jada Watson. That same study also found that Black women comprised just 0.03 percent of country airplay that year.

A number of country artists have spoken out about this disparity before, as well as about problematic lyrics that are openly misogynistic or racist. In 2014, the country duo Maddie & Tae released “Girl in a Country Song,” a huge hit that confronted a number of these tropes including the idea that women were best suited to simply wear short skirts while riding along in pickup trucks.

The genre’s problems with racism are also deep-seated. Early recorded country music saw music played by white people and Black people segregated by the color of the artist, despite being the same genre. And country music as a genre is founded on the appropriation of Black artists’ contributions by white artists.

These issues have more recently manifested themselves in the treatment of Lil Nas X’s blockbuster hit, “Old Town Road,” which was removed from Billboard’s country chart for not being country enough, and which fueled outrage among some country fans who saw it as too much of a departure from the genre to be a part of it. Guyton, who openly spoke about racism in her single “Black Like Me,” has also been the target of abuse and harassment — including from people who say she doesn’t belong in country.

Although country music has made some strides in dealing with these problems, and has seen a new generation of outspoken artists emerge like Musgraves and Guyton, these issues have also burst into full view with no clear path forward. And while recent hits have directed attention to systemic issues, much of the action taken in response to the songs’ dominance has been focused on the songs themselves, rather than a broader reflection on the genre itself. In response to the outcry that followed its rise in popularity, Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” music video was pulled by Country Music Television, for instance.

For her part, Morris has been vocal about the need for country, as a genre, to firmly confront its promotion of bigotry and complacency to it. A new EP she released this past weekend alludes to these concerns: “[I’m] done filling a cup with a hole in the bottom,” she sings.

“Music is supposed to be the voice of the oppressed — the actual oppressed,” Morris said in her LA Times interview. “And now it’s being used as this really toxic weapon in culture wars.”

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