The Country Music Industry’s Morgan Wallen Problem

It already feels like a million years ago, but prior to Phoebe Bridgers guitar-gate and the Super Bowl, the big story in the music world was Morgan Wallen, a man who’s gone from being one of the biggest rising stars in country music to a Professional Apologizer. For those out of the country music loop (I don’t entirely blame you), Wallen was dropped from SNL last October after a weekend of partying maskless at the University of Alabama and making out with college girls—though, in classic SNL fashion, he was invited back—and last May, he was arrested following being kicked out of Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville, a situation we’ve all found ourselves in at some point. That last incident would be rock bottom for most people, but recently, Wallen was caught on video screaming the n-word after a night of drinking and partying. Wallen has been “indefinitely suspended” from his record label, and his music has now been dropped from several large national radio networks and streaming playlists. Wallen himself is not a particularly interesting person; he’s an idiot who got caught being racist on camera, and there’s nothing more to it than that. What’s far more interesting is what this scandal represents in the greater context of the country music industry, a strange little industry within an industry marketing music as complicated and troubling as America itself.

Country music is in a very, very weird state of flux right now. On one hand, the major trend in country of the past decade has undeniably been a style often derisively referred to as “bro-country.” This is music made by guys named Brad and Chad and Todd, written by enough songwriters to fill a million-dollar estate, designed specifically for white guys who love rap but don’t think it’s good enough party music. It doesn’t meld the two genres in a way that artists such as LiI Nas X can; it’s simply country music that’s ashamed to be country music, and even mentioning it in the same sentence as rap feels too insulting. Criticizing it at this point is beating a dead horse, and I’d credit it entirely with the negative image country music as a whole has accumulated among music listeners. 

But on the other hand, one could argue that country music is the best it’s been since maybe even the 70s. Artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are both genuinely great singers and songwriters with an astute understanding of country’s history and power in telling stories. They both incorporate influences from rock and soul music, but they do so respectfully, in a way that works to their own strengths without watering down their music or anyone else’s. And lyrically, their music, like any great country music, tells stories, but their stories deal with issues both old (drugs, alcohol, heartbreak) and new (anxiety, white supremacy, the rise of American fascism) with a level of sensitivity and honesty that is hard to find in any music. Isbell and Simpson aren’t country superstars by any means, but they’re pretty well known names, and I’d wager they’ve gotten a lot of people who dislike country but make exceptions for Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to pay attention to contemporary country. Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves, on the other hand, are actual country stars. Musgraves, in fact, isn’t just a country star, but a genuine crossover success, taking influences from pop music and making it work. Her Grammy winning 2019 album Golden Hour is pretty much universally known at this point, but it’s still impressive how Musgraves, whose previous albums included recession era tales of poverty and cycles of heartbreak, managed to make an upbeat country pop album without losing any of her prowess as a storyteller. And, as has always been the case with country music, there’s plenty of great music coming out today if you dig deeper than country radio; that being said, these musicians inspire hope that people are finally getting sick of the same old bullshit the country industry’s been spinning for years now.

Morgan Wallen falls somewhere in between these two. He definitely leans more towards the bro-country side of the spectrum, considering that, well, he’s a bro, through and through. His music is fairly typical country, filled to the brim with redneck pride and whiskey-soaked hedonism, with song titles such as “Country Ass Shit,” “Redneck Love Song,” and “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt”. But Wallen, who has cited The War on Drugs as his favorite band and covered Jason Isbell himself on his new album Dangerous: The Double Album, is a far more serious musician and songwriter than his bro country contemporaries, and his music couldn’t be confused for the cornball hip-hop worship of Florida Georgia Line types. Wallen seems to have achieved a pretty comfortable medium here, and as a result he has the potential to become one of the biggest crossover stars in years. And he may very well already be that, considering that, as of the writing of this article, his album is still at the top of the Billboard charts after four weeks. But the complication in all of this is that a racist frat bro who knows how to write (and market) a song is still a racist frat bro. Wallen may be the country music industry’s perfect find (as an artist capable of injecting bro country with some much needed capability), but no artist, of course, should be capable of separating their music from their racism. The problem is, though, that so far, Wallen’s been let off the hook by the general public: the immediate reaction from the country world, be it musicians, radio stations, or his own label, has been to distance themselves from Wallen, but in the aftermath of this scandal, Wallen’s streaming numbers have actually gone up. And while it could be due to his music being off the radio and his name getting extra free publicity, it’s clear that the country industry can’t just pretend he never happened.

The past decade of country music has been defined by the industry’s continuing identity crisis, but in the hellscape of 2020, that already existing identity crisis simply became more embarrassing and difficult to ignore. The industry trying to distance itself from Wallen while his streaming numbers go up in the wake of his scandals is a pretty poetic representation of this identity crisis, one of many. Another would be the split between the two members of Florida Georgia Line that lead to rumors of the two breaking up, as one of whom voted for Biden, the other for Trump. But the most gutting example would be the CMA Awards responding to an unprecedented uprising in defense of Black lives by giving a long overdue lifetime achievement to country icon Charley Pride – all the while hosting a major in-person event that may very well be responsible for Pride’s death from COVID-19 weeks later. The country music industry has borne witness to not only a changing country—one growing more diverse and more disillusioned with lies of the Reagan era, with the deepest and most personal political divide since the 19th century—but also a changing music industry. Hip Hop has absolutely dominated the 2010s commercially and culturally, and while the country music base is still more likely to purchase music than other music listeners, the advent of streaming has certainly challenged its traditionally concrete borders. The reaction by the country industry hasn’t been to question what country music means, what its purpose is, what their role has been historically in marketing it, or really anything. Their reaction has been to suck out whatever meaning or relevance country music once had, pumping out song after song written by assemblies of songwriters that could easily be confused for a marketing branch. 

Florida Georgia Line, whose label Wallen was signed to prior to his recent suspension, are probably the most representative example of this, but there are many, many musicians who could be easily confused for them. This is music with absolutely no purpose but to get played on radio stations that are struggling to stay afloat in an era in which Hip Hop, the music that everyone wants to hear, is also music that they’re far too terrified to put on the air, save for a Post Malone song here and there. This isn’t music that defies genre, in the sense that Lil Nas X does, but rather defies the idea that music should sound like anything. In other words, much like “lo-fi hip hop beats to study/relax to” is meant to play in the background while you study, and white noise is meant to play in the background while you fall asleep, bro-country is meant to play in the background during frat parties. The complete lack of distinction between one song and the other is the point, because if the song grabbed your attention too much you might fall over and break your neck in the middle of a keg stand at a UMich frat house. 

People who rightfully don’t give a shit about Morgan Wallen might look at this scandal and say “well, what the fuck do you expect from country music.” Country music has long been thought of as deeply conservative and almost entirely white. The truth is more complicated; it’s certainly much more conservative than any other subset of the entertainment industry, but you can’t lose sight of Johnny Cash’s solidarity with prisoners, Willie Nelson wearing a “nuke the prisons” shirt at his own prison concert, or the Dixie Chicks speaking truth to power. And it certainly isn’t “white music.” As I touched upon in one of my previous articles, country’s status in the past 80 years or so as an overwhelmingly white genre of music is largely due to racist, segregated marketing, and there’s a long history of Black country singers, from Charley Pride in the 70s to Yola today, making damn great country music. There’s a great anecdote about legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker playing country music on a jukebox between sets, and when his band members reacted with confusion, asking him “how can you play that music?” Parker responded “listen to the stories.” But the Florida Georgia Lines and the Luke Bryans of the world have no stories to tell, in their words or their music. There’s certainly no shortage of stories – Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Megan Thee Stallion, Ariana Grande, all of these people are storytellers in many different ways. And honestly, there’s always plenty of room for a good drinking song, or a good driving song, as long as you keep the two seperate. But not only is bro-country devoid of stories, it’s devoid of anything; it’s purely music to be marketed for mass consumption, with lyrics that read like a checklist of liquor brands and car companies. 

It’s telling that watching the video of Wallen, for me personally, doesn’t really bring to mind any Southern stereotypes. Rather, I associate it with people I met from the suburbs of DC and Philly and New York which could very well be the opposite of the South. These are frat bros who come from wealth, live pretty easy lives, love to party, and have been known to use the n-word from time to time, but “only as a term of endearment.” It’s entirely anecdotal, but listening to bro-country, I think much more of Vineyard Vines and khaki shorts than dirt roads and cowboys. I’d guess this is a big chunk of the people being targeted by the country music industry, and hey, they’re as entitled to music as anyone else. But when the country establishment markets song after song after song to explicitly one very, very white and very, very male group of people they can’t turn around and act surprised when their biggest star Does The Racism on camera.