If you’re anything like our staff here at Autostraddle, you rushed to listen to Little Big Town‘s “Girl Crush” when you heard about the controversy surrounding the Grammy Award-winning country band’s latest single. And, like us, you probably thought you’d hear a Katy Perry-style cherry chapstick ode to fauxmosexuality at worst and a real life lesbian love ballad at best. The latter is actually what it sounds like when the song kicks off — “I got a girl crush, hate to admit it but/I got a hard rush, it’s slowing down/I got it real bad, want everything she has” — but then the song takes a turn in a different direction. The singer confesses she wants all those things because she loves a man who loves a woman who is those things. “I want to taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” is what Karen Fairchild croons (beautifully, by the way) before hoping to drown herself in a bottle of her girl crush’s perfume.
Go ahead and have a listen.
You could call it “provocative,” I guess, but there has never been a genre of music as awesomely overwrought as country music when it comes to singing about jealousy and longing. It manifests itself in so many amazing ways. Tears! Getting drunk on beers! Getting drunk on whiskey! Beating up cars with bats! Shooting people during thunderstorms! Stomping on people with cowboy boots! Pleading and bleeding, and there’s even this one song by SHeDAISY called “Night to Remember” where the woman is sitting in the car with her cheating husband, a letter he wrote to his mistress tucked away in her coat pocket, and she decides to just go on ahead and drive them right off a cliff.
Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline: Country music’s history is stacked with musicians who knew how talk about the agony and ecstasy of wanting what you can’t have. And country music fans love it. I love it. I spent my entire closeted youth holed up in my tiny bedroom in rural Georgia singing “Jolene” and switching out the pronouns: “And I can easily understand, how you could easily take my woman, but you don’t know what she means to me, Jolene!”
But “Girl Crush” is a step too far for some country music fans. Earlier this week, The Washington Post published a story called “Why stations are pulling Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ — and what that says about country radio.” In it, a country radio morning show host explains that she’s been fielding furious calls from listeners threatening to boycott the station if it plays “Girl Crush” again because they believe the song “promotes the gay agenda.”
Lynn doesn’t play the song in the morning anymore after parents complained they didn’t want their kids hearing it. But it’s not just in Idaho: In recent weeks, multiple radio stations from coast to coast have been inundated with similar complaints about “Girl Crush,” forcing several to take it out of a regular rotation.
It’s not surprising that there’s pushback against “Girl Crush,” even though you have to completely, deliberately misinterpret the lyrics to think it’s a song about being gay.
The country music community has been a bastion of right wing political fervor for decades. And it’s not just big names like The Dixie Chicks getting blacklisted for speaking out against President Bush. Kacey Musgraves‘ “Follow Your Arrow” was shunned by country music radio because of the lyrics: “kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that’s what you’re into.” Chely Wright has basically been cold-shouldered since she came out. “Welcome to New York,” the first song on Taylor Swift‘s 1989 album (which is widely accepted to be her forever leap from the arms of the country music industry) talks about how New York (as opposed to Nashville) is great because “you can want who you want: boys and boys, and girls and girls.”
The conversation surrounding the radio-play backlash, however, is taking a brand new shape. When country radio stopped playing “Follow Your Arrow,” no musicians really spoke out in support of Musgraves, but they did collectively, anonymously vote the single as Song of the Year at the CMA Awards. With “Girl Crush,” musicians and radio personalities are going a step further. On his show this week, Bobby Bones interviewed the band.
“It shouldn’t even matter if it’s a lesbian song, is the first thing,” Bones said. “Is it frustrating to you that here is your song — that is one of the Top 10 sellers for weeks and weeks and weeks — and people on the radio are still afraid to play it because they think it’s a ‘lesbian song?'”
And Kimberly Schlapman replied, “Just the fact that we’re still discussing that, number one, there’s so many problems with that whole issue.”
What’s fascinating to me is that this controversy is a microcosm of the world of conservative politics in the United States right now. There’s a small, vocal minority lashing out at radio stations for playing the song. (A vocal minority, it should be noted, that is very likely familiar with Fox News’ brand of willfully misunderstanding reality.) But the song is selling super well on iTunes. It was the 4th best-selling single last week, which means country music fans at large — and those crossover fans who exist in the middle of the Venn diagram between country and pop — aren’t bothered by the idea of a girl kissing another girl (and/or wearing another girl’s skin and hair around like a suit so she can make out with the girl’s boyfriend). And radio stations are caught in the middle.
They should talk to Mitt Romney about it. Or John McCain. They’d get it. They know all about running to the far right to appease a small-but-loud group of religious zealots and then trying (and failing) to run back toward the middle to connect with the rest of America. Ten years ago, it was easy, but now it’s impossible because a growing majority of Americans refuse to let politicians or religious leaders or pundits use gay people as scapegoats anymore.
Little Big Town understands the temperature of the whole of America. While they’ve repeatedly pointed out to fans that the song isn’t “lesbian,” they’ve been quick to follow that up by saying that even if it was, it shouldn’t matter.
Big name county singers and songwriters have echoed that sentiment.
The best song on the radio is barely ever on the radio.This is a major problem for country music. #GirlCrush
— Shane McAnally (@shanemcanally) March 25, 2015
— Natalie Hemby (@nataliehemby) March 25, 2015
even if Girl Crush was some kind of lesbian-50-shades song (it isn't), how could it be more offensive than any of the boozy objectification
— Charlie Worsham (@charlieworsham) March 22, 2015
of women songs? Little Big Town is a stellar act that puts out great music and I say heck yes to great music. ok I'll stop ranting now.
— Charlie Worsham (@charlieworsham) March 22, 2015
The world of country music — much like the actual world — is changing, and fast. The see-saw is tipping, and it’s never going back the other way.
I have a relative who is a real homophobe. A hardcore evangelical Christian and Sean Hannity disciple who has been writing about the gay agenda on his blog for years. Every few months, he learns about another gay character or person on TV, and he writes about how he has blocked that channel on his television so his kids can’t watch it anymore. Two week ago, when Jude and Connor kissed on The Fosters, he wrote that he had cancelled his cable service completely.
“Girl Crush” isn’t the country gal pal anthem we’re looking for, but that anthem will be here soon. And the only way the dwindling population of country music-loving homophobes is going to avoid hearing it is to retreat to an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-style bunker with their families and hole up there for the rest of time.
In the words of the Once and Future Queen of Country Music Ms. Loretta Lynn — who had 14 songs banned from country radio in her day — “You’ve got to continue to grow, or you’re just like last night’s corn bread: stale and dry.”