Op-ed: Fans’ Reactions to Beyonce at the 2016 CMA Awards Speak to Big Problem in Country Music
Only a few hours before Wednesday night’s (Nov. 2) 2016 CMA Awards broadcast, outlets began confirming a massive rumor: Megastar Beyonce would be performing at the 50th anniversary awards ceremony. Almost immediately, fans’ reactions were intense — and, for the most part, negatively so.
Never mind that one of the ceremony’s co-hosts tweeted a warm welcome. Never mind that one of the night’s big winners called her a “classy, classy lady” and expressed gratitude at her wanting to be a part of the show’s 50th anniversary. Never mind that she and the Dixie Chicks, quite frankly, slayed their performance. Country music fans — at least the outspoken cadre of them on social media — did not want Queen Bey anywhere near their beloved CMA Awards. And that’s a problem. Because it exemplifies the very big, very real issue that the country music genre, somehow, still has with race, and with those who may not agree with a stereotypically all-American set of values.
It would be easy to dismiss fans’ outcry as a response to the fact that the CMAs couldn’t go even one year — specifically, their golden anniversary — without relying on a non-country star to lure in viewers, as a plea to “keep it country” at Country Music’s Biggest Night. Unfortunately, that would be naive; if only that were the root of the drama. Because the Bey outrage goes back much farther.
"Country music fans — at least the outspoken cadre of them on social media — did not want Queen Bey anywhere near their beloved CMA Awards. And that’s a problem."
In late April, when Beyonce released her Lemonade album, a number of country outlets (The Boot included) covered its song “Daddy Lessons,” which opens with jazzy horns, a “yee-haw!” and calls of “Texas … Texas.” There are no banjos or traditionally country instruments on “Daddy Lessons,” but it draws from Americana styles, and its catchy melody wouldn’t sound out of place on country radio today; in fact, its lyrics sound like something you might hear Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert singing, and its message of female empowerment is right in the wheelhouses of those artists and many others … including the Dixie Chicks, who began covering “Daddy Lessons” on their DCX MMXVI World Tour. (It’s worth noting that the Chicks have a complicated history with their home genre, one that needn’t be rehashed here, again, but which made them easy targets for the vitriol flung from all corners of the social media world when they and Beyonce appeared on the CMA Awards stage during the live broadcast’s latter half.)
But when those outlets picked up the “Daddy Lessons” story, the majority reaction was, more or less, “Beyonce’s not country!,” a familiar argument to anyone who’s read the @replies, Facebook messages or comments section of any country music publication. The problem is, the “not country” cry is ambiguous and open-ended at best — especially with how much the genre has and continues to evolve — and fraught with us-versus-them undertones at worst.
Justin Timberlake “isn’t country,” but he, like Beyonce, grew up in the South (he’s from Memphis, she’s from Houston); he, like she, comes from a stereotypically “country” location, and he, like she, has been influenced by sterotypically Southern genres of music. And yet, when it was announced that Timberlake would perform with Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMA Awards, the pushback was nowhere near as intense, nor was it as filled with personal attacks, as it was when Beyonce’s appearance was revealed; in fact, that Timberlake / Stapleton collaboration is now lauded as one of the best performances, and biggest moments, in recent (and overall) CMA Awards history.
"The “not country” cry is ambiguous and open-ended at best — especially with how much the genre has and continues to evolve — and fraught with us-versus-them undertones at worst."
It’s those personal attacks that are the issue with country fans’ reactions to Beyonce’s performance: “Boycott the CMA Awards since they are having Black Lives Matter and Black Panthers supporter Beyonce perform,” reads this tweet. “Beyonce HATES white people,” reads another. And there are plenty more like them. As we’ve seen this election season (and as Beyonce’s CMA Awards partners-in-crime know all too well), country fans want their favorite artists to “shut up and sing” … if their values don’t align with fans’ own.
It’s not going away just by saying “Beyonce’s not country … because she’s never had a hit on the country charts!” Because at the beginning of their careers, everyone’s in that same boat.
It’s certainly not going away just by saying “Country fans aren’t racist … We’ve got Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and Charley Pride!” Because — well, do we even really need to address what’s wrong with that statement?
Racism (and sexism and homophobia and …) isn’t “just a country music problem.” But that doesn’t mean country fans should turn a blind eye. Change always has to start somewhere. And maybe that somewhere, at least in country music, should be at the CMA Awards.
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