Too Much Information: Could Mass Media Exposure Damage Nashville’s Country Music Scene?
Country music has never been hotter as a genre, thanks in no small part to an ever-greater focus on country on mainstream television. But with the newfound attention on country -- and especially Nashville - the sudden growth could come with an unexpected price.
Country has been making inroads into the mainstream of the public's consciousness like never before, led by the explosive crossover success of artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. 'American Idol' has helped beam country into the homes of people who might not have been familiar with it otherwise, and so has 'The Voice.'
And since ABC launched a major television drama, 'Nashville,' that's based (and filmed) in Music City, it's brought country right into people's living rooms in a way that makes them see it in a whole new light -- while getting a weekly dose of great new songs from some of country's hottest young talent and giving them some much-needed download revenue.
Those are all good things, no doubt. But what goes up must come down, and it's possible that all of this attention could ultimately rebound and end up damaging the very genre it promotes.
Perhaps inevitably, given the Nashville media craze right now, there are two separate reality television shows coming to the airwaves in the early part of 2014. 'Crazy Hearts: Nashville' will debut in January on A&E, and according to a synopsis, the show will “go backstage into the lives and lyrics of several up-and-coming musicians as they try to hit it big, fall in love and live to sing about it.” In true reality TV fashion, the show will also include “love triangles and fiery relationships that will cause rivalry both on- and off-stage.”
That's actually been done before, in a show a few years ago that was also called 'Nashville.' That dregs-of-the-airwaves program premiered in Sept. of 2007, and featured a cast of aspiring Nashville stars that included Chuck Wicks and Jamey Johnson -- which is proof positive that if you're both talented and lucky, you can survive a televised train wreck and go on to a prosperous career. The show was mercifully canceled after just two episodes.
There's already a reality show on Lifetime called 'Chasing Nashville,' which blends a reality singing competition with a docudrama, though not particularly successfully -- most TV viewers are arguably unaware of its existence, while the Nashville Scene succinctly pointed out, "People have a God-given right to make a fool of themselves on TV."
We can only hope 'Crazy Hearts: Nashville' will be a higher-quality production, but even so, the reality is that singers, songwriters and artists of all stripe tend to be somewhat inward-looking, by the very nature of what it takes to succeed in the business. You can't very well expect to take a whole group of that type of person, put them together forcibly under pressure, introduce a camera to the situation and have it end in anything other than a series of ego-driven conflicts -- which may be what producers are counting on.
TNT is also throwing its hat in the Nashville reality ring with 'Private Lives of Nashville Wives,' which will premiere on Feb 24. Produced by Evolution Media -- the company that gave the world ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' -- the show focuses on the wives of some prominent men in the Nashville music industry and their personal interactions as they try to pursue their own success.
Nashville is not remotely a hick town in real life. It's a very cosmopolitan, modern city that has a world-class, Grammy-winning symphony, as well as world class visual arts and performing arts centers, fine dining, great casual dining, and any other amenity that any major city has to offer.
It is the center of both country and contemporary Christian music, and is the home to the largest, most diverse collection of singers, songwriters, musicians and audio engineers not only in the world, but in the history of the world. It is also a city whose most prominent citizens work tirelessly on behalf of every charity you could possibly care to name, a city whose core focus is on giving back through charitable efforts.
But is that what's likely to come across in a reality television show? Or are we going to get a bunch of dumbed-down scenes of people behaving as their worst selves, drunkenly arguing about ego-driven silliness that makes everyone involved look far worse than they really are?
The purpose of marketing and publicity is to take an ordinary person, emphasize and even overstate all of their existing strengths, take away all of their human flaws, and present the result to the public in the most appealing way possible, so that they'll feel inclined to invest in that artist both emotionally and financially. When you then take that person and broadcast them into someone's living room in a way that reveals them at their worst, it tends to undercut those efforts.
Part of the appeal of classic country stars was their mystique. It would be harder to accept Johnny Cash as the mysterious Man in Black if you had just watched a show where he was eating a waffle at his kitchen table while wearing footy pajamas. You wouldn't feel quite the same about Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline if you had just watched a show where they got into some silly, drunken argument about which one was the real queen of country. Exposing yourself and all of your human foibles to the world in that way simply seems like a terrible idea.
The coming onslaught of reality Nashville TV isn't going to destroy country music, by any means. The genre survived the huge upswing and subsequent downturn after 'Urban Cowboy,' and it will weather this, too. But after watching a trailer for a show in which one of the participants invites another cast member to "shove it right up your a--," it does beg the question, is anybody involved in any of these shows going to be able to look back later and say it was a good idea that was beneficial to country music, and to Nashville's reputation in the world?