There’s a war going on that no one is talking about. It isn’t in the Middle East. It isn’t from Fox News about Christmas. It’s the age-old “Is this country song actually country?” Some famous queries include: Is Dolly going pop? Is Sam Hunt just a hip-hop lover who wants a guaranteed career, so he calls himself country? Is Golden Hour country or more of an acid trip? The questioning will never end as long as country radio is run by straight white men.
The conversation has arisen again this week with Maren Morris’ second LP, GIRL. Her first album,Hero was championed by the country community through a CMA Award for Best New Artist, a Grammy for Best Solo Country Performance, and a country radio number one with “I Could Use A Love Song.” All this for an album that isn’t entirely country.
A little more exposition for you: country radio is the crux of the genre. While pop or rap music can soar without a radio number one, radio airplay is still a key factor in success within the genre. Luckily, the barriers are starting to be broken. Kacey Musgraves’ and Chris Stapleton’s stardom are two of the more recent examples of artists who have been able to buck the unofficial radio requirements within the genre.
Considering this, country radio’s love of Maren, even if her album doesn’t scream George Strait-level twang, shows that the industry will stand behind her.
Then, “The Middle” happened. Her summer smash with Zedd and Grey overtook the talk of her country roots and firmly planted her as a bonafide pop star, even if that wasn’t her real intention other than making good music. So now, looking at GIRL, the country genre is having a hard time not hearing the pop in her country tunes, while the pop genre is having a hard time not hearing the country in her pop tunes.
Taylor Swift’s Red was an album that had the same sort of reaction. She was all “This is a country album!” and then “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” were pure pop and everyone was all “No it’s not!” Maren is in the same sort of place now, where the music industry feels the need to categorize her as a specific genre, even though that’s not the kind of music she creates.
GIRL just wants to be a good album that gets you bopping and feeling, no matter if it’s country or pop or R&B. Now, I’m all for a mixing of genres (catch my ass listening to Shania Twain’s UP album for the gazillionth time), but the album comes up short. Most tracks are such amalgamations of sounds that no track can be itself, as you’re constantly comparing it to similar sounding songs or trying to place what actual sound she’s going for with the tracks. A lot of them are pop and country, with a hint of R&B, a bit of blues, and an occasional Jimmy Buffet island-jam. On top of this, because of the giant pot of genre soup she’s created, a lot of the songs do blend together for me.
Not all the songs are clusters, however. “All My Favorite People” is a standout, with a feature by the Brothers Osborne. The chorus was totally written in mind to be sung by a field of drunken teens during a summer country concert tour, but the verses sound like you’re smack dab in the middle of a Georgia honkytonk in the best possible way. There’s a grit to the melody during those verses that really shines.
“Common,” with a feature from Grammy 2019 standout Brandi Carlile, is also a jam, even though if it’s one of those message-y songs that never really points a finger, just “we’re all to blame!” and then moves on, which I find fundamentally flawed. Yet, the melody and the soaring voices of these two amazing women outweigh the bad.
Is this album better than most? Absolutely, especially since country music is currently a clusterfuckboi of fratty white dudes who are overcompensating. However, I know Maren Morris has more in her. She’s just been added to this female supergroup, along with Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires, which should be interesting. GIRL is decent, but it’s not SUPER.