A new study of four decades of country hits suggests that the idiom's notion of what it means to be a man is shifting—and not in a healthy way.
Analyzing the chart-topping country songs from the 1980s through the 2010s, Mississippi State University sociologist Braden Leap pinpoints two troubling trends.
In recent years, Leap reports, country hits have "increasingly depicted women as sexual objects instead of employed equals." In addition, "whiteness is celebrated far more often than it was in the 1980s and 1990s"—a trend that dovetails with the rise of white identity politics, particularly in the rural areas where the genre is most popular.
"Contemporary country celebrates heterosexual men in blue-collar occupations just like the genre did in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s," Leap writes in the journal Rural Sociology. "But the ideal rural man is now depicted as a particular type of heterosexual provider, while white women have increasingly been represented as the ideal sexual objects to complement this masculinity."
Leap analyzed the lyrics of each song that topped Billboard magazine's top country chart from 1983 to 1986, 1993 to 1996, 2003 to 2006, and 2013 to 2016—a total of 836 weeks. Just over 80 percent of those songs were performed by male artists.
He also found "a distinct shift in depictions of heterosexual providing" in recent years.
"In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, songs routinely depicted men as traditional breadwinners that provided resources for their wives and children, in spite of marginal economic prospects," he writes. But in the 2010s, hit songs increasingly "focused on men providing women with alcohol, transportation, and places to hook up."
He points to Jason Aldean's "Night Train" and "Burnin' It Down," Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" and "Say You Do," Luke Bryan's "Crash My Party" and "Play It Again," and Billy Currington's "Hey Girl."
"Songs from the 1980s through the 2000s included similar depictions, but these [hedonistic] representations became far more common in the 2010s," Leap writes. He also points to a simultaneous "decline in representations of providing for children," and argues that the combination may reflect the difficult economic prospects for non-college-educated men in rural America.
Leap notes that previous research has found that men "facing increasingly precarious job prospects put a greater emphasis on heterosexual virility as a means of [proving one's] masculinity." It would appear that this dynamic is now reflected in many country hits.
At the same time, subtle but clear references to whiteness in country lyrics, such as mentions of red or blond hair, freckles, blue eyes, and sun-tanned skin, were far more common in the 2000s and 2010s than in the 1980s or 1990s. Mentions of racially ambiguous features, such as brown eyes, did not increase over this same period.
These references were generally found "when describing children in heterosexual families, or women who were depicted as being more sexually desirable because of their whiteness," Leap writes.
At the same time, beginning in the 1990s, more hit songs contained "allusions to idyllic pasts." That sort of nostalgia has obvious racial undertones, made overt in 2003's "Beer for My Horses," in which Toby Keith and Willie Nelson "reminisce about when public lynchings were commonplace," as Leap puts it.
"The increased emphasis on sexual conquest and whiteness in mainstream country music could put rural men, and the communities in which they live, at a disadvantage in regional and global labor markets," Leap adds. "If rural men embrace this new masculinity, or if employers operating at the regional and global scales believe they do, rural men can be excluded from labor markets by employers seeking men they believe can work cooperatively with both men and women."
The debate over what constitutes healthy masculinity has recently been revived, thanks to new guidelines proposed by the American Psychological Association. But while few men take their cues from psychologists, most listen to music. And the messages about manhood that country fans are hearing over and over again seem to be shifting in a dangerous direction.