The Dream of Country-Music Gender Equality, Made Visible for One Night

Packed with outspoken women performing and winning, the CMAs looked female-friendly, even if the industry it celebrates still isn't.

Harrison McClary/Reuters

The most-anticipated acts at last night’s Country Music Association Awards took the stage in unlikely pairings. Superstar Miranda Lambert first joined Top 40 newcomer Meghan Trainor for a rendition of the latter’s “All About That Bass”; later, pop princess Ariana Grande emerged for a performance of “Bang Bang” accompanied by Little Big Town, who captured the Vocal Group of the Year award. Cross-genre collaboration is far from novel for country—Nelly and Tim McGraw perfected it in 2004, and dozens have followed suit—but for it to headline the genre’s biggest stage is noteworthy.

The unusual combinations of these female voices drew attention to the contrast between the state of women in pop and in country. Of the top five songs on the pop Hot 100 chart, four are by a diverse set of female artists, including Grande and Trainor. And many of pop’s most visible women are leaning into gender politics. Taylor Swift, fresh off her deliberate move from Nashville to New York? Feminist. Lorde? Feminist. That young woman singing about her “bass”? She’s not a feminist, but she’s been asked. The biggest statement arrived in August, when Beyonce performed her 12-song VMA medley backlit by the F-word, rocketing the obsession with feminist labeling to a crescendo.

Meanwhile, this week’s Country Airplay Top 20 features only two all-female acts. Men have long dominated the country music establishment, but a series of interchangeable male voices has ruled the airwaves of late—from stars like Blake Shelton and Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan to newcomers like Brett Eldredge (so many, in fact, that one blogger made a list to tell them apart). Just three women—Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and the now-absent Taylor Swift—have filled the shrinking female quota for the better half of a decade. And for every valid claim that the genre has historically produced some of the toughest-talking ladies in the business, the fact remains that only 16 of the 124 artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame are women.

The CMAs do offer a glimmer of hope for the genre’s entrenched gender imbalance. Last night, Miranda Lambert swept three categories—Single, Album, and Female Vocalist of the Year—and Kacey Musgraves continued her rise by winning Song of the Year alongside her writing team. The event, co-hosted by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood since 2008, certainly achieves a necessary measure of constructed gender parity. The show fosters a convincing illusion of the equality that doesn’t exist on playlists or sales charts.

Up-and-coming women play into this conceit. Teenagers Maddie & Tae recently became the first female duo to crack the Billboard Country Airplay Top 10 since 2007, with “Girl in a Country Song,” a response to the “bro-country” trend. The hit has climbed the charts alongside those it critiques, drawing both fans and praise as a “protest anthem.”

In their lyrics, Maddie & Tae join a long line of women—ranging from the Dixie Chicks to Loretta Lynn—to sell themselves in opposition to the established order, either demanding recognition or exacting revenge. The true victory will come only if they’re able to keep doing so. In today’s market, “rebellious” female artists have only achieved sustainable success by making the transition to safe country sweetheart—one perhaps embodied by Lambert herself, who hit her break with “Gunpowder & Lead,” in which the narrator makes plans to shoot an abusive husband, but whose recent single, "Automatic," is decidedly soft.

Below Lambert and Underwood’s tier are women like Kacey Musgraves, last year’s Best New Artist, and Lambert’s Pistol Annies bandmates, Ashley Monroe (who took the stage last night with Blake Shelton) and Angaleena Presley. Musgraves gained attention with her tongue-in-cheek tales of a small town, but she tends toward the pop-country end of the spectrum and teeters toward sweetheart. Monroe’s sound, on the other hand, is traditional, even rootsy. She and Presley, who released a brash first solo album in October, present a strong challenge to the profitable—and monotonous—establishment with their fresh perspectives and cutting examinations of relationships with men, their homes, and themselves.

These are the kinds of women that the average country listener isn’t hearing on the radio, and whose careers might be hampered by the pressures that have shaped the genre’s lingering gender imbalance—among them country's conservative origins and the male-dominated recording industry. Their lack of representation is to the detriment of country music: Their voices ring through loud and clear, offering an alternative that could compete with that of Lambert and Underwood, or even Shelton and Bryan. And it’s these women—in all their diversity—who should be as welcome on the airwaves as they are on the CMAs stage.