(Photo by Neil H Kitson/Redferns via Getty Images)
by Chris Willman
LBT. LGBT. It’s not so hard to tell the difference. Or is it? And if it is, what of it?
These are the kinds of questions that come up in the wake of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” having kicked off the Great Country Homophobia Scare of 2015. Theirs is the first real country radio-related controversy to cross over and become a mainstream news media flashpoint since the Dixie Chicks got the boot from a dozen years ago. But in this case, the firestorm is turning out to be more of a glorified brush fire, and Little Big Town may yet get a belated hit song out of the brouhaha instead of a swift kick out the door.
So what lessons are there to be drawn here about media controversies (real or manufactured), heartland homophobia (perceived or actual), and the arguable fluidity of the definition of “crush”? And if the kerfuffle over “Girl Crush” is settling down, is it because we’re Past All That, or because country fans have been successfully assured that they can hold onto any biases they may hold and still love the tune?
As Chely Wright puts it: “Who knows if homophobia has anything to do with why ‘Girl Crush’ is stalling. I don’t know. But too many folks are hung up on defending the true meaning of the song rather than being outraged at the embarrassing mandate of so many country music radio listeners.”
As you may have heard, “Girl Crush” is not actually about a girl crush — which, in the common parlance, has always been understood to mean one straight gal having a platonic fixation on another. Rather, it’s a jealousy ballad in which the female singer doesn’t want to be with the object of the lyric but actually wants to be her, because she wishes she had Jessie’s guy, or words to that effect. The all-star songwriting team of Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose pause to indulge in a provocative line or two (“I want to taste her lips, yeah, ‘cause they taste like you”), but in essence it’s as straight as anything Aaron Tippin ever recorded.
Yet, as the song performed modestly on the charts, there were whisperings that some listeners thought it was “I Kissed a Girl,” country redux, and that programmers were squashing it as a result. That suspicion seemed to be confirmed when an anonymous guest blogger claiming to be a Texas music director wrote a column for the website For the Country Record saying his station had been forced to lower “Girl Crush” from medium to low rotation because of complaints. “To my surprise,” he wrote, “after explaining the song to more than a handful of people, every one of them responded with basically the same thing (paraphrased): ‘You are just promoting the gay agenda on your station and I am changing the channel and never listening to you ever again!!’… I can understand the conservative viewpoint. I can understand the feeling of ‘Oh no they didn’t!!’ for the first couple lines of the song. What I don’t understand is not listening to the whole song and making a valid argument for your disapproval.”
(Photo by Ron Elkman /Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
The resistance to the song was no longer strictly anonymous after the Washington Post quoted a Boise radio morning-show host as saying she got “furious” emails and phone calls and boycott threats because the song and station were “promoting the gay agenda.” Nationally syndicated radio host Bobby Bones tweeted out a message he’d gotten in response to his defense of the tune, with listener Jerry Aldini writing in: “You recently said that even if ‘Girl Crush’ was a song about lesbians it shouldn’t matter. It very much matters and you better get back in touch with the values and the people who listen to your show and buy country music… As the country slowly slides into hell, don’t give it another push.” Bones had LBT on his show and asked: “Is it frustrating to you that here is your song — that is one of the Top 10 sellers for weeks and weeks and weeks — and people on the radio are still afraid to play it because they think it’s a ‘lesbian song?’ It would drive me insane!”
A wider frenzy broke out Thursday. “Country music fans are OUTRAGED, but Little Big Town aren’t backing down,” trumpeted Entertainment Tonight. The headline in the Los Angeles Times Friday: “Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ rankles puritanical country radio.”
Then came the backlash to the backlash to the backlash. On Twitter, USA Today’s country music writer, Brian Mansfield, wrote that he was “beginning to think the legs this story has have more to do with people wanting to think country listeners are homophobic.” In response to the suggestion that “Girl Crush” was moving slowly on the charts because of programmer paranoia about listener reaction, Mansfield pointed to a history of Little Big Town ballads like “Sober” that fared far less well at radio than smashes like the No. 1 “Pontoon” and No. 2 “Day Drinking”: “They do high-risk, high-reward singles. Sometimes, they pay off big. Sometimes, they stall low.”
Billboard also circled the wagon around country radio’s reputation, with a Friday afternoon headline declaring the controversy over the “lesbian theme” was “mostly fabricated.” The industry trade quoted a program director from Bakersfield as saying, “Our research is showing our listeners want this song. We have the occasional caller that is pissed about it playing. The morning guys, Steve & Geoff, will put that call on the air and explain to them it is not a lesbian song, and what it is about, in a quick 30-, 45 second call that is pretty damn entertaining.”
But is doing a full-court press to convince country fans that “Girl Crush” has been vetted as 100 percent heterosexual a case of winning the battle and losing the war? Little Big Town’s label, Capitol Nashville, produced a commercial in which the band explains the content — not wholly unthinkable in a format that loves story-songs, but a pretty transparent move to head off wayward fantasies of lesbian agendas, in this instance. Even singer Karen Fairchild told Bones, “But what if it were [about] same-sex attraction?” — before adding, “It’s just a greater issue of listening to a song for what it is.” And thus a very understandable dance continues: But why should it matter if it were a gay-themed song? But don’t worry, it’s not!
Meanwhile, late Friday afternoon, For the Country Record reacted to Billboard's reaction to the anonymous commentary that set everything off. Billboard “implied our story was fabricated,” the site wrote. “I kept the OP’s anonymity because I… didn’t want his job to be threatened. But now our site’s credibility is being threatened… His name is Lee France. He is the music director for WACO 100 FM and KAGG-FM in Texas. Both are iHeartMedia stations.”
Nothing here leads to a simplistic conclusion. “Girl Crush” currently sits at No. 1 on the iTunes country chart. A result of the controversy? A little bit, but it was already hovering in the No. 4-5 range before the story blew up. The song also sits at a mere No. 32 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
An inexcusable disparity? Probably, but it’s not the first time a song blew up in digital track sales and was the talk of the country nation while radio took a cautionary approach. Think of, for example, Kacey Musgrave’s “Follow Your Arrow,” which… oh, yeah… mentions same-sex attraction.
Chely Wright — who came out five years ago, and is still the only female country hitmaker to do so (although she was recently joined on the male side by Ty Herndon) — gave Yahoo her perspective on the flap.
"If we’re talking about real analysis and a barometer that measures how well country music is doing in terms of the equality moment or its level of homophobia, I’d say this: It’s well-established and recognized that our nation is just about evenly divided on LGBT issues — 50/50, legislatively, and the ‘hearts and minds’ facet too," Wright says. "So why anyone would assume that country music fans would fare better, statistically, than the rest of America is sort of naive to me, don’t you think? Our industry plays to its base, just like politicians play to their base. It’s business. Country music is known to have a largely conservative audience. Music Row knows it and country radio knows it. There are progressive folks in our industry and they know who they are. Our country has quite a ways to go in terms of LGBT equality… and so does our country music."
As for “Girl Crush,” you can consider it a thoroughly un-socially conscious jealousy song, or an accidental political barometer. It’s a song that, dare we say it, swings both ways.