The pendulum, as pendulums do, has swung, a realization that couldn’t be more apparent than at the opening day of the 2014 edition of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.
One long-guiding principle of country music is that women constitute the majority of the listening audience, and do most of the buying of country music. With a few exceptions that have proved the rule, male performers outnumber women, and how and what they sing about provides a window into the hearts and minds of the women they’re singing to.
In the 1990s and 2000s, we heard a lot from men who were striving to be the good guy: Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and others wrote and sang songs expressing various facets of a persistent theme about wanting to be better men, even when they failed to live up to their own expectations.
They expressed sensitivity to women’s needs and feelings, as well as confusion and frustration in attempting to properly address those needs and honor those feelings.
But now, the bad boy is back, and he's back big time.
Friday’s headlining set from Eric Church was a prime example, but just one of many manifestations through the day of the flip side of that coin that’s currently taken hold: the party animal, the rebel, the outlaw who not only is warning women of his dangerous ways, but wearing them as a badge of honor.
“Jack Daniels" and “Drink in My Hand” are but two of several thematically similar hits that have propelled Church to top-drawer stardom in the last three years. They combine the escapist bent of the Jimmy Buffett-Kenny Chesney school of drowning sorrows--as well as joys, fears or any other emotion--in drink, and elevate the impulse into that of lifestyle goal.
This year’s other two headliners—Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan—have built careers on variations of the same theme. A big part of their rise to mass stardom has been the influx of young fans into country music, which traditionally has addressed adult themes to adult audiences.
But Taylor Swift opened up a whole new demographic with her songs that reached to teen and preteen girls and young adult women, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Stagecoach attendees, outnumbering men perhaps four or five to one.
At least Swift gave them songs rooted in situations and feelings that were typical for the age group. Now that she’s broadened her musical palette and has become a full-blown pop star while retaining a tethered connection to her original country fan base, those millions of young women are now college age and ripe for demographic targeting by men who are purveying frat-boy hedonism in their music.
It makes for an experience little shy of a Miami spring break bash, and yields music that offers little more than an encouraging soundtrack to the revelry. Festivals, of course, are built on the notion of good times on a grand scale, but the music this year—on Stagecoach’s Mane Stage anyway—became numbingly one-dimensional on Friday.
The more musically and lyrically probing offerings Friday came on the smaller stages in the Palomino and Mustang tents, where boundary-pushing acts such as Austin’s electrifying one-man band Shakey Graves, spirited old-time trio the Howlin' Brothers, bluegrass singer-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, sweet pop-country quartet the Wailin’ Jennys, and soulful singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne delivered more deeply felt sets through the day.
That’s the split-personality character that is Stagecoach, which has helped make it the premiere country music festival in the land. But here’s one festival-goer looking forward to the day when that pendulum moves back to a little more human region of the arc.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2
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