Country Music’s Bro Problem

Can Miranda Lambert take the country charts back for female artists?

Miranda Lambert performs during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards on May 18, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If there’s a musical equivalent for the cinematic Bechdel test, commercial country music right now is failing it. As has been widely noted, Nashville has been awash for several years with men such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton drawling about “girls” in tank tops and flip-flops dancing on bars and in the flatbeds of pickups at a never-ending dirt-road tailgate party.

This “bro-country” testosterone tide has all but shut female artists out of the upper end of the country charts—when they do show up, they tend to be in duets with guys or as the voices of otherwise all-male bands, rather than soloists. If we picture the charts as one big movie, it would mostly flunk Bechdel’s criterion that female characters have scenes of their own, apart from the men.

One of the few exceptions, and by default the leading champion for the cause of country womanism, is Miranda Lambert. Fortunately, Lambert’s new, sixth album Platinum, released this week, proves her as ready and able to undertake that crusade as any knight-errant, “only” (as she would wink), “prettier.”

Platinum walks a double line: It’s the work of a successful insider who remains aware that she’s an outsider by dint of sex as well as sly intellect—in fact, Lambert strikes me as one of the smartest country superstars since Dolly Parton, female or male. And like a 21st-century Parton, she manipulates the materials of mass appeal to her own subversively gender-conscious ends. (She also happens to be married to Blake Shelton.)

This week, as has often happened before, she is the sole female solo artist in the upper reaches of the Hot Country Top 25, with Platinum’s lead single “Automatic” at No. 6. Its most recent single, “Somethin’ Bad,” a collaboration with Carrie Underwood, is No. 5. Both of them, 30 and 31, managed to build massive fan bases, partly via TV singing contests, before country underwent its current man-cave renovation. Their younger peers get no such pass.

Last year saw a wave of extraordinary albums by young female singer-songwriters such as Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe, but radio resisted. It was partly the content—just as Bechdel would demand, these songwriters frequently “talk about something other than a man,” including unladylike matters such as being poor and getting drunk or high, and uncountrylike criticism of small-town life. All that could only interfere with country radio’s pandering to that elusive demographic of dudely dudes with disposable income (and the ladies who love them).

That isn’t just a contrast to mainstream pop, which has been defined by female divas for so long it’s hard to remember it any other way. It is also a deviation from country’s recent past, when Taylor Swift dominated (she’s now mostly migrated away to pop), and the 1990s, when Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain ruled, flanked by Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, and many more.

Lambert isn’t having it. As she recently told Rolling Stone: “What are they calling it, ‘bro country’? … I love those songs, but for a minute there, it felt like girls ran the show. We have to save this thing we’ve made — Carrie and Taylor and me.”

She started her career in a similar spirit to the country-grrrl class of 2013: Inspired partly by a Veronica Marsof-Texas childhood in which her parents were private investigators who often encountered domestic abuse and sometimes sheltered battered women in their home, she made her name writing and singing revenge fantasies such as “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead” that could have come with a #YesAllWomen hashtag. In those pre-bro-boom days of the mid-2000s, they ricocheted up the charts.

Gradually she grew beyond that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend persona, especially after her marriage to Shelton (partly by outsourcing it to her trio with Monroe and Angaleena Presley, the Pistol Annies). She confirmed her range with 2009’s “House That Built Me,” one of the strongest country singles of the past decade, a homesick tear-jerker so potent that its YouTube comment thread is piled with anecdotes of people having to pull off the road to regain their composure when it comes on.

Though she still makes sure on every album to remind us she can take the bad guys down, on Platinum it’s just with sarcasm and attitude—no firearms are brandished and no cheaters, beaters, or deadbeats dispatched mortally. “Automatic” is not about a weapon but about technology, a paean to pre-push-button, snail-mail culture that some may find corny, though the nod in its climax to Outkast’s “shake it like a Polaroid picture” hints that the country bros aren’t the only ones who can embrace hip-hop references. “Old Shit” hits the same nostalgia theme in a jauntier way with a jug-band sound that splits the difference between country nostalgia and hipster artisanalism—it might fetishize granddads, but its title would provoke real traditionalists to wash her mouth out with soap.

Those rearview glances strike me as strategic moves to ease the way for Lambert’s main agenda here, which is to celebrate country womanhood on modern women’s terms. Which is not to say she always does it in ways coastal urban feminists will find comfortable. Like Shania Twain’s, her take remains high-heeled and mascaraed, however combative it gets, always offering identification points for more conservative listeners, because that’s the tao of Nashville.

Platinum opens with a statement of purpose (and possible Lena Dunham shoutout) in “Girls”—a melodically captivating battle-of-the-sexes anthem that hints monogamy may not jibe with the way women constantly recalibrate their assessments and their options: “If you think you’re the only one she’ll want in this world/ Then you don’t know nothin’ about girls.”

That it next pivots to an ode to hair dyeing in girls-night-out, shoutalong style, could seem like a retrenchment. But it establishes an M.O. for the rest of the record of lingering in women’s private spheres of self-fashioning, of body image and age anxiety, as sites of solidarity, as on songs such as “Bathroom Sink” and “Gravity Is a Bitch.” The pun on platinum hairdos and platinum records parallels two ways of mobilizing for advantage in a masculine world. “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you blonder,” Lambert sings, doing Nietzsche by way of Maybelline.

This is Platinum’s true Bechdelian gambit: It address itself to women and leaves men to listen in. It’s telling that each of the first two songs make reference to Marilyn Monroe, a symbol to so many women of the inextricability of feminine triumph and loss.

Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” recorded with the silky-smooth Little Big Town, offers Lambert’s answer to bro-country party songs, ranking tipsily intimate chat with friends over pickups and blackouts. “Babies Making Babies” takes a similarly tolerant girls’-eye view of the less well-thought-out side of the cycle of life—unplanned pregnancy, “the best thing that ever happened by mistake”—tweaking country morality rather in the vein of classic Loretta Lynn. It mists me over a bit, too.

But generally, Lambert leans this time on saucy sisterly humor rather than “House That Built Me” poignancy. While she offers her husband an affecting waltz in “Holding On to You,” the livelier marriage tune is a woman-to-woman one, “Priscilla,” invoking the former Mrs. Elvis Presley as a fellow “queen of a king,” “married to a man who is married to attention.” Since Lambert’s last solo album, Shelton’s fame has expanded beyond country as a judge on The Voice, and this is partly about the tabloid fallout. But it could also sound familiar to any woman hitched to a peacocking mansplainer.

There’s much more, and not all of it is so programmatic—indeed, at 16 songs and nearly a full hour’s length, produced and arranged with consummate Nashville studio variety and grandeur, the whole album may be too much for any single listener. But like the campaign platform it is, Platinum includes something for everyone. It’s easy to imagine half the songs occupying radio space over the next couple of years, with Lambert in platinum ’do and platinum sales, propping open the gates by will and wile, until the industry wises up and starts inviting more women back in.