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Issue #7: The ACMs try to escape parody
And fail in the most predictable ways.
Hello Don’t Rock The Inbox family! Natalie here — welcome back to DRTI! We are so excited to be back. Last week we launched a paid subscriber model, and we’d love your support in covering country music like nobody else.
By Natalie Weiner
In spite of the abundant evidence to the contrary, I don’t believe televised music awards shows are intrinsically bad. They’re among the last remaining tastes of the halcyon days of variety shows — the source of many of YouTube’s best clips — and the often goofy, sometimes memorably creative ways they brought live music into people’s homes. Why concerts have more or less dropped out of the TV zeitgeist (save rote talk show performances) I’m not sure, but the best case for a 2023 awards show is to bring them back.
The Academy of Country Music awards, of course, do not exist for that reason. They exist to make labels, brands and everyone else with sweaty hands in musicians’ pockets money, and they have failed in that mission in recent years. CBS dropped the show after its all-time low ratings in 2021; its audience had dropped by nearly half in just three years. Amazon scooped it up, and now it’s a Prime exclusive — never mind the obvious dissonance between its allegedly rootsy cohort and an ominous, inescapable tech giant (or the fact that much of its rural audience might not have access to fast enough internet to watch the show at all).
This year’s show, which I attended, took place at a fittingly cynical, money-grubbing site: the Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters a.k.a. The Star, in Frisco, Texas (about a half hour north of Dallas in no traffic, and there’s always traffic — don’t be silly, of course it’s not accessible by transit). For the uninitiated, The Star is billionaire Jerry Jones’ brainchild to soak even more profits from his “America's Team” brand (he owns the Cowboys) by building a kind of outdoor mall around its practice facility and offices — a deeply unpleasant place Jones invented as the heart of Frisco, a bigger, still deeply unpleasant place also almost wholly invented by Jones (recommend Mike Piellucci’s D Magazine story about the craven calculations behind America’s fastest-growing city).
Yet that is where country radio’s biggest (and in a few cases, brightest) stars gathered on a sweaty May day, cloistered in trailers dotting the Cowboys’ practice field before walking a black carpet in a poorly air-conditioned tent. This was my first experience on-site at a music awards show, and the sheer amount of work of it all was striking — for me, sort of, coming up with questions that might compel aspiring country stars and “Western influencers” I hadn’t heard of to say interesting things, but moreso for the musicians themselves.
Watching artists perform “country” without any music was fascinating, as was seeing them try to perform having fun (the ACMs are “country music’s biggest party,” in the vein of the GRAMMYs’ “music’s biggest night” etc.) while being appropriately photogenic, answering my dumbass questions and walking around at a too-hot event on a football field with not enough women’s bathrooms. (The Ford Center had no garbage cans in the women’s bathroom stalls, which was symbolic of…something.) The evening’s assembly line feel — artists schilling the singles they’d strategically dropped the night before to Access Hollywood and their ilk, posing for photos to affirm their place in country music’s “family” (for the real heads: FGL’s Brian and Tyler walked the carpet quite separately) — was wild to watch in real time. Unspoken in every forced interview, well-angled shot and piece of disingenuous onstage banter was the relentless obligation: “We all agreed this is how it has to go” felt like the night’s tacit motto.
It went, and only for a mercifully breezy two hours. Of the possible hosts for the event, Dolly and Garth were probably the least offensive options despite the fact Garth declined to reference his iconic contribution to internet lore. Also, we now have the gift of the following headline:
Their opening dialogue was basically about giving Dolly her flowers, which is as good a topic as most to broadcast. Dolly was also responsible for the show’s sole genuinely powerful moment, a spontaneous-feeling, a capella rendition of the hymn “Precious Memories” as a kind of brief “in memorium” segment for Naomi Judd and Loretta Lynn (her weird new “rock” song, called “World On Fire” but seemingly not about climate change, was less compelling). Also can’t be too mad at Trisha Yearwood singing a medley of her hits, seemingly for no reason besides the fact that as Mrs. Garth Brooks she was in the building already (again, no reason is really necessary).
Otherwise, the show was a sampler of some of the stranger, TikTok-fueled trends in country right now — faux-intimate melodrama (via Jelly Roll and Bailey Zimmerman, who is somehow not Jewish) and Nickelback-esque pop rock (via HARDY as an extension of the Joey Moi extended cinematic universe) — alongside the usual forced, hollow “patriotism” from Jason Aldean, who was basically begging for the Cowboys’ usual military flyover. (There was not nearly enough riffing on the Cowboys/country/cowboy confluence, also — Dak Prescott didn’t even wear a cowboy hat, though Emmitt Smith did.) Ashley McBryde and Miranda Lambert were great as ever, but they didn’t come near garnering the kind of enthusiasm in the building that Morgan Wallen — who was not there but won “Male Artist Of The Year” (lol) — did.
As Marissa mentioned on Monday, the only person to even allude to the mass shooting by a right-wing extremist in nearby Allen less than a week before was Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey while they were picking up their seventh Group of the Year trophy in a row (almost as many as Memphis Kansas Breeze, if you can believe it) — Aldean’s terrible “Tough Crowd” was the only bona fide political statement.
The winningest song of the evening was a nearly note-for-note remake of Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” It’s not enough for the majority of the songs on country radio to sound similar. Now we’re claiming that there was not a better song in the past year in country music than a toothless rehashing of a nearly 30-year-old single (I’m pro- cover song and pro-answer song, but you’ve gotta give it a little more of a spin than just adding “She had me at!”). At least Jo Dee was there to bask in the afterglow, since her original version didn’t win a single award when it was released in 1996.
You can’t make this stuff up. The only glimpse of relevancy the show offered was the crowning of Lainey Wilson as the new woman country star to beat (we’re only allowed one at a time, remember) — an achievement that I wish could have come closer to when I called it back in 2019 (see 52:50), instead of after she (correctly, smartly and well) established a “bell-bottom country” brand that happens to be contingent on her flaunting her impressive posterior in Spandex pants. It worked, Lainey Wilson is quite good and fun, all’s well that ends well I suppose!
There will probably never be a country awards show (or music awards show) that lives up to the format’s potential, and the ACMs — the genre’s oldest awards — are less likely than most to present a challenge to the status quo (the CMTs, it seems, gave it more of a college try). The machine will keep churning out ever more riffs on country music that had a little bit of heart, like Keith Urban’s show-opener “Texas Time.” A brazen lift of “Tulsa Time” without even Cole Swindell’s air of homage, this song seems 100% written by AI.
Give me a tight t-shirt on a real hot body
You know what's on my mind
Yeah, I'll show you where it's at
Come on, let's get back on Texas time
You got it right there, easy, we're gonna party
Whiskey, women and wine
Yeah, I'll show you where it's at
Come on, let's get back on Texas time
Perhaps Urban had also consulted AI when he introduced famous Oklahoman Garth Brooks as “my Texas buddy”; it didn’t really matter either way, much like the outcomes of the ACMs.
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