Boyfriend Country: An introduction

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 6:40pm

NOSELL

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If you listened to country radio any time in the last six months, there’s a good chance you heard one of Justin Bieber’s latest singles. Alarming, I know, but thanks to country duo Dan + Shay, Bieber can claim a hit country song with their collaboration “10,000 Hours.” A mushy-gushy, country lite ballad dedicated to their wives, “10,000 Hours” epitomizes the latest trend to sweep mainstream country music — “boyfriend country.”

Coined by Tom Roland in Billboard, “boyfriend country” is what you’d expect to hear over a compilation video of rustic wedding decor. Beige and flowery, its lyrics compile a scrapbook of stock photo memories — picture-perfect picnics, candle-lit dinners, walks on the beach. Like wedding cake, boyfriend country is sugary and frequently bland. It’s no wonder, then, that “The Bachelor” franchise has made use of the subgenre. Boyfriend country staples like Russell Dickerson, Chris Lane and Matt Stell have all serenaded couples on the show. 

In a genre that prides itself on being “real,” boyfriend country is often less “dreamy” and more nauseating. Its idealism and soft pop production are convenient entryways for outsiders, resulting in country’s most generic — and popular — duets. It’s a disheartening, foolproof formula. Pop stars like Bieber, and their country counterparts, score a quick number one hit on the country chart with slightly acoustic-sounding pop songs. Take Jimmie Allen and Noah Cyrus’s single “This is Us” for example. The chorus says nothing in so many words: “but it was just you and that was just me / before we found love / now this is us.”

From around 2011 to 2015, songs about tailgates, beer and trucks, also known as “bro country,” dominated country radio. Comparatively, boyfriend country is bro country’s sappy, straight-laced older brother. In some cases, however, the “bro” himself has merely grown up. The seeds of boyfriend country were not sown by pop stars, but country music’s own. One of the sharpest, most telling career pivots was taken by Thomas Rhett in 2015. Rhett went from singing about a girl “shakin’ that money maker” in his first hit “Get Me Some of That” to being content with holding hands on his biggest hit “Die a Happy Man.” Fellow bros of Florida Georgia Line got the hint and started worshipping their wives with their 2016 single “H.O.L.Y.” Shortly after, other bros like Jason Aldean and Cole Swindell followed suit. 

Still, boyfriend country’s roots extend past the tidal wave of bros-turned-boyfriends. Lovestruck pop country itself isn’t new. Lonestar’s “Amazed” from 1999 fits the bill. “Wanted” by Hunter Hayes was a massive hit in 2012, right in the middle of bro country’s rise. It’s worth noting though, that Hayes’s career did end up suffering for arriving a trend or two too early. Nowadays a higher voice, boyish looks and a youthful glow can carry male country singers far. Brett Young’s resemblance to a Hollister model has made him the poster child for boyfriend country stardom. 

Obviously, love songs aren’t inherently bad. And, despite its tendency toward gooiness, boyfriend country isn’t either. Like candy, sweet and sappy pop country songs sound good in moderation. In fact, male artists’ sensitivity can be refreshing when it’s done right. What’s frustrating is when boyfriend country is the only sound that’s given a platform. And what’s bad is when this sound grows increasingly more homogenous. A song like “10,000 Hours” already sounds like the conglomerate of many shallow, boring love songs — we don’t need 10,000 more.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned a single female country artist throughout the entirety of this article. Country radio has the same problem. Women have been hovering around 10 percent airplay for years. Despite being marketed as a Band-Aid for the way women were portrayed in bro country, boyfriend country actually makes country radio’s gender problem worse. Instead of playing more women, the exclusion of female country artists is now the work of songs that claim to “respect” them. This issue is bigger than boyfriend country, but “sweet” songs by men certainly don’t make women in country any less voiceless. 

Laying country radio’s gender politics aside, it’s normal in country music to bash what’s played on the radio and long for the sounds of the past, the “authentic.” Memes wishing for the return of bro country have already begun circulating the Internet. A back-and-forth in the popularity of certain styles and themes is also to be expected, not just in country music, but any art form. All this is to say that, like any subgenre, boyfriend country has its share of both thoughtful and careless content. My advice? Find the trendy songs you like and enjoy them while they last. The pendulum will swing sooner or later.