Brooks & Dunn have a nifty hit single out now called “Put a Girl in it,” and I only wish the country music industry would take that advice more often. I thought about it as the nominees for the 42nd annual CMA Awards were announced today. Country insiders often bemoan the fact that female artists seem to generally have a tougher time of it at radio than male artists do, or that they at least seem to have fewer slots open to them. That is perennially reflected in the nominations for the CMAs’ highly coveted Entertainer of the Year prize. How long has it been since a woman was even nominated in the category? Here’s a clue: The last female nominee was the then-superstar/now-pariah Dixie Chicks! (You can find a historical list of nominees dating back to 1967 here.) So I was stunned and amazed today when into this reliably vagina-free zone walked Sugarland, who would initially seem, on the face of it, to be half-ineligible. It is no secret by now that the duo are an EW-Approved ™ Country Act (their biggest fan, Whitney Pastorek, found new ways to advocate Sugarland in this very space just yesterday), and thus no surprise that we would endorse this encouraging development on all sorts of levels. Go, “Stay”…etc.
Yet you know I wouldn’t be posting if I hadn’t found some reason to carp, and so here we go: Where is Taylor Swift? If you are an average reader or fan, you are echoing me at this moment and saying, “Yeah, where is Taylor Swift?” If you are in any way connected with the country music industry, you are saying, “Willman, we knew you were an imbecile, but must you so flagrantly trumpet your complete and utter ignorance of the way the world works?” So let me assure you that I had every understanding going in that Swift’s chances of picking up an Entertainer of the Year nomination were roughly less than zero. The category really doesn’t have anything to do with who had a particularly artistic year; it’s largely an ongoing Career Achievement award for performers who are still active superstars. You have to “earn” your way into the category through years of headlining amphitheaters and arenas — I get that, even if I don’t agree with it. And yet, year after year, when Kenny Chesney wins the award (as he will again this time), he comes back to the press room afterward and talks about how good it feels to get the trophy that the industry bestows upon the guy who has been the best or most visible ambassador of country music to the outside world. If that’s really the standard, then, with all due respect to Chesney’s unparalleled live drawing power, wasn’t Swift undeniably country’s Ambassador of the Year in 2008?
Willman’s case for Taylor Swift as Entertainer of the Year, after the jump…
Consider: Her album has sold 3,364,000 copies (1,121,000 of those inthis calendar year). She’s had a great run of hit singles at countryradio (none of which were nominated for song or single of the year, bythe way), some of which have crossed over to the Top 40 and AC. She’sdrawing youth to the format — what other act is showing up on countryradio billboards and Disney Radio billboards? Swift even passes theall-important likability test, since no one I’ve met in the industryconsiders her anything close to an ungrateful snot. So as the youngwoman who is basically leading the charge for country music’s successin tough times, why isn’t she up there for…oh, right, she hasn’tearned it. (Cue Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan here.)
For the CMAs, I understand that Entertainer of the Year is like someheavyweight boxing belt, a mantle to be assumed and then given up onlywhen one’s time has passed. But can you imagine a Grammys where NorahJones or Sheryl Crow or Alicia Keys put out their acclaimed,blockbuster first albums, and not only did they not sweep the awardsbut they weren’t even eligible for the ceremony’s top honor? It’d beunthinkable, but that’s the situation the CMAs find themselves in byignoring the realities of what’s really happening within the calendaryear when it comes to handing out the top prize. Make no mistake, theyput on a good show every year; count me as somebody who can’t sitthrough even an hour of the MTV Awards anymore but eagerly sits throughall three of the CMAs. And some of the lesser categories, they evenhave a startling tendency to get right — especially, recently, Album ofthe Year, which has gone to such deserving discs as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From, Brad Paisley’s Time Well Wasted, and Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.And none of this year’s Entertainer candidates are dire, certainly.(Paisley is truly the best “entertainer” country has right now in anytrue sense of the term, and the other nominees are solid, even if Urbandidn’t have a new album this year and Strait’s wasn’t one of his bestefforts.) But the top prize is the only one that gets much attention oris remembered year after year, and the CMAs don’t do much formaintaining a sense of topical relevance or diversifying the brand byhanding that one out to Kenny year after year in a contest that feelsas preordained as a North Korean election. I only hope the aggrieved18-year-old girls of the world will join me in Swift-boating the CMAswith their protests.