Back in December, country quartet Little Big Town released “Girl Crush,” the second single from their 2014 album Pain Killer. The somber, jealousy-themed ballad followed in the wake of the album’s hit “Day Drinking,” and while it performed well digitally, it failed to gain traction on country radio (it peaked at #30 on Country Airplay). The song received nowhere close to the support the band saw for 2012’s chart-topping, Grammy-winning crossover smash “Pontoon.”
By March, listeners were calling stations to complain about the line in which Karen Fairchild sings, “I want to taste her lips/ Yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” reportedly upset at what they perceived to be gay content. In response, stations in Boise, Idaho and Waco, Texas pulled the song from rotation. That move was far from the norm—of the 145 stations that report to Nielson Music to track airplay, 139 confirm playing “Girl Crush”—and in certain cases, the song was thriving. “It’s a big song for us,” says J.R. Schumann, operations manager for KSCS in Dallas. “I got a couple people who complained about it at first, and my advice to them was to go back and listen to the song. Because what they were saying isn’t actually what the song is about.”
Indeed, despite its evocative imagery, “Girl Crush” treads over familiar ground. “She wants what the other girl has,” explains Hillary Lindsey, who co-wrote the song with regular collaborators Liz Rose and Lori McKenna. “She wants to be the other girl, because the other girl has him.” Still, the confused and isolated backlash was enough to cause a media uproar, one that introduced a conversation that has revealed both country artists and fans to be far more open-minded than their long-established reputations suggest. “People were not fully listening to the lyric, and they got to the ‘taste your lips’ part, and they drew their own conclusions. I wish it didn’t even have to be that discussion—it seems like we’re past that. Why can’t we just love everyone?” says Little Big Town’s Fairchild. “That’s even a greater conversation about what seems to be morally OK on country radio. It’s good for country music to be discussing these things.”
Ultimately, the controversy worked out well for Little Big Town: Following a performance of “Girl Crush” on The Tonight Show on March 24, the song went to the top of the iTunes download chart overnight. Consider this particular crush requited.