In December, the band Little Big Town released "Girl Crush," the second single off their album Pain Killer. The track title wasn't exactly going to endear it to those who chafe at the term "girl crush." But the song's subject matter has also alienated the very people who should love it, because it flirts with lesbianism.
"Girl Crush" has a beautiful, slow melody, with a guitar riff that sounds a bit like Alabama Shakes' "You Ain't Alone" or Al Green's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." The lyrics start off nonsexually enough:
I gotta girl crush, hate to admit it but/I gotta heart rush, ain't slowin' down/I got it real bad, want everything she has/That smile and the midnight laugh she's givin' you now.
But then the harmonies kick in and we get this:
I wanna taste her lips, yeah, 'cause they taste like you/I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume/I want her long blonde hair, I want her magic touch/Yeah, 'cause maybe then, you'd want me just as much/I gotta girl crush, I gotta girl crush
It's a neat twist, a relatively original take on jealousy, this wanting to be with a man so badly you'd take being with the woman he's with just to figure out what it all feels like. It's also a very country thing to express a jealousy that runs so deep the possessor of it needs a new way to explain what she's feeling.
I don't get no sleep, I don't get no peace/Thinkin' about her under your bed sheets/The way that she's whisperin', the way that she's pullin' you in/Lord knows I've tried, I can't get her off my mind
"Girl Crush" ends with Little Big Town vocalist Karen Fairchild singing a few lines a cappella, her voice echoing with a sort of hollow, clear-eyed yearning that seems almost matter-of-fact compared to the level of obsession the song's lyrics express.
But as the Washington Post reports, despite all this creativity and nuance in a simple pop country song, "Girl Crush" has been a bit too much for country radio stations. Alana Lynn, a co-host on a country radio station in Idaho, told the paper that she got calls of complaints when she played the song on air, and that she hadn't had so many since the Dixie Chicks famously dissed President George W. Bush in 2003.
But it's not just in Idaho: In recent weeks, multiple radio stations from coast to coast have been inundated with similar complaints about "Girl Crush," forcing several to take it out of a regular rotation.
The Post quotes a post on the music blog For the Country Record by an anonymous Texas program director, who writes that listeners told the station, "You are just promoting the gay agenda on your station and I am changing the channel and never listening to you ever again!!":
So my response after hearing this? Of course I stayed calm and courteous and told them all I hated to hear that, but understood their position. I asked if they could just change the station for a bit and come back to us?? Nope! It was never my intent after fielding several complaints to take the song off the air. However, my boss thought we should move it back to a light rotation and out of medium, which for our station means 14 less spins per week. I fought for the song to stay put, but in the end he has the absolute final say, even though he agrees with me in principle.
That there's controversy over "Girl Crush" is interesting, given that on pop airwaves, the success of Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" propelled her towards superstardom. But country radio isn't R&B or pop radio, and it has different rules. Little Big Town has spent the past couple months giving interviews where they clearly try to walk the fine line between explaining that the song isn't about a lesbian fantasy, but specifying—in an oh-so-Seinfeld way—that there would be nothing wrong about that if it were.
The concern here mostly lies with radio plays; "Girl Crush" has been getting more buzz than presence on the airwaves. (It's currently #17 on Billboard—it peaked at #16—but #2 on iTunes.) As the Post notes, Little Big Town's label, Capitol Nashville, went as far to add an intro to the song so that radio listeners will "get it":
The label recently cut a short commercial hoping to clear up some of the confusion. During the spot, the band introduces the song, while Fairchild explains the content: "It's about a girl saying, you know, 'Why do you love her and not me?'"
They hope it helps: If angry fans force program directors to play the song less, it creates a ripple effect across country radio. Some stations won't even play a song if it's not near the top of the charts, and "Girl Crush" is struggling to get there.
But others are arguing "Girl Crush" was released with this impending controversy in mind, and they make a compelling argument. Edward Mack at Wide Open Country noted that "some of the band's comments about the song...are meant, no doubt, to stir the rumor mill," and a blogger at Saving Country Music agrees:
So if some "closed-minded conservatives" have an issue with the song, people have a right to disagree, but I don't think they have a right to be shock or surprised, or even act morally superior. News flash, but country music is a conservative format. It doesn't make bigotry toward the LGBT community right in any way, but when you're betting on raising some hairs with your song, which "Girl Crush" does, you can't get angry when that is the result. Complaining about the song being downgraded at radio may also be moot since without the controversial element, it may have never been added at all.
This is the status quo of mainstream country music today: while other genres cook up excitement with hypersexual content, in country, just a little bit goes a long way.
The concerns about radio play are also funny in hindsight, considering an interview Fairchild gave Rolling Stone in December where she said the support from the radio community "has been huge out of the gate." The band, their producers and their label, not to mention radio DJs, must have known that the song would kick up at least a little attention:
"It could be a bit of a game changer on country radio right now," says Fairchild, noting her record company was behind the track as a single from the moment they heard her perform the song for them in the recording studio. "There are not many women on the radio and not many ballads with that kind of lyrical content. I'm excited. Already, radio's support has been huge out of the gate."
"I think 'Girl Crush' is one of the most brilliant lyrics I've heard in such a long time," says bandmember Jimi Westbrook in a behind-the-scenes video (above). "It's taking a phrase that you've heard so many times and just the way it turns at the hook just catches you. It gives me chills every time I listen to it."
"You know country music was built on songs about heartache and jealousy," adds Phillip Sweet.
"Girl Crush" wasn't written by Little Big Town, but by the Love Junkies, a songwriting trio comprised of Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone piece, it seems implied that Rose was initially turned off—not by the song's subject matter, but by the name "Girl Crush."
One morning earlier this year, McKenna tested out the "Girl Crush" title on Rose. "She gave me this look like she just hated it," recalls McKenna, who kept arguing for the idea. "She said, 'Lori, shut it down. We're not writing a song called Girl Crush.' She didn't even explain, she just hated it." So like a teenager going from one parent to another to borrow the car keys, McKenna decided to try the idea on Lindsey.
McKenna continues on, noting that, "because Liz hated it so much at first, we thought nobody was going to like the song but us, so we weren't careful. It's good for your songwriting soul to write a song that's just for you and isn't commercial."
Musicians in every genre have to walk this balance constantly, between music they make for themselves and music they make for fans. The band admitted as much in another profile with RS:
Not content to release "Pontoon Part II," the members refused to let radio play dictate what they wrote and recorded. That said, they are enjoying their hard-earned popular success and are keenly aware of the importance of country radio to their career.
Admits Westbrook, "I think we've always been trying to walk that line."
"If we want to pay the bills, we have to think about radio," says Schlapman, "because that's what sells the records and makes people want to come to your shows. It's part of our job."
"It's a lot more fun to be popular," says Fairchild candidly. "But it's super fun to be popular and respected. It's fun to have voicemails on your phone from your peers in the business saying, 'I can't wait for this album to come out.' Or 'that inspired me.' So I want to believe that it can all happen. And outside of our format is the example. Look at Adele. Who would have thought a piano ballad would be on the radio and sell 20 million records worldwide?"
Of "Girl Crush," they say they released it in part because Blake Shelton loved it:
"That's when you know you're onto something," says Fairchild, who says the group played it for Blake Shelton. As a superstar of the format, Shelton has listened to his share of song pitches. "He lifted up his hands in the air like 'Touchdown!' and said, 'I never heard that.'"
"He said, 'Do you know how hard that is? That I never heard that before?'" says Westbrook. "It's so rare these days that you hear a turn on a hook and you go, 'I did not see that coming.'"
The point of "Girl Crush" was that twist, so to say that they didn't know that would captivate listeners–positively and negatively–seems disingenuous. And Little Big Town goes on to admit that they know not every song, regardless of whether it's "controversial," is the right fit for radio, referencing their track "Your Side Of The Bed," off their album Tornado:
"Your Side of the Bed" was a heartbreaking duet about the increasing tension in a marriage, sung by real-life couple Fairchild and Westbrook, that stalled on the charts. When compared to the party anthems populating radio, the song was particularly downbeat and, according to radio programming wisdom, would be jarring to listeners making their daily commutes.
Taking all this into account, it makes sense that the first single off Pain Killer was the track "Day Drinking" which is about... what you'd think it'd be about.
Little Big Town knows what they're doing: creating an album with a nice mix of tracks, some of which mean more to them than a song about getting drunk before 5 pm, and could maybe sneak into radio rotation. If a little "controversy" helps them get there, so be it.
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