I have had “Oh, What a World” — the fourth track from Kacey Musgraves’ new album Golden Hour — stuck in my head for a week now. It starts with a beautiful vocoder that immediately places you in a space-age realm far from country. The vocoder returns in the chorus where Musgraves sings of her new love, and the banjo cycles through to set it all off. It’s Blade Runner, but we managed to keep the banjo and southern accents. This is Kacey Musgraves at her best — cognizant of her rare pull in two music industries (Nashville country and Music Critics, inc.) and forces them together like Spider-man did in that new movie with the ship split in half (I wish I had a cooler comparison — whatever, it works.) Most of the time on Golden Hour, Musgraves is pure Nashville country, which opens up Pandora’s box in discussions of racial divide and industry songwriting techniques.
Are music critics reckoning with this discussion enough? Reviews of her album are mostly concerned with her perceived outlaw status in mainstream country. True — Same Trailer Different Park featured “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round,” which tackled sexist traditionalist views with enough wit to get her targets to sing along with them. She also only has one top 10 Billboard Country hit with “Follow Your Arrow.” At the same time, Golden Hour is sure to be her third no. 1 Country album and will surely be up for Grammys and ACM & CMA awards just like the previous two. She is on the same label as Sam Hunt (the “Body Like a Back Road” guy); Kacey Musgraves is mainstream Nashville country. Whatever outlaw status she has obtained has been funded by the industry that made “outlaw” tacky and commercial forty years ago.
She writes mainstream, too. Consider “Follow Your Arrow” — her biggest hit that has also catapulted her into gay icon status. It is written in successive couplets, each trying to outdo the next one with gird-your-loins social critique. None of it is radical if you are a normal, decent person, but the complacency of the writing style and backing instrumentation certainly lowers your expectations for the lyrics to achieve any social awareness. Kacey Musgraves is great at this trick of turning the dial to the left just enough to get everyone to pay attention, but the flip side is that her banal Nashville-country songwriting methods undercut that message at the same time. Can you really be radical if you choose to convey it through the antithesis of that? It is like when videos of Shepard Smith defending journalistic integrity circulate and get praised by the Left — yeah but he still works at Fox News, right?
Do I just need to get off my “High Horse”? Maybe. Golden Hour is by far Musgraves’ best album and should be praised more for what it is — a good mainstream country album. My problems are more with the hyperbolic coverage. Consequence of Sound says,“her talent as a songwriter and melody-maker is second to none.” As noted above, Vulture has proclaimed her a gay icon. The Guardian and The Independent gave the album the highest marks possible. It all feels like a concession to mainstream country — that we should be more accepting of this genre that just keeps trucking along.
My plea is not grade Kacey Musgraves on a scale when a) she doesn’t need your help and b) more-talented, more-socially-aware minority voices will not receive this coverage. Maybe consider more how MorMor, Nilüfer Yanya, and Moses Sumney are changing the face of indie rock and folk or that Amber Mark, Kali Uchis, Ravyn Lenae, cupcakKe, and other women in rap and r&b will struggle to even get reviews and much less be praised. Also, serpentwithfeet and Arca should be your gay icons. I also ask where Frank, Kendrick, and SZA rank on that songwriters’ list if Kacey Musgraves is second to none. Country music is a troubled mess, and Musgraves embraces it wholeheartedly with good music to boot. Just recognize what you are not paying attention to.