Depending on when you tuned in on last night’s Country Music Awards, you might be forgiven for your confusion. Mainstream country music’s been popped out for years now, but last night’s show saw a whole new level of attempted crossover appeal. Between Meghan Trainor sassing up “All About That Bass” with Nashville bad girl Miranda Lambert and “Day Drinking” quartet Little Big Town backing up Ariana Grande on a zero-twang “Bang Bang,” it looks like the CMAs are making a bid for some of the buzz that always surrounds MTV’s Video Music Awards show.
And they’re getting it—all of it, including the requisite morning-after controversy, thanks to a tone-deaf joke host Brad Paisley made about race: "If any of you tuned in to ABC tonight expecting to see the new show ‘Black-ish’—yeah, this ain't it. In the mean time, I hope you're all enjoying...white-ish."
I can see where the writers were going with this one—the face of mainstream country music is overwhelmingly white, and they likely thought they were only making fun of their industry for it (“it’s funny ‘cause it’s true!”). But it’s a pretty poor choice of words for the singer of “Accidental Racist.” Thanks to the controversy around that song, Brad Paisley is one guy who should be on guard about seeming, well, accidentally racist.
This kind of joke only reinforces Nashville’s unfortunate lily-white image—if they’re comfortable enough to joke about it, do they really want it to change?—during a time when younger audiences are refusing to segregate themselves musically. Quite possibly the only person in the country music industry who could have gotten away with that joke is Darius Rucker, and he was nowhere to be seen in the audience reaction cut-away.
MTV made their Video Music Awards the quintessential watercooler show right out of the gate in 1984. And now Taylor Swift, once a CMA mainstay and a guaranteed buzz-generator, has dumped Nashville for New York; she didn’t even wander south for a victory lap to celebrate “1989” going platinum this week. So the CMAs loaded their show with hot stars like Trainor and Grande, banking on viewers not caring about genre distinctions as much as they’re just looking for a hot performance of a song they already like.
And as hosts go, Paisley’s usually a sure bet. He and co-host Carrie Underwood could teach the VMA’s rotating cast of comedians a thing or two about the gig. They’ve helmed the show for seven years now, share a fun, buddy-movie chemistry, and generally, their jokes go right up to the line of self-mockery (TMZ shout-outs, pretending living legend George Strait is already dead) but stop at a respectful distance. That respect is a Nashville hallmark—the major difference between the two awards shows is that honestly, nobody cares who wins a Video Music Award. The show is a platform for stunts, performance, fashion and the occasional outrageous joke, and it is very good at doing just that.
A CMA, on the other hand, still means something. There’s a sincerity to the affection these artists have for one another and the reverence with which they treat their craft and their elders, even when they’re teasing them. When Kacey Musgraves won Song of the Year for her gay-positive, weed-affirming “Follow Your Arrow,” that seemed like a signal that Nashville might be ready to loosen up and start courting a generation that thinks marriage equality should be a right, not a fight. And when Musgraves performed last night with no less a living legend than Loretta Lynn, that was also a message that Nashville embraces her as a true addition to their canon, not stunt casting like Grande and Trainor. This is an authentic way to cultivate the next generation of country music fans—through the music, not through spectacle.