As Reba McEntire announced the nominees for this year’s ACM Awards on CBS This Morning, it was hard to ignore the fact that when the Entertainer of the Year category came up, there wasn’t a single female name to be found. While most nomination announcements keep the mood pretty jovial, the hosts and Reba seemed uncharacteristically forlorn. When asked what she made of that, Reba quickly responded, “Well it doesn’t make me very happy because we got some very talented women who are out there working their butts off. I’m missing my girlfriends on this.”
Same, Reba—especially considering that just recently, Kacey Musgraves was awarded Album of the Year at the Grammys. There’s no Kacey Musgraves in the Entertainer of the Year category, or even a nod to Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, two artists that seem to get nominated intermittently to check the “woman box.” The last time a woman actually went on to win the award was in 2011, when Taylor Swift took the title. What makes this year’s nominations all the more painful is that it’s the second year in a row with no women vying for the top award. It’s cringeworthy, and yet entirely predictable considering the genre’s recent reputation with female artists. Take all of the recent pitfalls into consideration, and it’s clear: The awarding process for ACM’s Entertainer of the Year is broken.
When you look at the judging criteria, the decision makes much more sense. Specifically, the website says:
The factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, success at radio, sales of pre-recorded music, success of music videos, vocal performances, live concert ticket sales, artistic merit, appearances on television, appearances in films, songwriting, success in digital media, and contributions to the country music industry.
While some of the criteria is essentially even (Underwood and Musgraves have comparable music video views to their male counterparts) or even favor the female performers (Musgraves and Lambert’s artistic merit and songwriting have long been celebrated in and out of the country genre), the phrases “success at radio” and “live concert ticket sales” seem to jump out in particular. This past year, for the first time in the chart’s history, Billboard’s Country Airplay chart had a week with no women in the Top 20. The issue of male-bias in airplay has been reported on again and again and again—and yet, as of this week, there are still only two women at the top of the chart: Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins” sits at number 14, and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More” lands at 18.
The conversation around female-radio airplay in recent years has been a controversial one. The obvious answer is that it falls back on radio executives seemingly preferring male artists to female ones, but that water has been muddied, too. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill infamously said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” implying that the bigger issue is a lack of desire for female-driven music. That is ultimately, to be frank, a load of shit. There’s definitive proof that people are buying women-made music, but the same singles that are charting higher because of sales figures are charting lower on airplay-driven charts.
The radio airplay matters for a number of reasons. While other genres may track toward streaming formats, country music listeners are still very much getting their music from radio. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of country radio stations increased by 39 percent, with over 4,000 stations serving country music to listeners. Mid-way through 2018, the genre continued to hold its spot as the top-ranked format on radio, even ahead of talk news, according to Nielsen. The genre has held that spot since 2009. To say that radio play doesn’t matter is to ignore the genre’s biggest vehicle for success. And to say that there is no interest in women-created country music is to grossly overlook facts.
Even beyond radio statistics, it’s hard for women to build up the exposure to drive the same kind of ticket sales without that airplay. According to Forbes, Kenny Chesney had the ninth highest-grossing tour of any music artist last year, and yet, the album that the tour supported was outsold handily by both Underwood’s Cry Pretty and Musgraves’s highly acclaimed Golden Hour. This criteria that seems to be unjustly favoring ticket sales, radio play, and general notoriety convolutes what “Entertainer of the Year” means. The nominations of late don’t track with a category that would equally weight songwriting and album performance. Artistry takes a backseat when, by the criteria’s standards, you get bonus points for being a judge on American Idol.
For a genre that prides itself so wholeheartedly on storytelling and heart, it seems to be leaving its MVPs on the side of the road. The award that once went to Reba McEntire and Loretta Lynn has been mangled into a boys’ club, but that’s also indicative of a genre of music whose priorities have shifted throughout the years. If you’re looking for country music’s greatest stories, don’t look to its award winners.