Fair-haired baby-faced pretty-boy-on-the-rise Hunter Hayes is commonly referred to as the Justin Bieber of Country, mostly because he sells himself in song as a heroically supportive and loving fantasy boyfriend and looks like he was genetically designed to pop off the pages of Seventeen magazine.
So is it just a coincidence that Hayes scored his first No. 1 hit (for his piano ballad “Wanted”) the same week that the Bieb returns to Nashville? And is it just a coincidence that tonight, while Bieber’s gettin’ the seats wet at Bridgestone Arena, Hayes will be across the street making an Opry at the Ryman appearance? Yes, it is just a coincidence. Nevertheless, in a matter of hours, the two dreamboats’ worlds come dangerously close to colliding here in Nashville.
I’m having a hard time figuring out what makes Hunter Hayes’ music country music. (I know what makes Justin Bieber Justin Bieber.) Isn’t “Wanted” just a Fray song sang in a slight (very slight) Southern drawl and with the occasional pedal steel flourish thrown in? Calling that country is like saying the shred-heavy guitar solo in Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” makes it a metal song. Moreover, I’ve heard that motherfucker talk: He speaks the King’s English and he ain’t got no Southern accent. Sorry, but Hunter Hayes could kill a man in Reno just to watch him die and I still wouldn’t call him a country singer. Isn’t the only thing truly “country” about Hunter Hayes something that’s more circumstantial than musical: the fact that he moved to Nashville to make it?
Of course, calling country radio’s regular rotation staples du jour pop songs, thinly veiled by slight garnishes of fiddle and twang, is by no means any new observation. But when it comes to parsing aesthetics and making genre distinctions, shouldn’t hardwired Top 40 compositional DNA trump festooned hints of “country” instrumentation? I mean, a Christmas tree is still called a Christmas TREE, not a Christmas ornament hanger, right?
Take for example Taylor Swift’s recent smash “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” The song sounds about as country as Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.” And the Swift camp knows it. So because Music Row still wants to claim millions-selling Swift — and because Swift’s country toehold still garners her increased airplay, chart prestige and CMA nominations — she released a different, gloss-stripped, countrified mix and arrangement of the originally electronic-heavy, Blink-182-style-melody-boastin' single to country radio than she did to Top 40 radio. Click the preceding hyperlinks to Pepsi-challenge that shit. The country version’s got acoustic (sounding) drums, the original has got handclaps and beats; the country version has the acoustic guitars and room mics turned way up, stuff like that. But the difference is negligible; They are still the same not-country song.
Now, had the ballads on Hayes’ self-titled debut been switched at birth with those on Rascal Flatts’ last album, would you be able to tell the difference? In a post today on Seattle Weekly’s music blog titled "Rascal Flatts Is Nashville at Its Worst," writer Mike Seely categorically incinerates notions of Rascal Flatts claiming a place in the same sonic continuum as Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn:
The music Rascal Flatts makes is not country. The band's lead singer, Gary LeVox, sounds like Brian McKnight, and orchestral instrumentation is all over their tracks. The guys are forever dressed like they're heading to a senior prom, with overstyled hair and tweezed eyebrows to boot. And if you've never seen guitarist Joe Don Rooney eye-fuck a camera, then you are truly missing out on one of the supreme dojos of eye-fuckery.
Occasionally, the Rascals will attempt to validate their presence in the country sphere with a hicked-out scorcher like "Banjo." But whenever they do this, it feels beyond forced; they look to be counting the minutes until they can hop back into their Ferraris or automatically ignite a gas fire in an ultra-modern condo where rose petals strategically cover the bedroom floor and a bottle of prosecco is forever on ice.
“Nashville is not merely its own musical genre but a parallel universe,” Seely also surmises. It’s a universe with its own boy bands, and Rascal Flatts is the (markedly less attractive) answer to ‘N SYNC or Backstreet Boys.
“[While] a few purists cringed when the three-piece Rascal Flatts came on the scene (signed by Disney, natch) at the dawn of the 21st Century, most shrugged them off as part of Music City's ever-expanding imprint,” he observes. “But unlike most boy bands, Rascal Flatts have persevered into middle age, peddling the same mushy ballads designed to get training bras chucked at them onstage.”
And that makes me wonder: Will “being country” give Hunter Hayes staying power beyond Justin Bieber’s inevitable Top 40 shelf life? Is it better to break big in Nashville’s 2-percent-twangy parallel-universe secondary market for peddling pop music? Does Music Row’s model for an artist’s career sustainability actually work better than the other music industry’s model?
If so, well played, Hunter.