Country Music’s High Horse

Kacey Musgraves returns with “Golden Hour”

In 2012, recent The Voice alum RaeLynn premiered her debut single, questionably titled “God Made Girls,” which to a liberal ear praises women for serving their husbands. “Somebody’s gotta wear a pretty skirt / Somebody’s gotta be the one to flirt / Somebody’s gotta wanna hold his hand / So God made girls,” she sings without a hint of irony; less “Gunpowder & Lead” by Miranda Lambert and more “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette.

The thinkpieces responded accordingly (read: obnoxiously), decrying it for its un-feminist politics that one Jezebel article described as “outright Victorian,” “blasphemous,” and “a sign that Pinterest achieved sentience.” The Guardian referred to it as “a sexist mess that paints women as nothing but pretty little objects, just as much as Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line’s records do.” Nevermind that RaeLynn, in an interview shortly after the Jezebel article ran, defended herself as a feminist whose own career was proof that the lyrics were not meant to wholly encompass the role of the female sex. Nevermind how the song’s values do resonate with a large number of women in America, for whom the song was written. The song did not match with what critics expected in their music, and “God Made Girls” became a joke in the critical landscape.

Kacey Musgraves’s music, since her major label debut in 2013, has always received at least a modicum of critical praise. Same Trailer, Different Park was recognized for its cynical and casual lyricism; in lead single “Merry Go ‘Round,” for example, she sings about the toxic circularity of small-town life, never upbraiding this lifestyle but merely looking on with a sigh. The country music industry extolled her regularly, awarding her CMAs and putting her on their biggest stages. But to liberal critic-land as a whole, like Spin and Pitchfork and Time, Kacey’s best song was really “Follow Your Arrow,” a good song that was recognized more for its politics: Kacey sings about smoking weed, kissing girls, and living your own life all over a catchy guitar melody. The underlying argument is that country music, at its core, is bad; country music that serves as a rebuff to country music is therefore good.

Kacey’s second album, Pageant Material, which was more or less a rehash of the same concepts and sounds from Same Trailer, Different Park, came and went. She consistently flirted with a more pop-oriented, un-country audience, touring with Katy Perry and, more recently, Harry Styles, even lending her vocals to a remix of a Miguel single, “Waves.” She released two songs a month or so ago to promote her third album, Golden Hour: “Butterflies,” a twee statement of affection with a predictable metaphor, and “Space Cowboy,” a ballad about letting a disquieted lover leave. They were classic Kacey songs, being wistful, casual, and country through-and-through.

Then “High Horse” dropped. Essentially a disco track about telling someone to fuck off, the song was nothing like what Kacey had released before, being a predominately pop song. The critics salivated; Pitchfork awarded the song the Best New Music label, and other publications gave it more attention than they would have any other release by a country artist. Kacey acknowledged these awards, but part of her charm is how genuine her liberal appeal manifests. Just a few days before the album release, she wrote a Facebook post about how she was inspired to write an interlude about her mom while she was on LSD—not quite the image a country artist tends to carry.

The release of Golden Hour last week only added onto the acclaim; Pitchfork doled out Kacey her second Best New Music sticker, and the album currently has a score of 90 on Metacritic. Part of her success must be attributed to the merits of the album, with layered, experimental instrumentals and witty lyrics tied together with Kacey’s melodious voice. Part of it must also be the pop landscape it is being released in, where artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus have promised hybrids of country and pop that failed to excite upon release. But part of it must be because much of the album does not feel like country music; I’ve seen the vocoder used on “Oh, What a World” compared to those on songs by All Saints, MIKA, and Daft Punk, and Pitchfork could not help but compare the record as a whole to releases by Beck and Sufjan Stevens. Pop music fans were similarly engaged, and Kacey tweeted a meme showcasing a man labelled “The Gays” turning away from Carly Rae Jepsen’s record Emotion and facing Golden Hour instead. Kacey later deleted the tweet, perhaps not used to the vitriol that pop music fans on Twitter often carry, especially toward a country artist.

It’s wonderful to see a talented artist receive the accolades she deserves. But it’s similarly difficult to not be cynical and consider the factors that have contributed to Musgraves’s critical acclaim, especially from people who will likely never willingly listen to another country album this year. The country music scene has largely gone unaffected by the critics, whose old biases are still evident even when they’re silent. RaeLynn herself released her latest single “Queen’s Dont” a few weeks ago to not much of a hullabaloo. “Queens don’t hate, queens don’t fight / Queens don’t stay unless their king treats her right,” she sings, echoing her debut track but with reversed politics. One has to notice how, despite being similarly prescriptivist about the roles girls must play in their lives, “Queens Don’t” escaped the scorn of critics.