Opinion | Kacey Musgraves’ pop pivot mirrors American polarization


Photo Courtesy of Kacey Musgraves' Twitter

Kacey Musgraves poses during a photoshoot. Kacey Musgraves’ new album has a new tone to it.

By Nathaniel Langley, Opinions Editor

Spanish guitar strings strum before diminishing into a concert of Daft Punk inspired synthesizers on Kacey Musgraves’ fresh lead single “star-crossed.”

Eventually, lyrics recount heartbroken lovers, “ripped right at the seams.” However, within Musgraves’ tale, one can attest that this annulment song is not between sweethearts, but rather between Musgraves and the now polarized country music scene.

Culture, among many other facets of modern American life, has been swept into the tornado that is polarization. Additionally, one area in particular worthy of this recognition is how societal segmentation guides musicians into new, favorable whirlwinds.

One artist best exemplifying this phenomenon is none other than a country-folk-disco specialist, Kacey Musgraves. In the lead-up to her new album, “star-crossed,” Musgraves appears to ditch her quasi-traditional country sound, and, in contrast, deploy a direct pivot to pop with western undertones.

On her previous album, “Golden Hour,” Musgraves expanded upon her untraditional musical taste by dabbling into acid-saturated tones. For this “divorce” album, Musgraves’s melodies appear more like a separation from branding herself country than from her former husband.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    This move, similar to other country-infused artists’ pilgrimage to pop — Maren Morris and most notably Taylor Swift — reflects a polarization not only in music tastes but as well as audiences’ preferences for who they listen to and what their politics are.

    The United States, according to a study from Brown University ranging 40 years, has polarized more “rapidly” than most other democracies. Correspondingly, the study asserts that — with the public camping into contrasting ideologies — Americans today are less tolerant of ideas that are not their own.

    “Party sorting,” where Americans expect the political parties to be ideology consistent, has culminated in the frontier for Americans coalescing being left desolate. Likewise, American audiences anticipate their artists to reflect this politically dependable notion as well.

    Thus, musicians who sonically and politically appeared previously mystifying are thrust into choosing a lane preferable for their listeners: Kacey Musgraves’ accelerated acceptance of pop — with her public politics progressing left against the red tide in country— is one repercussion of this peculiar circumstance.

    A more amicable audience for Musgraves lies in pop, who espouses progressive views nearly extinct in current country. Namely, Musgraves’ beliefs on gun control, weed legalization and LGBTQ rights — all nearly endorsed and more in the inventive “Follow Your Arrow” — stick out like a sore thumb in modern country.

    Historically, country was a sprawling household where progressive artists like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash could — at times heatedly — coexist in a genre with contemporary, conservative, country stars like Toby Keith or Morgan Wallen — who, following his racial slur usage, grievously enjoyed a 1,220% increase in digital album sales.

    Despite this style once defined by left-leaning, New Deal era politics, today’s country is perceived by mainstream audiences as exceedingly conservative.

    In addition, western stars are presently punished by country audiences for embracing dynamic views. Infamously, superstars such as the Chicks, formerly the Dixie Chicks, were ejected and blacklisted from country radio — the genre’s gatekeeper and establishment — for speaking out against President George W. Bush and the Iraq War.

    The present assumption propelled onto country music from mainstream audiences is that the genre is by and for the gun-toting, beer-slinging, tyrannical Trump supporter.

    Therefore, country artists like Musgraves — or Morris and strikingly Swift — are commercially encouraged to dip into friendlier territory in pop.

    With this association between country and conservatism, mainstream, polarized, audiences expect country musicians to be right-leaning while pop stars will be more courteous to tolerant, liberal politics. Moreover, this incentivizes artists like Musgraves to cross genres, to appeal and match with listeners who are inclined to accept these left-leaning views.

    After her Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2019, Musgraves was noted as a “mainstream contender,” insinuating that a pivot to pop was above the horizon. Furthermore, in a New York Times profile, it is asserted that “At this point, genre doesn’t interest Musgraves much.”

    This disinterest in genre resembles Musgraves’ complete rotation into the sprawling canvas that is pop through her relinquishment as a thoroughly country artist. Vanished is the mantle as country’s disco-folk hero; what remains is a pop supply to audiences desiring clearer boundaries of where Musgraves sonically stands.

    Polarization, meet pop-larization.

    Nathaniel is a junior in LAS.

    [email protected]