How country music has - and hasn't - addressed the #MeToo movement in a difficult year
Like millions of people last month, Nashville singer Brittany Hölljes watched the Senate testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. She saw the committee question Ford, as Kavanaugh vehemently denied the accusation and was ultimately confirmed to the court.
"The feeling of dread and desperation around making sure Christine Blasey Ford was believed and given some form of justice, and the complete and utter failure of that to happen, was so disappointing," Hölljes said. "I felt so despondent."
The hearing sparked a lot of feelings in Hölljes, the 29-year-old vocalist of country group Delta Rae. Although she has never discussed it publicly before releasing an essay this week, Hölljes was sexually assaulted when she was 13. She found herself revisiting the trauma this past year, as women started sharing similar stories they had long kept buried. It was a driving force as she co-wrote an empowerment anthem called "Hands Dirty" with her brother and bandmate, Ian.
Hölljes didn't want the song to be about victimhood - it envisions a future where the "current broken misogynistic machine" is dismantled, she said. Delta Rae started performing "Hands Dirty" at live shows earlier this year, and it got a huge response. The weekend after the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, Hölljes sent a message to her record label president, Big Machine Label Group's Scott Borchetta, and asked if they could release the song. "I can't hold it back anymore," she told him.
"Hands Dirty," which was released Friday, is one of several country songs inspired by the #MeToo movement, which went viral one year ago and helped spark the cultural reckoning surrounding harassment and abuse. The entertainment world has been hit hard with disturbing allegations, particularly after the downfall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein; but with a few exceptions - the music industry has been largely absent from the fallout.
Multiple pieces have tried to dissect the phenomenon: Music is a smaller universe where there's a fear of retribution, and musicians are frequently in a party atmosphere where lines can easily be crossed. The behavior of powerful figures has been accepted for so long, it's slow to change.
Nashville's country music community is particularly close-knit, as everyone works within a few miles of each other. While there have been conversations behind closed doors about certain gatekeepers ("People name names . . . it's not pretty," Hölljes said), there hasn't been a tipping point like what's happened in Hollywood with Weinstein. As one singer told Rolling Stone during an investigation that looked at harassment in country radio, "Nashville is a town of subtleties. Everything is covered by a friendly gauze."
"I think people don't want to talk about it. It makes people uncomfortable," Hölljes said, adding there's fear of retribution and victims afraid to be "dragged through the mud." "I honestly think Nashville could do a better job. . . . But I do want to give a huge shout-out to people who have made strides and efforts to include women's experiences in the conversation."
Hölljes specifically mentioned Leslie Fram, CMT's senior vice president and a well-known advocate for fixing the major gender imbalance in the male-dominated genre. It has been a much-analyzed topic ever since spring 2015, when a radio consultant advised country stations to limit female artists to get higher ratings. The Tennessean recently reported the problem has gotten worse, with only 10.4 percent of songs by women on the radio charts in 2017, down from 13 percent the year prior.
Fram spearheaded the recent CMT Artists of the Year ceremony in Nashville, which made a point to only honor female country artists. "Honestly, it's been a defining year for women as far as the conversation being in the air," Fram said. "Between Me Too and Time's Up and what our format has been going through for several years . . . it all made sense."
The 90-minute telecast was celebratory, but some of the women didn't hold back about radio. "I don't know why they're not playing women on country radio," Miranda Lambert said in a pretaped segment. Maren Morris addressed the common excuse that female listeners don't like female singers: "I will have to call BS on that one."
In a Rolling Stone feature published in January, journalist Marissa R. Moss investigated the climate of sexual harassment in the country radio world, where female artists often feel pressure to flirt or be especially friendly to male radio programmers, and how that's linked to the lack of women on the charts.
"MASSIVE expectance on us to be extra accommodating, accessible, sexy, and kiss ass-y," singer Kacey Musgraves tweeted in reference to the story. "Maybe it's why you hardly ever hear me on the radio."
The story was published right before Country Radio Seminar, an annual Nashville conference of radio programmers, executives and singers. Moss's story cited multiple women who saw or experienced sexual misconduct at CRS, particularly at after-hours events not sponsored by the conference.
When a local NewsChannel 5 reporter requested an interview with CRS executives about the allegations, he found that his seminar credentials had been revoked. Eventually, they were restored, and officials told him, "We do not tolerate in any shape or form any sexual misconduct, any improper behavior."
However, this year's CRS did feature two sexual harassment workshops - organizers said they had the idea after the Weinstein allegations, and in light of the #MeToo era.
One attendee was Molly Adele Brown, a new singer who recently moved to Nashville. She was curious about who would show up to the workshop, given her experience at CRS the year before. At a late-night gathering, Brown said, she was chatting with a radio programmer who put his hand on her knee and suggested they keep talking about her music in his room. Startled, she turned him down. He walked away, she said, apparently no longer interested in her career prospects.
About 40 people attended the first harassment workshop; Brown said she wished the session had been mandatory, particularly for those in higher levels of power.
"It needs to come from the heads of the companies to fix what's going on, artists can only do so much," said Brown, who recently released a song titled "Me Too." "But if we keep banding together, we can do more than what is happening right now."
This wasn't the only "Me Too" song in Nashville this year. Duo Haley & Michaels co-wrote a ballad of the same name, along with Tom Douglas and Jeff Trott. They were in a writing session when they started talking about the #MeToo movement and agreed it was inspiring that people were being candid about difficult experiences.
"It's normally something that is not part of open conversation. It can be extremely isolating," Haley said. "And instead of feeling isolated, people were actually doing the opposite and uniting over it."
The song urges everyone to remember that they're not alone. On a whim, the duo reached out to Tarana Burke, the activist who founded the #MeToo campaign in 2007. Burke loved the song and agreed to be in the music video, which went to No. 1 on CMT.
Proceeds from the song will be used to help sexual assault survivors. "This is something that a lot of us have experienced. Largely women, and a lot of men, as well," Michaels said. "And also as men, whether it's happened to us or not - it's important to speak up."
In the midst of the Weinstein news, Keith Urban released "Female," which urges respect for women. A few months later, Vince Gill debuted a song called "Forever Changed," about victims of sexual abuse. But the majority of artists who have spoken out have been women. The Song Suffragettes, a female singer-songwriter collective in Nashville, collaborated on a defiant tune called "Time's Up." In August, they took $10,000 they earned through sales and streaming and donated it to the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.
There have been some setbacks: In May, the Tennessee state House shot down a bill that aimed to protect independent contractors (i.e. artists and staffers in the music industry) from sexual harassment. Alex Little, one of Kesha's attorneys in her sexual assault lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke, told Nashville Scene he was disappointed that more musicians didn't speak up to support the bill. "Hollywood is standing up for its own. It's time Nashville did the same," he said.
But many artists just hope the #MeToo era will still inspire the business to make changes. Hölljes said it's amazing to look out into the crowd as she plays "Hands Dirty," which reminds women of their strength.
"I wanted to make sure that they knew this song is about female empowerment, but it is also coming from someone who doesn't always feel powerful, who experienced someone trying to take my power from me," Hölljes said. "We can rise from that place. . . . We have to change this environment and narrative so that the next generation and women don't have to experience this kind of misogyny."
This article was written by Emily Yahr, a reporter for The Washington Post.