The singer’s record-breaking success spotlights the divide between coastal city culture and what’s played elsewhere
For the past six weeks, Miley Cyrus’s Flowers, the most dominant song on the Billboard charts, was decently ubiquitous, as much as one can determine song ubiquity in my particular bubble of Brooklyn. I heard it in Ubers, at the nail salon, during at least two pop-ins to Duane Reade. References to it were all over Twitter and whatever TikTok stream reaches me. The same cannot be said for its usurper on the Billboard Hot 100: Last Night by Morgan Wallen, a 29-year-old country singer from eastern Tennessee. The song is one of five that he has notched in the top 10 this week, all from his third album, One Thing at a Time, released earlier this month. (In 2023, Billboard charts are calculated by a combination of radio airplay, sales and streaming numbers.) He’s the first core country act to achieve the mainstream music feat – which, depending on where you are, is either obvious or head-scratching.Wallen’s career presents a conundrum: he is not only the biggest star in country music, but one of the biggest stars in pop music, period. One Thing at a Time, which runs at nearly two hours and has 36 songs, had the largest streaming debut of any album so far in 2023, according to Spotify. His 2021 release, the 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album, was the third most streamed album in the US in 2022, behind Bad Bunny and Harry Styles and ahead of Taylor Swift’s Midnights. And yet his popularity is one of the starkest examples of cultural silos in the US. Loosely, what Paramount’s Yellowstone is to TV – the most popular show on cable television with strong viewership in smaller markets but largely ignored in coastal cities – Wallen is to popular music: regional, segmented, massively recognizable to some and unheard of to others. You either listen to Morgan Wallen or you don’t.Wallen’s appeal makes sense, at least for a longtime country music listener like me. His voice is twangy and husky yet commercial, the woodgrain raspiness of Chris Stapleton filtered through the machine of reality television; Wallen first gained recognition as a contestant on The Voice in 2014, when he was 20 years old and working as a landscaper in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. His music is almost aggressively median bro country – beer, the Bible, women, whiskey, regret, reclaiming the word “redneck”. It’s at best charming and surprisingly clever, sometimes cliched far beyond the point of self-parody, but generally catchy. His songs are boozy, drenched in nostalgia, swilling about the evergreen draw of someone bad for you or mining the fantasy that you could make such an impression on a man that he’d sing about it for years afterward. They’re easy songs to drink to, which is, as I’ve mentioned, a recurring theme. (“But if I never did put that can to my mouth / I wouldn’t have nothin’ I could sing about, yeah”, he sings on the new album opener Born With a Beer in My Hand, which ambivalently handles Wallen’s newfound sobriety.)
Wallen’s post-Voice makeover for his 2018 debut album, If I Know Me, took a nod from 90s country and Brooklyn fashion – objectively ugly but worn with such confidence that it works – with a Billy Ray Cyrus twist (a mullet and sleeveless flannels). Female fans on TikTok responded to his insouciant charm and assertively retro style enthusiastically. A 2020 New Yorker profile of Wallen quoted a South Carolina mother on Instagram – “Lord have mercy im bout to bust”, she commented on a picture of him leaning against a truck – which remains an apt summary for that segment of his fanbase. There is, for better and for worse, a perennial appeal to a man wearing a backwards hat who just likes his beer and can’t seem to help his habits, his aching heart, or himself.
The compartmentalization of Wallen’s popularity is partly due to the genre bounds of country, which remain Nashville-based, predominantly white and exurban, even as country music itself, and particularly the pop-leaning, bro-country lane in which Wallen traffics, borrows beats and styles originated by hip-hop. (Wallen’s drawling delivery can veer toward rapping, though he defines himself against urban music or culture in general. “Call it cliche, but hey, just take it from me / It’s still goin’ down out in the country,” he sang on Saturday Night Live in December 2020, two months after the show rescinded its first invitation after Wallen broke the show’s Covid isolation protocols at a bar in Alabama.) Though the game of country music stardom has, like every fame game, shifted to social media and TikTok in recent years, it’s still a genre heavily dictated by radio airplay (that may help explain the sheer volume of Wallen’s albums) that infrequently crosses over to pop radio.
And it’s partly due to Wallen’s own torpedoing of his crossover career – namely, a video filmed in January 2021, in the thick of the Dangerous album release, of the singer drunkenly shouting the N-word at friends outside his Tennessee home. Condemnation, especially mere months after nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was swift, though temporary. His label put him on indefinite hiatus (“such behavior will not be tolerated”), Country Music Television removed his appearance from their platforms, and he was disqualified from the 2021 Grammys and the Academy of Country Music Awards.