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Jody Rosen on the Rise of Bro-Country

Cruise,” the debut single by the country duo Florida Georgia Line, is baffling—a song that causes a critic to shelve his two-bit theorizing, drop to his knees, and tremble before the mysterious movements of the pop gods. The song recently logged its 22nd week at the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs rundown, shattering a record that had stood since 1955. The weird part is, “Cruise” doesn’t sound like much at all. The most extraordinary thing about it is its aggressive ordinariness.

It’s solidly built, for sure. Like much of today’s country, “Cruise” has hooks that lean toward pop and hefty guitars that tilt toward rock. It’s a song about “falling in love in the sweet heart of summer,” which tosses out some familiar tropes—lyrics about swilling Southern Comfort and ogling girls in bikinis—before circling back around, in the chorus, to, well, itself: “Baby, you a song / You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.” It’s a summer song about summer songs, in other words, which is cute, but not exactly impressive by the witty standards of Nashville’s Music Row.

The top country hit of all time may, in fact, be the most generic song you’ve ever heard. It’s a big, amiable lunk of a song, one that lumbers out of your speakers, wearing a blinding ear-to-ear grin, overconfident in its own modest charm. Put another way: If “Cruise” were a guy at a bar, he would sidle up to the hottest blonde in the room, laugh loudly at his own jokes, and, after crashing and burning with a couple of lame pickup lines, ask, “Have you heard this awesome song?” Whereupon he would whip out his iPhone and dial up the video for Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.”

In short, “Cruise” is bro-country: music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude. It’s a movement that has been gathering steam for several years now, and we may look back on “Cruise” as a turning point, the moment when the balance of power tipped from an older generation of male country stars to the bros.

You can hear those changes on Florida Georgia Line’s debut, Here’s to the Good Times. There isn’t a fiddle or pedal steel in earshot. The vocals have a regional ring; lead singer Tyler Hubbard, from Monroe, Georgia, and his harmony-singing sideman, Brian Kelley, from Ormond Beach, Florida, sing in thick drawls. But it’s not a country sound in the classical sense; it’s closer to John Mellencamp than George Jones. The hallmarks of country singing—the desolate croons and bent notes, just a step removed from Appalachia and the blues—are nowhere on Here’s to the Good Times.

That classic country vocal style wasn’t just ornamental. It stood for a masculine ideal, for stoicism and resolve in the face of hardship. It bespoke country’s devotion to realism, to songs about Saturday night’s hootenanny and Sunday morning’s moral reckoning, not to mention the kitchen-table truths of Monday through Friday. Country has always been pop’s most mature genre. If rock strives to “hold onto 16 as long as you can,” as Mellencamp once put it, country aims for the opposite. Young country singers have learned to project gravitas beyond their years, singing songs about home and hearth and other grown-up stuff.

Bro-country breaks with that tradition. Hubbard, 26, and Kelley, 27, pay lip service to “little farm towns” and pickup trucks and such. But what they care about is getting drunk and laid. The titles tell the story: “Tip It Back,” “Dayum, Baby,” “Party People.” For Florida Georgia Line, it’s always Saturday night—here’s to the good times, all the time. You could call Florida Georgia Line country’s first boy band.

Bro-country isn’t monolithic; the bros come in different flavors. The king of the genre is Luke Bryan, country’s top male star. In March, Bryan went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with Spring Break … Here to Party, a collection of songs about getting wasted at oceanside keggers. There’s less Daytona Beach on his new album, Crash My Party, due out this week, but in general, Bryan stands for bro-country’s gentrifying impulse, shifting the scene of the party from the honky-tonk to the frat house. Jake Owen looks like a bland pretty boy, but he has better songs than Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, and in hits like “Alone with You,” he slips in some interesting shades of vulnerability. Jason Aldean comes on like a rough-and-tumble outlaw, but don’t be fooled by the Stetson: Look to the leather choker and the pocket chain. Zac Brown is a woolly jam band bro, the singer of choice for that corner of frat row where the Hacky Sack flies beneath billowing ganja smoke.

It’s easy to make fun of bro-country, but in at least one respect it’s cosmopolitan. Listen to Bryan, Aldean, and Owen, and you’ll hear a surprising sound: hip-hop. In concert, Bryan has been known to break into “Baby Got Back” and “Rack City.” Aldean raps, after a fashion, and had a No. 1 smash with “Dirt Road Anthem,” a collaboration with Ludacris. In “Summer Jam,” Owen serves up an appealing half-rapped, half-sung version of the frat-boy beach-bum fantasy.

What’s noteworthy about these songs is their unself-consciousness, how easefully they integrate rap into country’s lingua franca. Compare bro-country’s hip-hop mash-ups with “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s painfully gauche racial-reconciliation duet. Bro-country doesn’t bother with politics; it’s less thoughtful and conscientious than Paisley but more modern, dragging pop’s most hidebound genre into the Obama era without batting an eye.

The most salient example may be Florida Georgia Line. “Cruise” had stalled on the charts until the band released a hip-hop remix, with a rap by Nelly and a chorus swathed in auto-tune. In “Get Your Shine On,” Hubbard and Kelley help themselves to an old Southern rap catch-phrase. And then there’s “It’z Just What We Do,” the most winningly dopey song on Here’s to the Good Times, in which Hubbard spits some impressively slick and nimble bars. Who’d have guessed it? The bro can flow.

             

*This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2013 issue of New York Magazine. 

Photo: Christopher Polk and Rick Diamond/Getty