Country music is an interesting place right now. Pop and country, in the last few years, have been coming together like never before. Pop singers have seen immense success by collaborating with country artists—Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Meant to Be” in 2018—and country singers have also seen success by collaborating with pop acts, like Maren Morris did with Zedd and Grey on “The Middle,” which reached number one in multiple countries worldwide. The success of these collaborations is just an emphasis of what we’re learning to be true about the current musical climate: genres and boundaries have begun to matter less and less, which has allowed artists to explore different avenues of their talents.
Country music singer Kelsea Ballerini has had the privilege of coming of age during this modern era of country where stars have had the chance to live in between genres and have their music reach audiences outside of the country world. While Ballerini’s music does fall within the country pop genre, the success of “This Feeling,” her collaboration with the Chainsmokers which rose to fame around the same time as “Meant to Be” and “The Middle,” has allowed the young adult’s solo music to reach people who might not consider themselves regular country listeners.
Country music does, after all, have a bit of a reputation for sexism, toxic masculinity, conservatism, and heteronormativity. Or, for lack of a better term, “white people problems.” There’s been a long list of female country stars who have attempted to reclaim that narrative and push boundaries in the genre, including everyone from Shania Twain, to the Dixie Chicks, to Kacey Musgraves. Ballerini’s music isn’t necessarily socially daring, and not that it has to be, but the more subtle boundaries that are being pushed on her new album Kelsea are just as important.
Ballerini has been compared to both Carrie Underwood and early Taylor Swift countless times and on her third studio album she is definitely upping her game, emotionally and stylistically, to be considered worthy of those comparisons. On Kelsea, she seamlessly blends together our modern definition of country with its more conservative, rural identifiers. In other words, singing about the emptiness of clubbing on the introvert anthem “Club” or the heartbreaking ballad “Homecoming Queen?” is more similar to the lyrics of Alessia Cara or Demi Lovato than that of Carrie Underwood or Shania Twain. Not to mention the choice to stylize the album title and song titles in all lowercase, which brings to mind an artistic preference associated with Generation Z and Ariana Grande.
Ballerini is bringing the young adult experience into the country music fold without watering down more urban, mainstream elements of her music to fit the old-fashioned country mold. The album opens with “Overshare,” the young adult’s guide to making a fool of yourself in public, which is the perfect introduction to an album about insecurities. She can sing about not wanting to go to the club on one track, the fact that even the homecoming queen cries on another, and still tie it all together with some classically, unabashedly country tracks like “Hole in the Bottle,” “Bragger,” or the self-aware “A Country Song.” Kelsea makes country music enjoyable and versatile enough to bring the 21st century urban experience into a historically conservative, close-minded genre.
What’s even more remarkable is that Ballerini has the talent and ability to pull it off, and pull it off well. She’s the only country singer on the scene right now who would be versatile enough to have a collaboration with Halsey and a collaboration with Kenny Chesney on the same album, both of which work incredibly well. And yet, Ballerini is still acknowledging the uncertainty regarding who she is as an artist. “I’ve got a love and hate relationship with LA,” she sings on the album’s closing track. “I’ve got some famous friends I could call / But I don’t know if I’m cool enough.” Despite the lines between country and pop music being easily blurred, the lines surrounding identity are a bit more complicated. But if Kelsea teaches us anything, it’s that it’s okay that feelings are complicated. It’s okay to be sad and insecure, and it’s okay to be happy and confident. Most importantly, it’s okay to be a human having a human experience in a world filled with other humans. Humans don’t fit nicely into any specific box, and neither should country music.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Kelsea: “Overshare,” “Club,” “Homecoming Queen?”, “The Other Girl,” “Bragger,” “Half of My Hometown,” “The Way I Used To,” “Needy,” “A Country Song,” and “LA”