At Wednesday’s woman-focused CMA Awards, it was a moment that happened before the show even began that made the most waves: Jennifer Nettles, in a Christian Siriano pantsuit and cape, with the words “Play our f*@#in records please and thank you” written on the inside by artist Alice Mizrachi. In a night that was packed with many memorable performances and collaborations, by both women and men, but little to address the elephant in the room — the glaring gender disparity on the airwaves — Nettles’ ensemble was a breath of fresh rebellion.
We spoke to Nettles, calling from the studio where she is recording with Sugarland, about why she decided to make a statement, what can be done next to level the playing field, and about her love of the Highwomen.
Wednesday’s CMA Awards was an amazing display of female talent, but no one even made mention from the stage of the issues facing women at country radio — so it’s no wonder everyone is talking about your outfit. Why did you decide to wear it?
When I heard the CMAs were going to be celebrating women, and I was going to be invited, I thought, “What a fantastic opportunity to take the conversation beyond applause and beyond the ritual, and actually try and further it and put it out into the public consciousness, and send a message to the industry as well.” And what more womanly way to send a message than with fashion? I immediately reached out to my team and said, “This is what I want to do. I want to say play our fucking records but also please and thank you because, mannerly!” Christian Siriano is such an advocate of all kinds, and Alice Mizrachi does street art and is amazing, and I wanted the vibe of it being somewhat punk. I knew from the beginning it was going to be a moment. All of these themes are lining up, and it felt right.
The outfit really put you at the forefront of the conversation, what do you want to do next?
What I really want to do is to be able to harness people from within our community to talk to programmers and the people who write the algorithms [for streaming services], and who code those. That’s what I am interested in. Data is fantastic, but an algorithm is a bias set to numbers. There is human error and algorithms base their information on predictive analytics. They are predicting the past; they are not looking towards the future, and it will continue to become more and homogenous. I don’t know who codes for this and forgive me for what I am about to say, but I don’t imagine the person coding for playlist data is the same coder who works for Goldman Sachs. I don’t imagine the same attention is being paid to say, “Let’s go back and refine these algorithms.” I’d love to sit down with some coders and programmers and strategists and say, “By 2022, this is how you are going to phase it in to where 50% of your playlists are female.” Every time a Number One song moves off, you can move a woman on. Every one of them can be a woman, or a certain number if you are just super fucking scared. It’s not hard, it’s easy to do, just push play.
You’ve talked openly, too, about something reality important: familiarity bias, and how that plays into breaking women artists. You can’t like what you don’t hear, and we don’t often hear women.
I hate it when people say that they turn the channel when they hear a woman. No they don’t, they turn the channel when they don’t hear something they recognize. And they don’t recognize women because they don’t play women. The fans don’t know: they just want to hear music. But women aren’t getting to hear their own stories. It’s not that impact isn’t being made; it’s just there is not enough.
Right, we aren’t born genetically programmed to reject songs by women. And women country artists often do very well overseas.
Exactly, this is because of exposure. It’s not like since Faith and Shania and Trisha that suddenly women stopped liking women’s music.
Did you have high expectations for what could have happened during the awards?
Yeah — I hoped it was going to be the year of the girl. I hoped Carrie [Underwood] was going to win, and it would have been lovely but even lovelier if it were indicative of lasting change. Because what you don’t want it to be is “This is our one time to celebrate women!” I was hoping there were going to be more women winning awards, but, again, look at the context. We’re having this conversation for a reason. We would appreciate if our day-to-day felt respectful and honoring of our talents.
Were you hoping more people would speak out from the stage, or make statements like you?
I was. I heard the other day about the event at CMT Next Women of Country, and all the record executives up there were saying, “Well, it’s getting better, and because of what I am doing!” With the exception of Cindy Mabe, who spoke the truth. She didn’t talk about what she had done, and she said it’s not getting better. We need to have allies. Some of the male artists were very supportive, especially on the red carpet. But there is going to need to be an extra push. Men have to get on board as well.
Have you felt a lot of support in the wake of CMAs?
There have been so many women reaching out to me saying thank you, because the reality is it means something to women to feel seen, like we are protecting each other. And I am in a place in my life and career, and being a 45-fucking-year-old woman, where if I see a truth I am going to fucking say it. To be able to send a message to all of those girls.
The Highwomen have been touting this message a lot.
They’re fantastic. I am a fan of all of them individually, and the fact that they have come together is wonderful timing. They are sending messages with their music, too, that we are redesigning women and all our roles, and that we want a full table. I love it.
And they’re still not getting played on the radio.
Nope! And neither is Kacey Musgraves. There she was Wednesday night in all her radiant beauty, she brought a tear to my eye with her performance. And she still can’t get played. So it would be nice to get beyond lip service.