11 years ago, while everyone was busy dancing to PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in a worldwide frenzy, they were also waiting to see whether the song would push a Korean artist to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in history. There was certainly a strong possibility of it happening, as the song was the first Korean song ever to chart when it entered on September 22, 2012, and then it jumped up 98 spots two weeks later to land at number two. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the track would take that final step over the finish line. But a week went by, and then another, and by the third week, it still couldn’t grab number one. “Gangnam Style” eventually settled for holding onto the number two spot for seven weeks. Meanwhile, “One More Night” by Maroon 5 stayed atop the Hot 100 for eight weeks in a row. Maroon 5 has plenty of fans in Korea, but at the time, the name represented an insurmountable hurdle that stood in the way of PSY’s final push.
And Morgan Wallen’s at the very front of the pack. Wallen is an outsider and rebel when it comes to the country music scene. He’s not part of a country music family lineage like is portrayed in the American TV show Monarch, nor did he spend his life chasing his dream of becoming a big country star in Nashville like so many big names before him. Wallen was born in Tennessee and dreamed of becoming a baseball player, spending his time on the school team. He liked music, but it was only after he had to give up baseball—owing to an ulnar collateral ligament injury—that he got serious about singing. His introduction to the pop music industry wasn’t playing at live clubs or bars, but auditioning for the sixth season of the popular reality show The Voice. Despite what he would later become, Morgan barely came across as a country singer at the time. Introducing himself as a 20-year-old working in landscaping, he was coached by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and sang songs by a wide variety of artists, including Avicii, One Direction and Howie Day, but he was ultimately eliminated during the playoffs. But his time on the show helped him see the road that lay in front of him. With “Whiskey Glasses,” voted the most popular song on country radio in 2019, Wallen branded himself not as a naive, timid kid from the South but as a hardened, hard-drinking country rock star with a mullet and a ripped plaid shirt.
He even changed how he lived his life for the sake of cultivating that rough-and-tough image. When a video of him kissing two female fans during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic embroiled him in controversy, he posted an apology video to TikTok that was more flippant than serious. He was also arrested for a drunken scrimmage in a bar run by fellow country singer Kid Rock. He faced a much bigger crisis when a video of him and his friends using the N-word surfaced on February 2, 2021. Radio programs, music streaming sites and the Country Music Association cut Wallen out, and Big Loud, his label, announced that they were suspending their contract with him. But after this rocky period, Wallen won the hearts and streams of listeners. People who had grown tired of the finger-pointing and backlash of “cancel culture” started listening to his music more and more. Though streaming platforms were quick to remove his music, Dangerous: The Double Album still became the best-selling album of 2021. In the words of New York Times writer Ben Sisario, it was an “unusually enduring hit.” As controversy surrounding the singer grew, his popularity only soared. Wallen eventually acknowledged his misconduct, issued a serious apology and donated $300,000 to the Black Music Action Coalition. After doing some growing up, the mischief-maker released One Thing at a Time, an album that’s “Bro-country” through and through in its celebration of white culture and ditches self-reflection in favor of dedicating itself to the singer’s supporters. His next tour sold out immediately and Republican political slogans were spotted in his audiences.
Morgan Wallen is more than just a singer now—he’s become a symbol. He’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that hasn’t seen any new superstars since Taylor Swift, in that he’s putting out enjoyable music while disrupting the game with huge commercial success along the way. While people like Kacey Musgraves, Kane Brown, Allison Russell, and Mickey Guyton raise their voices against the systematic gender and racial inequality in country music, Wallen’s found a huge following with his songs about alcohol, love and baseball sung from the perspective of a young, white Southerner. It’s a transparent testament to the main audience and of the genre and their needs. At the same time, Wallen’s is a name that receives chilly reception at times and can’t always be promoted easily, which poses a dilemma. He’s enjoying unparalleled popularity thanks to his branding strategy, but at the cost of his dignity and being casted for life in the role of a troublemaker. How will history remember Morgan Wallen, the most wanted man in all pop music?
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