The Pill. THE PILL!
Even before the unfortunate passing of the great Loretta Lynn on October 4th, there was nothing that exposed one more as a political apparatchik larping as a journalist within the country music space than shoehorning a reference to Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” into your misguided think piece about the intersection of country music and politics.
It’s not that the release of “The Pill” was not an important moment in Loretta Lynn’s career, or an important moment in country music. It most certainly was as a song released in 1975 about contraception that pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable in country music at that time. “The Pill” definitely deserves to be mentioned in any retrospective upon Loretta’s career, such as an obituary published after her passing. Saving Country Music made sure to reference the song it its obituary, and the fact that the song was banned by certain stations, despite it still eventually becoming a Top 5 hit.
However, making this one song the centerpiece of attention on Loretta Lynn’s legacy runs the risk of giving “The Pill” outsized importance, while overshadowing Loretta’s primary contributions to country music and culture. Until recently, “The Pill” has always been considered more of a secondary or tertiary song in Loretta Lynn’s repertoire when put beside songs such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” or even “Rated X,” which like “The Pill” was also initially banned by some stations, but unlike “The Pill,” still hit #1. Referencing “The Pill” has become an element of style and trend, and like its own version of a cause célèbre in media and academic circles.
After the passing of Loretta Lynn, The Washington Post published an article specifically centered around “The Pill,” and so did Billboard , Taste of Country, The Boot, and Wide Open Country. Features in Vulture and Slate also used “The Pill” as a significant centerpiece.
Far and away, of all the moments and contributions of Loretta Lynn’s career that the media could have focused on following her death, “The Pill” specifically, along with Loretta Lynn’s politics, were the most covered aspect of her career by a wide margin, with Billboard publishing another article beyond their specific piece on “The Pill” delving into Loretta’s politics more generally (while of course still mentioning “The Pill”), and Reuters calling Loretta country’s “leading feminist,” citing “The Pill” and “Rated X” in their obituary before any other songs. The same applies to Salon‘s take. NPR ran two separate articles about Loretta’s political leanings.
But one of the most popular and widely-shared articles in the aftermath of Loretta Lynn’s death published in one of the biggest outlets in the United States was the feature in TIME magazine titled Country Radio Still Won’t Play Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”. Unlike other outlets such as Billboard and the Washington Post that ran separate obituaries for Loretta Lynn along with their dedicated articles on “The Pill,” for TIME, this was the totality of their Loretta Lynn death coverage.
In the article, journalist Andrew R. Chow asserts,
…as conservative social norms have ossified around the country music establishment, “The Pill” is still forsaken nearly fifty years since it was released. According to Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music), the song was played just once by a country radio station in the U.S. in 2022, even though it’s a classic of the genre. The song—and Lynn’s career as a provocative lyricist—serve as a reminder that the conservative values touted by the country music establishment don’t always match those of their artists or listeners.
This paragraph is so full of misnomers and false information, it would almost render it intellectually fascinating if it wasn’t so offensively effective in spreading outright verifiable lies. Even the most passive of country music fans will immediately be able to point out the gross inaccuracies this paragraph and the title from TIME asserts.
First, and most importantly, Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” is most assuredly not currently “banned” at country music radio whatsoever, meaning there is no industry-wide or even moderately supported concerted effort underway to not play the song due to some sort of moral panic. Despite TIME not citing any human source for their assertion, they made this false accusation the very title of the article, which was widely shared and read.
Second, one of the reasons we know there is no current ban on “The Pill” at country radio is the fact that the original “ban” in 1975 was virtually ineffective itself and sort-lived, and had no real teeth to begin with. It’s hard to verify just how many stations may have originally refused to play the song, but many relented when the song became popular, and better understood. Songs that are truly “banned” from country radio don’t go Top 5.
When the [Dixie] Chicks were wholesale removed from the country radio format in 2002, their next single after the #1 “Travelin’ Solider” called “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” peaked at #48. That is what a song ban looks like. Despite the Wikipedia page for “The Pill” and many of the articles cited above asserting, “…its ban from a number of radio stations caused the record to stall at number five on the charts at a time when a Loretta Lynn record was almost guaranteed to be a top three hit…” this is false information. The very next single from Lynn called “Home” stalled at #10. And though the single after that “When The Tingle Becomes a Chill” went #2, Loretta’s first single in 1976 “Red, White, and Blue” stalled at #20.
Again, “Rated X” by Loretta Lynn also initially received push back from some radio stations, and it still went #1. The supposed “banning” of “The Pill” is important to recognize as historically accurate, but it was also ultimately ineffective, and in some respects, only moderately significant, since its ultimate effects were minimal, maybe even perhaps irrelevant, or potentially the initial ban was even counter-productive since it brought attention to the song that was eventually reciprocated back to radio.
Third (and most obviously), the idea that any major mainstream Top 40 country radio station would ever play any song from Loretta Lynn in 2022—let alone any song from any classic country artist whatsoever—shows the headlong ignorance of the TIME magazine article as a whole about the country music landscape.
Mainstream country radio won’t play a single from 2019, let alone one from 1975. So when TIME says, “the song was played just once by a country radio station in the U.S. in 2022, even though it’s a classic of the genre,” they’re showing their complete lack of depth on country music. In fact, what might be remarkable about what TIME cites is that there was actually a mainstream country station that did play “The Pill” in 2022. That is what is newsworthy.
Fourth, when TIME says, “According to Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music), the song was played just once by a country radio station in the U.S. in 2022,” they’re showing their ignorance on how spins on country radio are reported to charting companies. Luminate does not track the entirety of spins of songs across country radio. They only report on the radio stations they have been selected to represent the Luminate country radio panel. There are over 15,400 radio stations in the United States. Luminate only monitors 2,000 of them. There are roughly 2,100 country radio stations in the United States. Luminate only tracks 159 of them.
Similar to how the Dow Jones that measures the stock market only accounts for 30 actual stocks that have been selected to represent the broader market, this is also how radio panels work. Yet unlike the Dow Jones, the radio stations Luminate selects focus specifically on mainstream country as opposed to the broad spectrum of country stations. This means that the classic country radio stations, independently-owned country stations, and certain regional stations like the ones in Texas that have their own radio chart are excluded from this reporting.
This misnomer that radio panels represent the entirety of country music as opposed to just mainstream country radio playlists that cover less than 5% of the country artist population has been spread throughout Academia and media, primarily through the misguided work of Canadian-based PHD Jada Watson, who has used radio panels as de facto census data to make numerous false assertions about country music for years, and is a favorite of the media and other academics.
TIME citing Luminate as false verification of a current ban on “The Pill” speaks to the perniciousness of Jada Watson’s work, which also doesn’t take into consideration the rise of independent country artists autonomous of radio. Zach Bryan’s song “Something in the Orange” is the most-streamed song in all of country music at the moment, sitting at #1 on the streaming charts. Last week it was at #55 on the radio charts. Radio charts don’t represent country music, they only represent country radio.
Later in the TIME article on “The Pill” it states, “But as the song is hailed in many circles as groundbreaking, it has basically been abandoned by the country establishment. According to Luminate, the song has received 95 spins on U.S. radio since the start of 2022, with most of those coming from Triple A and College Radio formats; only one of those spins was on a station classified as Country format. By contrast, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” has 1.3K spins so far this year on U.S. radio.”
But this is where the TIME article gives up the entire game. Along with the issues citing Luminate data addressed previously, by zooming out to asses the entirety of radio, this data proves two things: 1) That it’s not just country radio that is supposedly ignoring “The Pill,” but the entirety of radio, if we’re to believe the data. 2) It proves is that “The Pill” is just not that important or popular as a Loretta Lynn song, at least not compared to “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and by all radio formats, not just country.
Again, “The Pill” was a secondary song of the Loretta Lynn catalog, which makes the outsized attention upon it unwarranted, and symbolic of more underlying issues with American media, specifically the political lens in which the media views most everything in culture, but especially in country music. TIME and others said about “The Pill” that it illustrates how Loretta Lynn was a “provocative lyricist.” But “The Pill” was one of the few important songs in Loretta Lynn’s career that she didn’t write alone. It was co-written with Lorene Allen, Don McHan, and T. D. Bayless.
Meanwhile, how many retrospectives did “Coal Miner’s Daughter” receive, which Loretta Lynn wrote herself? Very few, despite it being Loretta Lynn’s signature song, and the title of a movie on Loretta Lynn’s life, which resulted in seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won Sissy Spacek Best Actress. Though many media outlets called Loretta Lynn the “Queen of Country Music” upon her passing, this is a moniker historically assigned to Kitty Wells. Loretta Lynn has always been known as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” in country, because it is indisputably her signature song.
There are other issues with the TIME article as well, specifically that it says that Loretta Lynn was married at 13 instead of 15, when this misnomer was corrected many years back.
But why are so many media outlets obsessed with the story of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” to begin with? There are a few reasons for this. First, due to the echo-chambered nature of the journalist fraternity thanks to the prolific use of Twitter, ideas and information get parroted from one outlet to another, often carrying many of the same misnomers along with them as writers and editors unfamiliar with Loretta Lynn’s work or country music in general simply regurgitate the piece published right before theirs as opposed to doing original or autonomous research, and reaching out to experts in the field. So when one outlet deems that “The Pill” is what should be the centerpiece of Loretta Lynn’s life or a focal point of coverage, many come to this same conclusion.
For example, Slate‘s article on Loretta Lynn cites TIME‘s article as the source as to why “The Pill” is not played on mainstream country radio today, spreading that false assertion. One of NPR‘s Loretta Lynn articles uses Dr. Jada Watson as a primary source, who was behind TIME‘s poorly-conceived idea of using radio panels to prove that “The Pill” is still currently banned at country radio. Meanwhile, the writer of the TIME piece, Andrew R. Chow, had previously reached out to Saving Country Music as a source for quotes and clarification on a couple of stories, including one on Lil Nas X from 2019.
However, the practice of reaching out to journalists intimately familiar with country music, or any subject matter for expertise seems to have become deprecated in media. If outside sources are spoken to or cited at all, they’re usually selected to reinforce the preconceived notions of a story before it’s ever written as opposed to canvassing for the truth, or to get both sides of a perspective. This was most certainly true for multiple articles posted about Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” and her political leanings.
The TIME article concludes that “The Pill” was a “reminder that the conservative values touted by the country music establishment don’t always match those of their artists or listeners.” But this is the biggest misunderstanding of them all. Though much of the coverage of Loretta Lynn and “The Pill” specifically did well to spell out the complicated nature of Loretta Lynn’s politics, others used it as an opportunity to assign the legacy of Loretta Lynn political motivations or leanings that she just did not posses.
Though Loretta was certainly animated about women’s rights—from contraception and abortion, to other issues—she also went out of her way to say she did not consider herself a feminist, despite what Reuters and others asserted. And as some of the better researched articles from Vulture, Salon, and the Washington Post pointed out, Loretta Lynn was a strong supporter of President Trump. NPR dug even further, and verified how Lynn had also campaigned for George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
In the week after the death of Loretta Lynn, a reckoning within the mindset of the media and the political mother brain has been forced to take place as initial proclamations about Loretta Lynn’s politics have proven to be false. Originally looking to use Loretta Lynn as an example of a liberal artist in the conservative world of country music, now the tide has turned to re-correcting the misnomer that the media got wrong in the first place by over-correcting in the other direction, and characterizing Loretta Lynn as an imperfect heroine and poor role model due to her complicated role espousing feminist issues.
An article written by another academic in the journalism space named Amanda Marie Martinez for NPR published on October 9th accurately sets the table by stating, “After Lynn died earlier last week, reports often identified her as the template for strong, even progressive, women in the genre. Many stories have fixated on the impact of the artist’s most notorious song, ‘The Pill,’ using it to define her as a feminist, albeit a reluctant one.”
But despite, Martinez’s best efforts to hide her agenda and be complimentary of the commentary in some of Loretta Lynn’s songs, she also attempts to establish Lynn as more of a savvy marketer as opposed to an authentic personality, and not just imperfect due to her political beliefs, but ineffective in helping her fellow women in their representation in country music. In the article itself, this sentiment comes across as more muted and pragmatic. But on Twitter, Amanda Marie Martinez spelled it all right out saying, “If country music is about ‘fabricating authenticity,’ then no one has ever done it better than Loretta Lynn.”
But country music is not about “fabricating authenticity,” so perhaps the entire premise of the opinion falls apart right there. Maybe that’s the aim of radio country. But again, radio country does not represent the entirety of country music.In the above quote and the NPR story itself, Martinez actively works to portray Loretta Lynn as basically a phony. Because Lynn makes an imperfect political icon, her entire legacy must be called into question. This is a favorite sport of academia, to erase the validity of Southern and agrarian heroes, in an action that doesn’t result in any meaningful political change, and only helps usher in the proliferation of fentanyl use, violence, and white supremacy in the vacuum of role models and meaning in rural lives.
The underlying reason “The Pill” has received so much outsized attention is because entertainment media and country media specifically has been seeding in the years after the election of President Trump with political functionaries who’ve been indoctrinated in academia to believe the way to shift the political demographics in the United States is to embed themselves in country music culture, and get artists to espouse their political beliefs, tout artists that share their political beliefs, and attempt to erode the popularity or credibility of artists that do not share their political beliefs.
But having never spent their 1,000 hours understanding the country genre from beyond their intellectual echo chambers, and while inherently bias with an agenda, these academic journalists not only do a poor job covering country music, they quickly expose themselves in situations such as the death of Loretta Lynn, hoping to gain ground in a culture war that puts them in diametric opposition to the country music population they’re supposedly tasked to serve. Country fans aren’t reading long-winded think pieces about Loretta Lynn’s complex political identity in NPR, Salon, and Vulture. This is all an exercise of intellectual flexing and moral preening journalists and academics are doing for each other, and others in the elitist classes of American society that love to use the poor agrarian population as a refraction point to virtue signal.
This is a media issue, much more than it is a cultural or political one. None of the discourse in any of these think pieces on “The Pill” will have any significant effect on the importance of Loretta Lynn’s legacy, or the political makeup of the country music listening population. But the extremely out-proportioned emphasis on “The Pill” could result in a misnomer in country history that this song was anything other than a secondary hit that was banned for a short period, but ultimately powered through to be one of many important moments in the legendary, and most certainly not “fabricated” legacy of Loretta Lynn.
What some of the coverage of “The Pill” got right though, is that Loretta Lynn’s legacy is complicated from a political standpoint. In February of 2020, after Jason Isbell asserted that conservatives could not be good songwriters. One of the reasons Saving Country Music often gets falsely accused of being right leaning is due to the excessive need to clean up the misnomers of the many left-leaning perspectives that are reporting and commenting on country music. Saving Country Music responded to Jason Isbell with a list of songwriters who self-identify as conservative, including Loretta Lynn.
“Loretta Lynn’s song ‘The Pill’ is the go-to example in progressive think pieces about how country music is and has always been more liberal than it’s portrayed,” the article stated, 2 1/2 years before this recent flood of think pieces on “The Pill.” It goes on to state, “But the problem with this assessment is that women’s rights are not just the ownership of the left … Though she’s always been a strong voice for women, she’s also been a strong voice for the right, which despite the characterization of some, are not mutually exclusive.”
Loretta Lynn may have been a conservative from a political standpoint, but she refused to fit into any political binary, which as we’ve seen in the week after her death, confounds the media to no end. She had friends from both sides of the aisle, collaborating with Margo Price for example. If Loretta Lynn had any fealty to any cause, it was that of women. And beyond that, her legacy should speak for itself, and should not be compartmentalized into one camp or co-opted by anyone for political purposes, on the left, or on the right.
Ultimately, Loretta Lynn wasn’t a conservative, a liberal, a feminist, or a conformist. She was Loretta Lynn, and left a legacy so rich and enlightening, it has proven to be impossible to pigeon hole, except for being wholly authentic, reverberative, and one of the most important lives lived by a rural American woman in history.