Everything I know about Country and Hip Hop music, I learned from television.
Three years ago, a show created by Callie Khouri (of “Thelma and Louise” fame) and starring the fabulous Connie Britton was coming to television. The show, also starring Hayden Panettiere, was about the intrigues and goings-on behind the scenes in the capital of Country music.
The show started off strong, establishing a rivalry between two strong female characters: the veteran star, Rayna Jaymes (Britton) and the young new It Girl, Juliette Barnes (Panettiere). It looked like good ole’ fashion soap fun.
Fast forward three years later, the show is in its third season, and it is blowing my mind with its subtle edginess, its unabashed foray into Country taboos, and its performance as a power house vehicle for women of substance, intelligence, emotional depth and charisma.
Rayna Jaymes is one of my favorite characters on television to date. She has a powerful yet gentle soul. She is an independent woman, who is managing a career and a family without letting anyone tell her she is too old for the business, not hip enough for new audiences, or too strong for her male suitors.
Rayna breaks from the label that refuses to let her do the music that she wants and starts her own label. She refuses to marry a man who cannot take her independence and success (Luke Wheeler, played by Will Chase), just as she refuses to marry the love of her life and the father of her oldest daughter because he is a terrible alcoholic (Deacon Claybourne, played by Charles Esten). And she refuses to let her teenage daughter guilt her into…. Pretty much anything! (Rayna’s daughters are played by the wonderful true-life sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella.)
Her relationship with Juliette Barnes is one of the best things about the show. Two fierce women who started out thinking (and encouraged to think so by their male representatives) that they should be competitive with each other, end up as a mentor-mentee and collaborators, with Rayna functioning as the wise mother figure that Juliette never had.
Juliette’s storyline with her real mother, a drug addict who had been sucking her daughter’s blood since she was a child, was a compelling explanation for the rising star’s ruthless ambition. But it was also the journey that eventually released her from that painful, incessant drive and allowed her to calm down. Her song “Don’t Put Dirt on My Grave Just Yet,” which was her response to the holier-than-thou attitude in Nashville, was a massive breakthrough in her path to maturity, both as a person and as a performer in what can be an unforgiving, self-righteous business.
A parallel story happens between Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen), the young wanna-be starlet who came to town following her uncle Deacon, and her abusive mother, but it leads to different outcomes. Scarlett has to struggle with anxiety and self-destructive behaviors and she ends up having a breakdown on stage that leads to her retirement from the business even before she really gets started. In the current season, Scarlett is pretty much reduced to functioning as Deacon’s support system.
Sadie Stone, a new character played by Broadway star Laura Benanti, is introducing a new story of domestic violence that is being explored in the current episodes. Maddie and Daphne, Rayna’s daughters, are now starting to blossom as young talented girls who are ripe for the sleazy head of Rayna’s former label (Jeff Fordham, played by Oliver Hudson) to try to seduce, use and abuse for monetary gains and revenge.
The most revolutionary storyline on the show is the story of Will Lexington (Chris Carmack), the hottest new Country hunk in town, who is consumed by a secret. Will is gay. In order to hide that in an industry that does not tolerate homosexuality, and after he comes very close to attempting suicide, Will decides to fight his demons and marry the new music reality show starlet Layla Grant (Aubrey Peeples). Layla is a naïve young girl whose rise to stardom on the reality show ironically means she has not had the chance to adjust to the cruel realities of the business. When she discovers the truth about her husband, she starts spiraling down. She stays with him for the sake of his career (and for her own quickly fading career, as well) and because she truly loves him. Together, they agree to do a reality show about their lives, a show which, like reality shows are wont to do, ends up presenting Layla in the most unflattering light possible.
The depiction of Will’s journey, which alternates between self-destruction and the destruction of people around him, is one of the most important stories that could be told about the Country music business. Just a few years ago when Country singer Chely Wright bravely came out as a gay woman, she pretty much had to face a complete shunning from the industry that once embraced her. Chely moved out of Nashville and back to NYC where she is now recording a new album that was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, rather than by a big Country record label.
This bold move on behalf of “Nashville” to take on homophobia in the Country music industry was recently matched by the creators of the new show “Empire,” which deals with the life behind the scenes of the Hip Hop music industry.
Even though “Empire” is still far too young a show to be judged side by side with “Nashville,” the new show upped the stakes both by introducing two gay stories at once and by introducing them in an industry where homophobia and misogyny don’t only exist, but are celebrated.
“Empire” tells the story of the Lyon family. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the patriarch and owner of a big Hip Hop record label in New York City. He has three sons: Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), his shallow musical sensation; Andre (Trai Byers), the business man of the family; and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the musical prodigy who has to choose between his father’s blessing and living as an out gay man.
Lucious, who discovers he has ALS, decides to spend whatever time he has left pitting his sons against one another in a fight to win control over the business. And whereas in Nashville stabbings in the back take the metaphorical sense of PR tricks and commercial sabotage, in the business of Hip Hop, bullets fly in the most literal sense. Lucious has killed and will not hesitate to kill again to promote and protect his success, Andre sends out goons to rob and threaten his brother Jamal in order to ruin his new demo recording, and jail is not off limits for family members.
But that’s where Cookie comes in. Cookie, played by the phenomenal Taraji P. Henson, is Lucious’s first wife (and mother of his three sons) who went to jail for 17 years in order to cover for her husband’s crimes on his way to the top. She is now out and she wants what she deserves: half of the empire her husband built with her help, her money, and at her expense.
Lucious is not so quick to give her her due, but Cookie is not the kind of woman who accepts no for an answer. Years in jail have obviously taught her to not let anyone, let alone a man, walk over her. She hasn’t lost her keen sense of musical genius and, surprisingly enough, her offbeat but effective people skills, and she is the only one in a business that is founded on hating women and gays, who is smart and enlightened enough to challenge those notions.
Cookie quickly inserts herself into the business, taking control over the management of all the “remnants” that become problematic for anyone else to want to handle: her gay son Jamal, the new upcoming singer Tiana (Serayah) who is exposed as being a lesbian, and Elle Dallas (Courtney Love), an aging star with a bad drug addiction.
Two camps are formed: camp Cookie and the rest of the industry. And I have a feeling if anyone can beat the well-oiled machine that is based on degrading women and homosexuals and is filled with violence and greed, it will be Cookie.
What makes this show is Henson. I have been a fan of hers since the days of “The Division,” another breakthrough show for women (the show featured a police division with almost all women detectives dealing with mostly women-related issues). Henson recently starred in “Person of Interest.” But this is the role she has been waiting for. Cookie is a sassy, spunky, powerful, no-bullshit woman, who at the same time maintains her integrity and her kind heart. She has wicked street smarts, great musical instincts, and she is not afraid of being a true leader, giving voice to the voiceless.
The show, created by Lee Daniels and Ilene Chaiken, is a fun, edgy soap, which, despite its obvious differences from “Nashville,” is running on a parallel lane on the same daring road that will hopefully lead to more enlightened social awareness in industries that have so much influence on so many people, while having the power to destroy the people within them.
Whether it is done in a soft spoken, sweet twang or with a gun in your face; whether the poison of choice is alcohol or drugs; whether women are being degraded in a song’s lyrics or by their record label’s dick of a boss, “Nashville” and “Empire” are two peas in a patriarchal pod. And they are both doing a great job of crushing that pod and letting women and gay folk break out in song!
The Girl is Finally Allowed to Eat:
How many times do you see women on television eat? And when they do, how many times is it real food (i.e. not just a salad)? How many times do they eat with gusto and joy? So few times that I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand; so few that I can’t even think of more than one right now. And that one is Laura Diamond of “The Mysteries of Laura.” And I bet Debra Messing had a say in that! Laura loves to eat and she is not ashamed of it. How refreshing!
Also, while we’re on the subject, I am pretty sure Laura doesn’t wear five-inch spike heels as she chases down perps, unlike pretty much every other woman detective on television (including “frumpy” Jane Rizzoli from “Rizzoli and Isles.”) A big pat on the back to “Laura” for just being real!
When in Doubt:
“How to Get Away with Murder” came back from hiatus almost as a new show, and this one is much better than its first half season predecessor! One of the best things the show did was practice that age-old Hollywood secret: “when in doubt, bring in a fabulous actress.” The introduction of Marcia Gay Harden as Hannah, Annalise Keating’s sister-in-law, not only spiced up the show, but also upped Viola’s game now that she has a fierce other woman to play off of. Next episode is introducing another acting titan. Cicely Tyson is coming on as Annalise’s mother. Bring out the big guns, Shonda, because now the show is starting to sizzle!
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