Jennifer Nettles says her 'equal play' CMAs ensemble did exactly what she wanted it to do: 'It was the conversation starter — and continues to be'

Jennifer Nettles knew exactly what she was doing when she stepped onto the red carpet at the Country Music Association Awards calling for “equal play.” Her Christian Siriano-designed outfit, in collaboration with NYC street artist Alice Mizrachi, was the talk of social media during the show, especially the inside of her cape, which read, “Play our f*@#in records please and thank you.”

“I think there was a collective gasp,” Nettles tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I absolutely felt it. And I thought: Great. I believe this is going to do what i want it to do, which is continue this conversation. Sure enough, the whole rest of the carpet ... it was the conversation starter — and continues to be.”

The reason behind the Sugarland singer’s statement outfit was that earlier this year it was confirmed through studies that gender bias on the airwaves exists. Women were played significantly less than men with one report saying the ratio of men to women on the radio last year was 9.7 to 1. Further, the algorithm of steaming services has been found to favor male performers, which Spotify acknowledged after Martina McBride spoke out about it. Nettles’s peers Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Miranda Lambert are just some of the other female artists who have called attention to the gender disparity in country music.

Nettles tells us she was very careful in crafting her message, dictating it word for word.

“I sure did,” she says. “Look, I’m wise enough to know how photographs work and I knew that if I actually used the expletive it wouldn’t get printed in some outlets... [So] I thought let’s make this fun and cheeky then. Let’s cartoon it out — the explicative itself — but it will send the message and the adults will know what it means. And on the other side it will say ‘please and thank you,’ because I am mannerly of course,” she laughed.

Jennifer Nettles on the red carpet at the CMA Awards on Nov. 13. (Photo: Katie Kauss/@katiekauss)
Jennifer Nettles on the red carpet at the CMA Awards on Nov. 13. (Photo: Katie Kauss/@katiekauss)

Nettles says the back of the cape with the portrait of the woman and the “equal play” message — along with the Venus symbol — was “enough of a statement on its own.” However, “to then have that moment of surprise” where she opened the cape “definitely added to the excitement” and made it a “fun reveal.”

And if anyone didn’t like her outfit or her message — whether it be social media trolls or beyond — she doesn’t really care.

“The reality is this: This conversation is one that, on a certain level, actually doesn’t concern the fans,” Nettles says. “In the sense that, yes, fans love music and they want good music and they want to hear their stories and women want to hear their stories — all of this is true. But at the same time, the fans aren’t responsible for programming and they’re not doing anything wrong — they’re just listening to what they are served. If they were served something else, they would be able to enjoy it.”

She continued, “This is really an industry-facing conversation and a culturally-facing conversation. So, look, there are going to be trolls. There are going to be naysayers. There’s gonna be negativity on the socials regardless. But the reality is this isn’t a fan-facing conversation in the first place and most of them aren’t super aware really of what is going on in the industry, and even if they were, unless it was a huge massive groundswell of change, it would have little effect on making change within the industry.”

Nettles appreciates all the other women who have been speaking out before and since — including Twain’s comments yesterday about gender disparity and ageism.

“Look, everybody has known of this problem,” she says. “I think Shania is a wonderful person to speak out on this because during the height of her career, it was Shania, it was Faith [Hill], it was Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride. It was all of these women. What this shows me and tells me is that this whole idea — that women who like to listen to country music don’t like to listen to other women — that is a farce. That is a farce and a fallacy. It’s absolutely untrue. Women haven’t stopped wanting to listen to women’s stories. They may turn the channel if they’re not exposed to something and they don’t know it and the reason they don’t know it is because you don’t play it.”

Musicians Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Shania Twain attend the 2011 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 8, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Jennifer Nettles and her Sugarland partner Kristian Bush with Shania Twain at the 2011 CMT Music Awards. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

She adds, “But Shania is a wonderful person to speak out about this because she’s seen firsthand how supportive the industry has been to women in the past and then has obviously seen that change happen.”

Nettles also appreciates the men in country who have stepped to bat for the women.

“That has to be a factor as well,” she says of moving the needle. “If we don’t have good allies and good support it will be a much harder change to make. And how we do that is just by invitation. On the [CMA Awards] carpet that night, I heard Keith Urban was speaking out very frankly and very wisely and very loudly about the disparity in the industry — and what he has seen and what he does see.”

She adds, “So this is not unknown to men. I think they just have to be invited to speak because in reality, if they’re not invited to speak, they shouldn’t — in the sense that this is a woman’s issue. So it’s like: Know when to show up and know when to support. And look to women on how to do that.”

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 16: Musicians Keith Urban and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland attend the 2009 CMT Music Awards at the Sommet Center on June 16, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic)
Jennifer Nettles and Keith Urban at the 2009 CMT Music Awards. (Photo: Frederick Breedon/FilmMagic)

You have now seen Nettles’s fashion statement — if you were among the few to miss it the first go-round — but know that she’s doing more behind the scenes to help fix the gender disparity problem. She said she’s tackling it in two different ways: on the grassroots and corporate front as well as the industry and legislative front.

After the CMA Awards buzz, Secret — female deodorant brand — reached out to her about working together. “They said: ‘Lady, your message is directly and fortuitously in line with a new Women in Music initiative (WIM) that we are launching,’” referring to a talent search they are doing through mid-December with the goal of offering 250 aspiring female artists — or other women looking to hold jobs in the music industry — access to female mentors though WIM. Also up for grabs is the opportunity for these women to have their music featured in a future Secret ad. In November, Secret announced a pledge to feature 100% female-created music in all future ad campaigns.

“I was like, ‘Duh, this is an obvious partnership,’” she says, adding, “And putting our voices together only makes our message louder.”

Beyond that, Nettles is working to improve algorithms including the ones streaming services use that predict what listeners want to hear — and serve up mostly male options.

“I could nerd out on this all day long,” Nettles says, “but what happens with these algorithms is — they are equations, they are numbers, and they are augmented intelligence and they are made to continue to get more and more perfected or derivative of themselves. Except what they have been programmed on is something called predictive analytics, which means they are predicting off the history of the past. So if everybody who gets the CEO job is a white male or everybody who gets the loan is a white male or if everybody who gets played on country radio is a white male, that’s what it continues to solve for. So those are the two fronts... If we can really focus on those two battlefields, we can really enact change.”

This weekend promises to be a big one in music at Sunday’s American Music Awards. Taylor Swift will be presented with the Artist of the Decade award by Carole King. Swift and Twain will be among the performers, also including Selena Gomez, Thomas Rhett, Dua Lipa, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Post Malone. So will Nettles be there disrupting the red carpet again to continue this conversation?

“Um, as of right now, no,” Nettles says before almost cryptically adding, “but listen, you never know. Perhaps. Perhaps.”

Well, if she does, we suspect her arrival won’t go unnoticed. She has that way.

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