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Keep bringing country artists to Notre Dame Stadium

| Monday, March 23, 2020

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Thank God for George Strait. It would seem the country legend needs no introduction: he’s the sixth-highest selling solo artist in U.S. history, and has 60 number-one hits — more than anyone in history. However, last month’s announcement of an upcoming Strait concert at Notre Dame Stadium — along with a similar reaction to 2018’s Garth Brooks show (for what it’s worth, the most successful solo artist this country has ever seen) — was met with a shrug from students. Not only is this an unfair, uninformed reaction to a massive coup for the University — it’s an active turn away from one of the most impressive and accomplished catalogues in popular music, regardless of genre. 

Most of the responses to the Strait and Brooks announcements came from students who were disappointed that the choice didn’t better reflect the tastes of the student body. It bears noting: these concerts aren’t for students. They take place during breaks, after all. Some may be shocked to find out that South Bend and the rest of Northern Indiana is populated year-round with people who exist entirely independent of Notre Dame. By opening Notre Dame Stadium to massively popular artists, the University is creating the opportunity for country fans to see their favorite performers without driving to Chicago or Detroit. Concerts organized with students’ preferences in mind still happen during the school year — look no further than this spring’s mercifully cancelled OneRepublic show, or the synth-pop tire fire that was AJR’s fall 2017 performance at Legends (some things are free for a reason.)

Even if we were to move beyond the realm of country, the list of artists who would (a) live up to the stature of Notre Dame and (b) decide to play here is impossibly small. There is next to no chance of landing a truly massive contemporary pop star like Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish, as great as that would be. Legacy rock acts seem like poor fits, with the exception of the still-scheduled Billy Joel and artists like Bon Jovi who have a connection to Notre Dame. Bruce Springsteen is a popular suggestion, but that may not turn out well: the Boss and his Messiah complex would be outgunned in a stadium that literally stands in the shadow of a stories-high mural of Christ himself. 

The most pervasive and (initially) convincing argument is for Taylor Swift, a one-time Nashville artist whose younger brother attended the University. This suggestion falls apart under any form of scrutiny, however. She is a blockbuster artist privy to the sort of worldwide tours the University has thus far rejected in favor of one-offs. Those looking to draw a connection between her country bonafides and the artists that usually play Notre Dame Stadium are grasping at straws. Swift’s greatest country hits — genuine country, not the banjo-adjacent affectations of “You Belong With Me” or the forced twang of “Tim McGraw” — are at best relegated to a token medley in her live performances. She isn’t country; she hasn’t been for a while now. As we move further away from her Nashville heyday, Swift’s country output seems more and more at odds with the artists and songs — Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Toby Keith come to mind — that defined the sound of 21st-century mainstream country. Her self-aggrandizing shtick, in particular, has aged poorly; why would we want to watch a cheer captain if we’re paying to be in the bleachers? More importantly, does the University really want an artist who seems to have lost her fastball? She hasn’t put out a good album since Barack Obama was halfway through his second term. We’d be much better off garnering legacy artists with entrenched fan bases or up-and-comers who would benefit from a mixed audience of college students and Hoosiers. 

To that point, take another look at the Strait concert. I’ve already established why Strait is a massive draw; assuming that the coronavirus pandemic has calmed by his performance, the show will sell out. He fills the role of the aforementioned legacy artist; his first supporting act is overqualified to be the up-and-comer. With only three albums to his name, Chris Stapleton is already one of the biggest names in contemporary country, and his rock-inflected sound is sure to draw younger fans to Notre Dame Stadium. (The Brothers Osborne are also bringing their tasteless brand of Urban Outfitters folk, which is to say — two out of three ain’t bad.)

The next open slot for the stadium is the summer of 2021. If the University is looking for suggestions (though they’ve done a fine job so far), may I suggest Carrie Underwood? She is a household name who is equally comfortable in the realms of country and pop, and thus splits the difference between locals and students. If Wednesday nights at Salsa’s are any indicator, “Before He Cheats” might be the premiere karaoke song of the century — multiply that feeling by 84,000, and you can imagine how easily Underwood could blow out Notre Dame Stadium. It’s also high time for a woman to headline the stadium, and it’s not hard to picture Underwood giving the best performance yet. 

The worst kind of music fan is the one who says they “like everything — except for country.” (This is a popular way to phrase it, given that it’s poor form to wear a shirt that says “I hate people with real jobs.”) Not only is it a lazy opinion, it’s an ignorant one. Those upbraiding the University for scheduling country performers would be better off actually listening to the artists they’re denigrating — and, by extension, the fans they’re ignoring. Don’t turn your nose up at the people of Northern Indiana for having different taste — have the wherewithal to expand your own.

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