Dan + Shay: Bursting the Country/Pop Bubble

Award season might be over, but the rush winning artists and nominees felt probably isn’t. This seems to be the case for the duo Dan + Shay, they were nominated for the awards Best Country Song and Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the. The group’s success marks both the sixth year anniversary of the band’s formation and its biggest year to date with nominations, chart-topping singles, and a sold-out tour.

The group is composed of musicians and vocalists Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney. The group met in Nashville at a party 12 years ago and began writing music in Smyers’ living room located inside of a DIY-ed tent. “I had no money to pay for heat, so I went to the thrift store and bought a bunch of sheets. [We] tented out the whole living room, and we retained all the heat in there. We all just hung out, huddled around … Shay and I were jamming that night, and we’ve been writing three songs a day ever since,” said Smyers in an interview with Taste of Country. Fortunately for the musicians, it seems like they don’t need to jam out in a tent anymore.

In 2018, they released songs, that were met with both critical and popular acclaim. Songs like “Tequila” and “Speechless” topped the charts: “Tequila” earning the 21st spot on the Billboards Hot 100 chart and “Speechless” reaching number 1 on the Country Airplay Chart.

“This year has definitely been a game changer in the Dan + Shay camp,” continuing to say that, “It’s changed the trajectory of our career completely,” Moody explained to Billboard.

Surprisingly, Dan + Shay didn’t always garner the same kind of praise they’re experiencing right now. Prior to the release of their single “Tequila,” many people doubted if the piano ballad could find success due to its less-than pop sound and the somewhat erroneous sounding idea that “no one drinks tequila,” according to Smyers. However, the song clearly found success with a wide audience of people, including both adults and children.

Their music combines sounds with distinct poppy flavors and country nostalgia, producing feelings of fizzy warmth and comfort. Perhaps this is their niche: feel good, soulful music. Their two most popular songs “Tequila” and “Speechless,”, fit right into the jigsaw puzzle of cozy acoustic guitar and sultry vocals. “Tequila,” particularly, has more of a country vibe, perfect for driving down a long winding road with friends, hands out the windows, and wind tangling hair into knots, whereas “Speechless” sounds more like a medium-paced track for the first dance at a wedding: sweet, romantic, and an easy beat for grooving.

One of Dan + Shay’s successes seems to be turning universal themes of loneliness, nostalgia, romance, and love, into songs that people of any age can listen to, but that are especially relatable to those who have had an of myriad experiences with those topics. In doing so, Dan + Shay has widened its audience: kids who love to sing easily recognizable radio songs and adults who desire to feel understood in a world that, oftentimes, lacks understanding.

However, their sound is highly on brand for this musical era. Their songs seem generated for commercial success and for topping the charts, which can lend itself to an aura of disingenuousness. Through creating songs that seem to cater specifically to popular success, the duo runs the risk of abandoning artistry in favor of monetary compensation and fame. Nonetheless, this pitfall isn’t entirely Dan + Shay’s responsibility; the music industry these days appears to value dollar signs and bottom lines over creativity and artistry. Their music seems to be a larger reflection of the music industry in general, which is intensely focused on cranking out hit after hit after hit, with little regard to artistic integrity.

If Dan + Shay can manage to navigate these waters which are fraught with the dangerous potential of forgoing musical brilliance for monetary sell-outs, they might earn a place in musical history. While a song that resonates with popular culture is respectable, so is creating music that deviates from what’s trendy in order to honor one’s own beliefs and emotions. So far, Dan + Shay has managed to do both these things: create popular music while maintaining their artistic integrities. But this raises the question, how long will it last?

-Julia Fleischer