Country Music and the Culture War

This was brought up in an earlier thread, but Will Wilkinson’s post on country music is worth a closer look. Wilkinson listens to country music in his car – sometimes I do, too. Sometimes I also listen to conservative talk radio in my car, but unlike country music I find very few redeeming qualities in listening to Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck.

Country is catchy, cheesy, and absolutely contemporary conservative art in its most distilled form. Wilkinson says it has something to do with where we fall on the openness to new experiences and conscientiousness sliding scale.

“A preference for “upbeat and conventional” music is negatively correlated with “openness” and positively correlated with “conscientiousness,” and so, as you would then expect, self-described conservatives tend to like “upbeat and conventional” music (more than any other kind), while self-described liberals tend to like everything else better,” Wilkinson writes.

He continues, noting that “country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.”

I’m not terribly fond of country music. I find most of it pretty dreadful precisely because of its tendency to glorify small towns and patriotism and Budweiser. But even my favorite country music (of the not-alt-country variety, since I adore alt-country) tends to bask in this glorification of Real America. Take the talented Zac Brown Band and their song Chicken Fried:

Now, as far as Nashville-style country music goes, I don’t think you can do much better than Zac Brown.

But this song in particular cuts right to Will is talking about. Pecan pie, Georgia pines, cold beer on a Friday night. Salute the ones who died, the ones that give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice all the things we love.

It’s all here. Patriotism, family, stars and stripes, freedom, God. It’s cultural conservatism backed up by some very nice guitar and fiddle playing. And Brown isn’t even close to the most culturally conservative country musician out there. In “Toes” he talks about smoking pot. In “Jolene” he sings:

Cocaine flame in my bloodstream
Sold my coat when I hit Spokane
Bought myself a hard pack of cigarettes in the early morning rain
Lately my hands they don’t feel like mine
My eyes been stung with dust and blind
Held you in my arms one time
Lost you just the same

Jolene
I ain’t about to go straight
It’s too late
I found myself face down in a ditch
Booze in my hair
Blood in my lips
A picture of you holding a picture of me
In the pocket of my blue jeans
Still don’t know what love means
Still don’t know what love means
Jolene

So cocaine and what-have-you aren’t exactly common themes in country music, and I give credit to Brown for plumbing slightly deeper waters. But what I suppose bothers me about country music is its inability to ever scratch very much deeper. I don’t mean all country music, mind you. Listen to Johnny Cash and you’ll dive plenty deep into dark enough places.

But there’s something about the country music scene these days that rubs me the wrong way. It’s not just the cheesiness of it, or the tendency toward familiarity or even the conservatism so much that I find so glaring and off-putting about Nashville. It’s just the shallowness of these themes that gets to me. There’s something reminiscent of the woefully hollow Christian music scene here – the easy answers, recurring tropes, and three-minute, four-chord simplicity of it all. I want to go spelunking but all I get is a kiddie pool. The world is cold and full of cruelty and all this false comfort is thin broth.

So at least one of the reasons that I prefer bands like The Avett Brothers is because I find them more thoughtful and more profound. A song like “Murder in the City” actually touches on many of the same themes we find in country music: the importance of family first and foremost – love of parents, siblings, and so forth (and as the band has grown, and the lyrics changed, love of children, wives.)

I wrote recently that conservatives can’t do pop culture very well. I don’t think it has anything to do with conservatism. I’m not sure Will is even correct that it has anything to do with an impulse toward the familiar over new experiences.

“Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life,” Will writes.

“A lot of country music these days is culture war, but it’s more bomb shelter than bomb.”

And perhaps this is the nub of it all. The culture war. The conservative movement has been cannibalizing conservative art for years now, to the point where I’d say country music is far from a victory of conservative cultural or artistic success and is instead a mirror image of what conservative politics have become: easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular. Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism.

Admittedly, country music pulls off a not-overtly-political conservatism in ways that most conservative films have been unable to achieve. When it comes to a distinctly modern-American quasi-nationalistic conservatism, country is hard to beat. But it’s still not, for the most part, great art even though there are some very talented musicians in Nashville.

Nor is this to say that no works of conservative pop culture have been pulled off in recent years. Alyssa Rosenberg pulled this quote from conservative talk show host Michael Medved a little while back which I think is appropriate here:

I think we may err, and I would include myself in this as I say “we,” in being a little bit too eager to promote some of those rare projects on the Right. It was very hard for me because I love “Atlas Shrugged” the book. “Atlas Shrugged,” the movie… I couldn’t believe that so many on our team contrived to like it. Because it was not a successful film, it wasn’t good. So I think to that extent, partially, the Right-wing stuff is very often very ad hoc and it’s a one-off. Which is why it’s so remarkable when something comes outside… way outside the system of extraordinary high craft-quality, let alone artistic quality. Like “The Passion of the Christ” or even “Fireproof.” “Fireproof” was not a masterpiece, it’s not an Oscar-worthy film. But it was emotionally, I think, an interesting film and sound and reasonably well-crafted.

I never saw “Passion of the Christ” but I think Mel Gibson has produced some of the finest conservative film in quite some time. Whatever his personal flaws, he’s an excellent filmmaker who has been able to make at least a few films with deep, resonating themes about issues that conservatives hold dear. Partly he did this by not directly appealing to conservatives, but rather by focusing on crafting excellent films with strong stories and compelling characters.

But strong stories and compelling characters are absent in much of conservative works of pop culture these days. The political has overshadowed all that. The culture wars are destroying culture. I’m reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Urusla K. Le Guin right now and there’s this passage I just read last night where the narrator talks about civilization and war. War, he muses, is the antithesis of civilization. The two cannot exist at the same time. It’s one or the other. Perhaps something similar occurs with the culture war when it becomes so big, so overbearing and pervasive.

And so we raze the culture we seek to protect. Burn Georgia on our grim march toward the sea.

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218 thoughts on “Country Music and the Culture War

    • “Cocaine Blues” is quite a famous Western swing song, performed notably by Johnny Cash but also quite a few others (including those who don’t fit into country.)

      But isn’t criticizing Nashville-style country the same thing as criticizing pop music for not being deep?  If you want interesting and deep country music, there are places to go, but it’s not the pure Nashville Sound.  Give me my Waylon and Willie, Cash or the Hag.

      One of the interesting things about satellite radio is that you can get entire stations devoted to Outlaw Country (or to older country music).  The Outlaw Country station has some overlap with the Jam Band station, as well as others.

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  1. Interesting post, Erik. But I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between contemporary country and contemporary pop in terms of the standardization and flattening out you describe. Is there any real difference between Nashville and the kind of musical performance that gets rewarded on American Idol? Are these just two different branches of the same phenomenon? Where does a preference for Club Music or the sick performances on this year’s Grammy’s fall in?

    To qualify your observation on getting easy answers, I think there is an overlap between the type of person who goes for mainstream, heavily simplified music and the type of person who gets drawn to populist political movements, but I’m not sure this has to do with having a necessarily-conservative disposition any more than it has to do with the fact that a lot of people are just unthinking zombies when it comes to music and/or politics.

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    • This is true to some degree but I have several quibbles.

      Country has an explicit cultural message that pop music lacks. Whereas pop may range from boy band fluff to Lady Gaga, country (the sort I’m describing anyways) hews very close to a very narrow worldview. Some pop is message-infused and liberal-ish, and some is just nonsense. Some is Christian-y and some is plastic secularism. There’s lots wrong with pop but the same thing is not happening in pop that’s happening in country.

      To your second point. No, I don’t think there’s overlap between people who are drawn to populist movements and people who like heavily simplified music. I see no connection there at all, and imagine that many in the OWS movement, for instance, enjoy music that is more complex and diverse than probably I do. I don’t get into a lot of the indie/alt music scene really.

      And of course, I don’t think it’s the “conservative disposition” that draws people to country either. I actually say as much, perhaps not clearly enough, when I critique Will’s post. I am saying that country has been politicized by the conservative movement and the culture war. Culture has been politicized. And nowhere do we see this more than in conservative art.

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      • Erik, I can list them one by one if you would like, but I just scanned through the lyrics of the Billboard Top 25 country songs. What I found was…

        A song about a girl being able to make her life better (You Gonna Fly) and another about a man improving himself (Better Than I Used To Be)

        Songs about overcoming life’s tediousness and stresses and carving out a piece of happiness (No Hurry), often due to the love and support of a partner (Reality, Ours, Love’s Gonna Make It Alright, Long Night With You) or alcohol (Red Solo Cup)

        A song about staying through with someone who has cancer (I’m Gonna Love You Through It)

        Songs about getting laid (I Don’t Want This Night To End, Drink On It)

        Songs about the virtues of “home” or rural life generally (Home, Banjo, Where I Come From, Somethin’ Bout a Truck), one with a resentful tone (Fly Over States), and another with a focus on the nostalgia of being 17 (Springsteen)

        Schmaltzy love songs (You, All Your Life, A Woman Like You, This Ole Boy)

        Love lost (Dancing Away With My Heart, Over You)

        The complexities of women, for lack of a better description (The Trouble With Girls)

        This does not strike me as a genre that has been hijacked by politics. Some of it is schmaltzy-looking and upbeat, some of it is mixed-upbeat (life is tough, but we’ll get through it), some specifically about ruralia and appreciating home (though not uniformly in any sort of criticism of the city or city-folk). This all seems… rather unremarkable to me. I don’t see how the culture wars are ruining it. Maybe if we drill down deeper into the stuff that isn’t the poppiest of the poppy country music, but if we’re going to drill down, we’ll also see a lot of compelling stuff that doesn’t really fit Wilkinson’s mold.

        Wilkinson paints a picture of country music that is absolutely obsessed with either ruralia or else blandness. I’m seeing a little ruralia and some blandness (to be expected from pop country), but I think his picture is misguided.

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        • You misunderstand me. I’m not saying that it’s overrun with songs about politics *at all.* I’m saying that the political movement that has propelled the culture war into mainstream politics on the right has infected, perhaps even subtly, the country music genre. The reason it works as well as it does is precisely because the cultural signaling isn’t always in your face. You don’t list the lyrics of the top 25 songs on the billboards, but rather their subject matter. What country does is take that subject matter and it drops a ton of small cultural signals throughout, sprinkling it with very distinct markers.

          You can listen to it and enjoy it and still not relate to those cultural markers, because at the end of the day it’s just music. It’s nothing so totally overt (most of the time) that it would turn most people off. Nor is it any grand conspiracy.

          In any case, I didn’t really agree with Wilkinson’s post – only part of it.

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          • Are you talking about some serious Frank Luntz stuff here? Is there an organization trying to put subtle messages in country music, or are they just creeping in there by osmosis? A more interesting question: do you think some of the trends that happened with country music right after 9-11 vis-a-vis conservative movement politics have now just sort of settled down and become a part of the genre?

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            • I really don’t think there’s much to look at here. It’s more of a standard of reckoning.

              Johnny Cash:
              Delia’s gone
              One more round
              Delia’s gone

              Judas Priest:
              I pushed the dressing table
              Kicked away the door
              I felt the cold black metal
              A loaded forty-four

              Same subject matter.

              If all you are is a lyricist– that you are able to remove the music from music— and isolate that component of spoken word as the ‘meaningful’ portion of music, you come up with a skewed view.
              I don’t think that the Byrds are Jehovah’s Witnesses after hearing “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
              So why do I have to believe that some Robocop-like priest smashed up Geddy Lee’s guitar?
              It makes no sense.
              Maybe ‘gospel’ is defined by its lyric content; but there’s a lot of variation in the music there.

              If you want to see the common elements in Johnny Cash & Judas Priest, look to the blues. Rock music developed from blues, and there were two shifts that happened fairly closely: the dominant 7th became less of a phrasing technique, and the pentatonic minor grew popular.

              Take a look at this:
              A / Bb – A
              Those are the chords for the opening riff from “The Wizard” from Black Sabbath’s first album.
              It’s Phrygian mode, plain as day.
              So, compare the lyric content with other Phrygian-based pieces.
              It doesn’t work like that.

              I could take Johnny Cash & Judas Priest and explain each of the changes (occurring in 5 to 10 year increments) as to how those styles developed from the boogie-woogie of the 30’s & 40’s.

              “Country” music began as “Hillbilly” music, and at one time, the only recording artists in existence were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. These show an amalgamation of influences and styles. Things developed from there. But it’s really not so much that far away from what Hank Williams was doing a very long time ago.

              If you’re going to analyze the lyric content, I say compare our country music to Mexican conjunto bands.

              Although I’ve considered the matter, and I think I would enjoy hearing the Willie Nelson version of “Sweet Leaf.”
              But I don’t think Ice T really kills cops.
              And I don’t think you could make any of his material into a country song by changing it to “Kill your brother-in-law.”

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    • Agreed. Thanks for saving me the time of saying it. ED’s response is is interesting, too. He says that pop is multifaceted, but country is singularly focused. Well, that’s because you selected one branch of pop music (country) and compared it to the rest of the genre combined.

      You can clearly make the same case regarding the other pop sub-genres. Boy bands sing about boy band stuff. Popular rap is all about popular rap stuff. Popular R&B? Come on… do you see loads of thematic variations there?

       

      Couldn’t you just as easily say, “Well, boy bands only sing about girls, so their thematic obsession is off putting. But this problem does not attach to popular music in general, because we see loads of variation between, say, popular rap and popular country.”

      Suddenly, country becomes part of the solution and not part of the problem.

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      • I’m starting to think now that hip hop would have been a better comparison for my above comment and offer a hypothetical alternative narrative: mainstream hip hop has just gotten godawful since the 90s. At the same time it’s increased in popularity with white people to the point that instead of Hootie and the Blowfish and the Spin Doctors at weddings, white people now universally play Ne-yo and Drake. Perhaps, as rock has died as a mainstream force, other genres have taken it’s place, and this helps explain why those genres have declined in quality. Before it was just maniacs that listened to country and hip hop and rock was the McDonald’s of music. But now McDonald’s has gone out of business and the Burger King that is mainstream contemporary country and the Wendy’s that is hiphop are fighting for market share.

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        • I think you’re very wrong about hip hop. First of all, while much of top-40 hip hop is as bad as top-40 everything else (I think Drake is about the worst thing I’ve ever heard), but in hip hop, it’s still possible to be extremely successful and very innovative: think of Kanye, whose latest solo album was something nobody’d heard before. That’s always been the case with hip hop, though. It’s 1 hit wonders suck, but its superstars are actually very good: Dre and Easy, Erik B and Rakim, Snoop, Tupac, Biggie, Eminem, Kanye, Outkast, Jay-Z (who’s probably the weakest of this group) are all superstars and all innovative and seriously talented. I don’t think that’s changed. Plus, just outside of the mainstream, hip hop still has a bunch of artists who are as good as anyone in any genre: Talib Kweli, Nas, Yasiin Bey, The Roots, Wyclef, etc. Hip hop’s not dead, even if Nas said it is. It’s still alive, it’s just that its top 40 has become so pop-oriented that its unlistenable.

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          • I’m quite luke-warm on Kanye actually. I may be the only one in the universe who is both unattracted aesthetically to his music and also considers him a mediocre talent at best, but I’m willing to admit I may be mistaken, since so many other people whose opinions I respect seem to love Kanye. I definitely share your antipathy towards Drake – worst artist ever. And I’m totally ambivalent towards the South. I thought T.I. might be a Springsteen-like figure for hip hop, but I’ve been informed recently that only “old people” like T.I.

            I found it interesting that all of the mainstream artists you mention hit their peaks in the nineties. It’s also interesting that you mention Nas, since I might date the final decline of hip hop from the release of I Am… although I don’t hate Nas’s most recent work.

            I definitely like Mos Def (I’m not psychologically ready for the name change just yet) and Talib Kweli, but I think the best work for the both of them was in 1998. I’m skeptically optimistic that Blackstar‘s new album will be any good.

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            • Have you seen Black Star’s performances on Jimmie Fallon’s show? I am excited about the new album!

              I listen to a lot of hip hop from the early and mid-2000s (I think the end of the 2000s was similar to the end of the 90s, a virtual musical wasteland), and as a product of late 80s and early 90s hip hop, I like it a lot. My girlfriend, whose hip hop taste was built in the 80s almost exclusively (though she will argue that Biggie was the best rapper ever) thinks today’s rap is as good as it’s ever been, just very different from what people like she and I grew up listening to. But she likes L’il Wayne, so I can’t take that claim seriously.

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  2. “Jolene” isn’t a Zac Brown song. It’s a Ray LaMontagne song.  Ray sings it way better, too.



    But this is silly. 90% of songs are this kind of bomb shelter song too.  In hip-hop it’s all about going to the clubs. In pop it’s all heartbreak and romance. In rock it’s all partying, drugs and girls.

    90% of music is crap.  That’s because 90% of everything is crap.

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  3. The guys in these videos all look like they’re from Portland, not Nashville. Neckbeards aplenty, I’m just sayin’.

    Anyway, I’m exactly who you’re aiming this at. I have a broad range of musical styles that I like but I almsot never tune in to a country station on the radio and nearly all of my music is rock, blues, or orchestral. Objectively, I ought to like country music — its formats are as structured as the music I do like; its instruments (violins and slide guitars) overlap extensively with other kinds of music I like; the subject matter is just as topical and emotionally resonant as what I’m familiar with. Yet something about it makes me turn away.

    Here’s my best guesses as to why. Country music’s penchant for celebrating rural life is not something I identify with; I grew up in the exurbs and was a young adult in a big city. The twang of the country singer’s southern accent is not familiar and comfortable to me, and just as your man Zac Brown sings about, much of the appeal is a celebration of the familiar and comfortable. The aggressive style of a fiddle, as opposed to the lush atmosphere provided by a violin, grates on me a little bit. Where in blues music a slide guitar wails and sings, in country its potential seems to be set aside in favor of its ability to draw out a note for a long time, so it seems hokey instead of virtuosic.

    And maybe at the end of the day I am a classist, an elitist, and a snob, and this is how it shows: I dislike a lot of urban hip-hop and rap too, and that’s also blue-collar music, or at least music that takes its subject matter and structural cues from the experiences of people from economic brackets different than my own.

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    • Burt, well said. This is a big part of it, I think. But I grew up in Montana and live in Arizona so I’ve been surrounded by country music people plenty. I don’t identify with the south in any way, but I have family that are ranchers and hunters and so forth. But I don’t identify culturally with the music either. It *could* be because of a sort of classist, elitist thing, but the reason I bring the Avett Brothers song into the mix is that these are guys who sing about similar things, and are very folksy and very southern, and I identify just fine with them. They have religious undertones in much of their music. They sing about family. They sing about place. But it doesn’t feel *cheap* or cheapened, perhaps, by the need to drive home a particular cultivated message that aligns well with the politics of the day.

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  4. Interestingly, so many of the 90s crop of American punk bands have recently turned to country that it’s become a bit of a standing joke (see Chuck Ragan, Tim Barry et al). Safe to assume that they’re not coming at it from a conservative perspective.

    And that’s not to mention several bands like Lucero or Drag the River that have always been ‘country’ (people like to say “alt-country” to avoid that taint of Nashville cheese, but listen to this and tell me if there’s anything ‘alt’ there) but peform entirely within the punk ‘scene’ and with punk bands.

    Seems like sooner or later these bands are going to end up on the same bill/radio station as some of their ideologically opposite peers.

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  5. I have a whole lot of thoughts on this, but to narrow it down some…

    Nashville:County::Pop:Rock.

    Rather than being limited in scope, country music radio covers more ground than most other radio. In pop-rock, life ends in the manchild years. One of my appreciations of country music is that it spends time talking about being an adult. Being married (not just falling in love). Getting divorced (not just breaking up). Having children (not just being a child or teenagers). Working a job you don’t like. Owning a home. That may not be adventurous, but it’s life, man. Adult life.The life most of us have, instead of the life that twenty year olds have.

    Meanwhile, much of the rest of radio sings about love, love lost, more about love, and love lost. Granted, many of those who hate country hate pop music, too. But country is frequently judged by its pop while everybody knows that rock and pop are two different beasts (even if some artists do both, and the line isn’t something that can really be pinned down).

    I have theories on a lot of this.

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    • To be fair to Nashville (my hometown… well, Franklin, but I was born in Nashville, so I’m from there), it has a thriving music scene, including country music, jazz, rock, blues, roots music, electronica, etc., that has nothing to do with “Nashville country.” Back when I still lived close enough to get back home regularly, Self was the big hometown band (since made rich by his getting a song into a Shreck movie). Now it’s The Black Keys, apparently, though everyone will tell you about where they saw Jack White.

      For live music, the only place in the country better than Nashville is New Orleans. This is not simply my opinion. The two cities are ranked #1 and #2 for live music consistently.

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      • Not even all the country music in Nashville the city is the stuff you hear on the radio. Most great non-Nashville artists at least spent a few years trying to make it in Nashville before heading home for the regional circuit. And, of course, even a lot of the more aggressive (non-poppish) country music comes out of a label based in Nashville. Yeah, in this post I am using Nashville as shorthand for a particular kind of country music. The kind that most people call “country music.”

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    • I think there is more than a little truth to your analogy. I can’t speak to the last decade since my consumption of both pop and Nashville has reached negligible amounts, but back in the 90s and early aughts, I seem to recall that at least once or twice a year, there would be a song on both the pop and country top 20 charts, just performed by different artists, with the main difference being that one version had a bit of a twang and the other not.

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      • For a while, there was a series of songs that would have nigh-simultaneous releases in both country and R&B(ish). “I Swear” by All-4-One and JM Montgomery, “Nobody Knows” by the Tony Rich Project and Kevin Sharp, and “Back At One” by Brian McKnight and Mark Wills. I’m sure there were others, but those I can name off the top of my head.

        I never (intentionally) listened to country a day in my life until I (of course) met a girl… anyhow, she listened to country 24/7 and it was like entering an alternative universe wherein I was hearing alternate-universe versions of songs I either loved (Nobody Knows) or loathed (Back At One).

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        • Yup, those are some of the ones I was thinking of. Don’t Want To Miss A Thing was another one I was thinking of.

          My fling with country music was a side effect of working in high school for a crappy record store chain. My manager liked Nashville country, and so would pop a CD in every once in awhile. I decided I disliked those CDs significantly less than the pop CDs we would play.

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    • Will, a couple of thoughts.

      First off, I very much agree that there is something nice and welcome about the fact that country talks about being an adult. I can get into that from time to time. But the problem, again, is that it feels stunted and shallow – formulaic. Not always, but often.

      Then you hear some really good artists – hell, some of the musicians discussed in Mark’s thread below – and you see those same themes brought up and handled with more care and insight.

      You just *never* hear anything worth a damn on the radio. And I do listen to country on the radio because I am so damn sick of classic rock and I hate pop more than country (though probably because I’m bored by it, whereas I’m always thinking about the cultural cues I hear in country music.)

      I think the worst job in the world would be a classic rock DJ, having to play the same decades-old hits over and over again, never getting to play all those great not-hits that nobody has heard in thirty years.

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      • You might like The Sound here in LA.  Not only do they have a fairly large catalog, regular plays of album sides and guest DJs, they also play their entire play-list, 2000+ songs, about twice a year (it takes just over a week).

        One of the best rock stations anywhere.  (and no obnoxious personalities or shows.  Just music.)

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      • If we’re talking about the radio, of course it’s stunted and shallow, at least most of the time. That doesn’t define the genre any more than pop defines the rest of society. I only refrain from criticizing country radio because I blew out my lungs having done so years ago. It’s one-size-fits-all country music, not country music as a genre (I don’t think country music fans necessarily limit themselves to what is on the radio). So it’s going to be aimed at the least common denominator, at least most of the time. The chief betrayal of country music is not, in my opinion, that it’s become politicized or even too formulaic, but rather that a lot of the songs are, at least in terms of lyrics, indistinguishable from pop. Always looking for the potential crossover success and serving, in some ways, as a farm system for pop.

        Now, maybe pop is more varied and challenging than I think it is. Maybe I should go over Billboard’s top 25 in pop. Do you think I will find more variety if I do? More challenging topics?

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          • building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism.

            This suggests to me a lack of variety. Now, musically, I am inclined to agree. Particularly as the radio is concerned. But premise? What is the “over and over again” premise?

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            • Okay, fair enough. There are a handful of rotating themes throughout country; this isn’t a problem in and of itself, it only becomes problematic – to me – when the subject matter remains so simplistic. It’s like they’re not really trying, at least when it comes to popular country.

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            • I’ve had several conversations with various DJs & record company people about why radio sucks.
              It seems to boil down to two cultural factors: the increased spending power of females, and more money in the hands of younger people.
              Which add up to junior high girls driving the market.
              So that’s what gets played.

              As to what can be done to get more junior high girls to listen to King Crimson, very few definitive studies have been done.

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  6. An alternative view…

    You can’t really learn much about a person based on what kind of music they happen to like. As a personality test, it doesn’t work even half of the time. However, there is at least one thing you can learn: The most wretched people in the world are those who tell you they like every kind of music “except country.” People who say that are boorish and pretentious at the same time. All it means is that they’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop psychology; they know that the hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound, and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner. Hipsters hate it because they hate Midwesterners, and they hate Southerners, and they hate people with real jobs.

    Now, obviously, this hipster distaste doesn’t apply to old country music, because everybody who’s cool loves that stuff (or at least claims to). Nobody questions the value of George {expletive} Jones. It’s completely acceptable for coolies to adore the idea of haggard nineteen-year-old men riding in cabooses and having their hearts shattered, which is why alternative country is the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular (if you follow my meaning).Chuck Klosterman

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    • I tend to value New Country and Rap about the same — you don’t seem to need much talent or depth.  There are exceptions to both, of course.   But for an old-school rocker like me (George Thoroughlygood is my hero), country, pop and rap all leave something to be desired.

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    • Will, I’m much less interested in learning about the people who listen to country than I am in thinking about why country is what it is and what it says about the state of affairs in our country. I don’t care to psychoanalyze people; I do care to understand broad cultural and sociological trends, movements, etc.

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      • I think the trends are going to be limited by looking specifically what is on the radio of a particular genre. I mean, I point to country music as an example of conservative entertainment that’s not enveloped by politics the same way that conservative movies so often are. And I think country music is that. But I guess I am unclear on how politics has hijacked it or tainted it or whatever. I think it remains successful because it hasn’t. I don’t believe country music to be on an ideological mission. That’s one of the reasons I think it does okay.

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        • Do you disagree that the country music in particular appeals to a very specific political/cultural demographic as opposed to other radio-friendly music? I mean, so does NPR to some degree, but pop appeals more to an age demographic (the young) and classic rock tends to appeal to somewhat older listeners, but country appeals directly to a conservative population regardless of age. I think this makes it distinct from these other genres. And I think it has made it more vulnerable to pushing a particular narrative about God, guns, and country. I know you ask for specifics and I will try to go through and find them at some point.

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          • Heh.  All music has its demographics.  Country is driven by something you clearly do not understand, else you wouldn’t classify it politically.  It’s nothing but the child of gospel music.   Mutt Lange, who created that little Barbie Doll, Shania Twain, would always do two mixes of her stuff, one with a pedal steel and the the other without, gtr pushed.   One headed for the country A&R the other to the pop A&R.

            Country ethos is as American as the four part hymns of the Great Awakening.   Rock was the child of delta blues, sweetened up and reprocessed by a bunch of Englishmen.   The rock dudes kinda lost sight of which side their bread was buttered on and that’s the reason country’s doing as well as it is.    Kids around here in Augusta Wisconsin listen to hip-hop and country with equal aplomb:  I hear them blasting it from the youth center right across the street from me.

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            • Blaise – I know everyone is eager to tell me that A) I don’t “get” country or B) I don’t “like” country, but neither of those things is true. I like a lot of country, it just bothers me that so much of it is musically satisfying but lyrically and thematically a huge turn off.

              I know lots of people who listen to country. Most, but certainly not all, are culturally conservative. They also tend to be more blue collar. I know some conservatives who can’t stand country.

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              • Look, Willie Nelson is about as un-conservative as you’re gonna get.   Music transgresses, that’s part of its job.   Country music is mostly about alcohol abuse and failed marriages and all sorts of sad things which justify playing in minor with an A major break  and a whole lot of songs about cute girls shakin’ their booties on the dance floor which justify playing in a major with a C minor break.   Not much politics there.  Country modes and blues modes.   It’s just counting without numbers.

                Now country demographics are well-represented in the military, so don’t be surprised to hear songs about patriotism.   Not a particularly conservative virtue, patriotism.   If Lee Greenwood sings God Bless the USA, a maudlin old ditty I heartily despise, it’s a pity it got played at all those Bush and McCain rallies because I might sorta like it otherwise.   Maybe we need to take a look at the music itself and try not to look so hard at its fans, these all-hat and no-horse plastic cowboy types.

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              • Yeah. Musically, I love that tight, crisp Nashville sound: great vocals, catchy guitar licks, the occasional violin/mandolin accent. Lyrically, some of the stuff is really good, especially the funny make-fun-of-own type songs (eg, a guy who drives his tractor around hoping to pick up women). And outlaw country is, of course, awesome. But I can’t listen to pop-country radio for more than a 30 minutes before the insipid lyrics of at least half of the songs make me turn the dial.

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                  • Some of the overtly political stuff turns me off. And I’m sure some of the more subtle signalling does as well (how the hard working blue collar dad is struggling to raise his son up right in a crazy world). And I was going to say that otherwise, it’s just the insipidity of the lyrics – that pop-country is based mostly on riffs and rhythm with only passing attention paid to the lyrics. But then it occurred to me that part of the reason the lyrics strike me as so insipid may be because they’re comprised almost entirely of trivial and stereotypical cultural signals.

                    So now I don’t really know!

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          • If country appeals to a specific demographic, it’s appeals to a very large one. I mean, I agree that country radio appeals to a sort of conservatism, but mostly in the sense that it (unlike most art) actively makes an attempt not to alienate conservatives. Is this artistically limiting? I don’t think so, in the sense that you seem to mean it. I think it often starts with the assumption that God and country and family are good and guns aren’t bad, but from that point there is a whole world to explore. A world that is overlooked by most other music.

            Does country music (radio) have a quasi-nationalistic streak? Yeah, but it’s the only genre that really does. Does it spend a lot of time singing about the simpler things in life? Yeah, but again it’s the only genre that does (with regularity). It approaches morality, God, and life in a way that’s different and in a way that more naturally appeals to a segment of the population that doesn’t have a large amount of artistic representation. And that’s a large world to explore. And it’s specifically in the context of that world that we get songs like “I Just Got Back From Hell”, which likely wouldn’t have popped up elsewhere and wouldn’t have come across as well (in my view) without the general context of country music.

            Would country radio be better if it incorporated Richmond Fontaine or James McMurtry? Abso-freakin’-lutely. And I’d love for their to be a lot less of the love and love lost songs that we get… just about everywhere else (though sometimes they do put a particularly good spin on it). I do view that as more of a limitation of radio in general than of the genre, but I suppose that’s a judgment call. Often, the very same artists that have dreck on the radio will have good downtracks on their CD that don’t make the radio.

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  7. I thought the consensus among country music fans was that country died in the early 80s and what NashVegas has produced ever since has been a bloated, late-Elvis-like, watered down monstrosity with a few exceptions. If you’re tired of the shallowness of modern country, listen to some old Merle Haggard records- they’ll cut you to the core.

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    • That’s interesting because rock died in the late seventies (then resurrected in the nineties, and then died again),  hip hop died in the late nineties, and classical music died in the late 1870s. There is absolutely no music living nowadays. It’s all just dead and meth-like, created by producers for no discernible reason, and everyone just tolerates it in public places because they assume everyone else must like it. But have you ever met anyone that actively liked Maroon 5 or Pitbull?

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      • I’ve got some fab contemporary classical out of Japan.

        If you look for the good, you’ll find it. Pretty much in anything.

        ‘swhy I’ll never say that I don’t like a genre. Everything’s got something good.

        I’d say except horror, but there are some genuinely creepy things I like (I do not like blood and guts horror, but that’s more my issue than a problem with the genre)

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      • There’s a period in everyone’s life where the music seems to die.   It’s rather like being clinically depressed, a sensation I know rather better than I would care to relate.   For a musician it’s especially hard, to have walked through my days and nights, detached, a bored tourist in my own life.   My keyboards would sit there, as strange and useless as someone else’s set of keys.   I’d play my scales and Hanon progressions, the patches would dutifully respond, as dull as clockwork.

        When I get that way, and it’s happened more than once, I return to Bach, especially to the Goldberg Variations.   I’d play King Crimson’s Red album.   I’d turn off the radio and read Pitchfork and wait for the hunger again.   Soon enough, a few shoots would sprout and off I’d go in search of new music.   There’s plenty of new stuff out there, artists working their butts off.   Bands are forming and dissolving.

        The joy of life is all around you.   You are awash in it.   Stop and consider, you are constantly changing.   Sure, rock has lost its way, the radio is full of preachments from the apostles of mediocrity.   Your revulsion is a healthy sign.   You’re ready for a change.

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        • Ahem, let me explain here that I totally know what argument you fellows are talking about. I’ve seen many a friend stop going out or listening to new music because “it all sucks now”. But, I still do buy a lot of new music, play in two bands and gig with lots of new bands and am totally convinced that the genres I like are as good as they ever were. Great music and art is out there and can be found if you look for it.

          What I mean about country is when you listen to country music from the 60s and 70s there’s a strong dose of social realism mixed with the fiddles- he’s been let go at the factory at the worst possible time, she’s at home vulnerable to his drinking problems, daddy’s got the black lung from the mines- it aims at the heart of the white working class. It was also still a sort of niche music then- really a subgenre of folk and bluegrass. Now, I know there’s still plenty of singers who can cut to the quick with their lyrics, but there’s also a huge country music industry whose product is more “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” than ‘Working Man’s Blues’.

          Admittedly, Mojo Nixon might have put it better than I could.

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          • You just have to know where to look. It’s not as much on the radio as in the country music bars. Pandora is good for seeking it out. Especially if you have a good name as a starting point. Or move to Texas or Oklahoma.

            Ever hear “Finger on the Trigger”? There are at least a couple versions of it out there.

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            • Well, speaking of Mojo Nixon, you can subscribe to SiriusXM and get a whole Outlaw Country station (with Mojo as one of the DJs), along with your classic country station and all sorts of other niche genres.  Of course you pay for it, but, like Pandora, it’s a clear sight better than terrestrial radio if you want something different.

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            • Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” was outstanding in the respect that I like every song from the album.
              There are very few albums I can say that about.
              The fact that it’s country probably makes it unique.
              But it’s been long enough to make it old news.

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          • Will’s right, there’s some pretty damn good country music out there. You just have to know where to look for it. I happen to be in the Nashville of Alt Country, so it’s easy for me to find, but you could start with some of the names from the Texas Music thread and find a lot of stuff worth listening to.

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  8. Like some of the other commentators, I think this is a little simplistic, and as you admit, it’s written by someone that doesn’t like country.

    Most pop music, country pop or otherwise, is sort of boring and straightforward. But Country is big and wide, even if certain sets don’t always take the time to figure that out.

    I’d recommend a Charlottesville band called Sons of Bill. Awesome guys.

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    • Dave, thanks for stopping by. I don’t know. It depends on what we’re talking about. You can’t really say “there’s lots of great country music that isn’t really popular” when the point of the discussion is that popular country music is what it is because of the cultural and political forces undergirding conservatism in contemporary American politics…

      The question is, where can I find really great country music that is played on the radio that eschews these tropes and does something *more* than just offer up culture war comfort food?

      I’m sure there’s plenty of good country music out there that I would enjoy. But that doesn’t really change what makes popular country tick and serve as a poignant cultural device for the conservative movement.

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      • Yes,I get that argument, and I I think there’s a lot of merit to it. But I still think that by simplifying the genre to the couple of things likely to trickle out you severely warping your search results to the point where they become less useful.

        It’s not that “there are some underground bands that are good,” though I realize that sort of came off that way in the last comment. Their are plenty of huge guys that you’re just not likely to hear about if you’re doing cursory radio glances — Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, etc. Those guys are genuinely popular, just don’t end up on the radio in the same way.

        Or, more pop-wise, Brad Paisley is as big as you get, and he’s got plenty of off-beat things going on. Listen to Toby Keith’s “American Ride: a little more closely — it actually turns out to be a sort of brilliant expression of a much more nuanced idea of patriotism than you expect out of Mr. boot in your ass.

        The thing of what your thinking of is just sort of the baseline song for a certain set of pop-country: it’ worth thinking about, but I do think that you’re stretching it to terms like “country” and it’s wearing a down a bit.

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        • I love Steve Earle, but I’d place him outside of mainstream American country. I’ll check out the Toby Kieth song since I think he’s one of the worst offenders here.

          In any case, I am trying to refer solely to what I see as a movement within mainstream, pop country to inject culture war sentiments. Maybe I’m completely off base there by critiquing the genre itself, but that impulse does exist I think.

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          • Well, don’t second guess yourself or backtrack from your gut feelings on the subject.   I’m in a relationship with a girl who’s never heard much except country music.   I’m revolted by all the faux patriotism and populist dumbassery in country music.

            The definition of propaganda is a message wrapped in a medium.   Country is just rotten with propaganda.   The propagandists have attempted to hijack the traditions of solid honesty and forthrightness of generations of musicians and pervert it to their own ends.   You don’t have to accept it nor should you.

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              • Well, I’ve had some time to think about it and decided to backtrack on what I considered at the time to be an over-generalization on your part:  “Country is catchy, cheesy, and absolutely contemporary conservative art in its most distilled form.” .

                Country music is being grifted.    I know the genre well enough to know it’s got plenty o’ cheese and plenty of catchy.    It’s reactionary.   Its ethos is shared by millions of people who long for a simpler life suffused with love and meaning and tradition.   Sure, we think it’s kinda cheesy, this stuff sells to people who want to sing along and believe their pedestrian little lives have meaning, going back and forth to work at the factory, drinking a few shots down at the bar, making love to their wives,  caring for their children, dancing at their weddings, going to church on Sunday, remembering sitting on Grandpa’s porch.   Sentimental, maybe.   Real?  Undeniable.

                Yes, country’s being grifted by a bunch of reactionary maniacs with a political agenda and it’s not the first time.   There will be a backlash.   Americans won’t buy this crap forever.

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              • When country got grifted the first time, its reaction was “Willie and Waylon and the boys.”  Willie and Waylon were hardly Establishment Figures at the time and they aren’t, to this day.   I repeat myself in saying country is reactionary and it wants nothing more than to find transcendence in the quotidian virtues.   Among those virtues are thinking for yourself and in the immortal words of Johnny Cash

                I’d sing more about moral of this land
                But all God’s children ain’t free
                I’d open up every door I can
                ‘Cause all God’s children ain’t free

                I met a beaten broken man
                He shovels dirt but got no land
                And he held out his hand to me
                All God’s children ain’t free

                I’d sing along too, a silly song
                But all God’s children ain’t free
                I’m gonna sing the blues for the men they done wrong
                ‘Cause all God’s children ain’t free

                Mister, how about the man you condemn to die?
                But taking everything that he’s livin’ by
                And reject him from society
                All God’s children ain’t free
                No, reject him from society
                All God’s children ain’t free

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          • Erik, There has been an effort to “inject culture war sentiments” into country  at least as far back as “Okie from Muskogee” and “Southern Boy can Survive”.  This is nothing new.  My problem with most country music is that there is a serious lack of good poets.  Don’t forget that in the late sixties rock had a brief love affair with country.  Check out the Byrds “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, Poco and “Honky Tonk Woman”.  Gram Parsons had a deep impact on many musicians, in both instrumental and injectable vein.

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            • But “Okie from Muskogee” is at least half-ironic.  Haggard was both trying to sing from the perspective of the Okie and understand him while at the same time it was satire.  He’s been very explicit about this multiple times.

              Sure, there are fans that took it 100% seriously, but there are Beastie Boy fans who did the same with “Fight for Your Right to Party.”

              The end result was a song he could sing at concerts with Dylan and fans would join in.

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  9. That quote from Medved leads me to something of a tangent to this post – what’s the deal with the fascination American conservatives have for Ayn Rand?  I’m not exactly an expert on Rand but I know enough to know that she would have despised the modern conservative movement.  For one thing she basically considered religion a mental illness, which given that modern conservative politicians don’t seem to be able to so much as contemplate atheists without getting fainting spells would make her a strange political bedfellow at the best of times.

    Plus she believed in small government, rather than merely paying lip service to small government, so that would cause some tension with everyone but Ron Paul.  I would honestly love to see the shade of Ayn Rand participate in a debate with Romney and Santorum.  It would be hilarious, I think she might actually make them cry.

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    • James, my own pet theory, Ayn Rand’s writings take aim directly at what current conservatives imagine liberals to currently be; anti-capitalist, communist, collectivist, hyper-politically correct, success hating etc. So they find her very appealing. Of course Liberals in general have moved so far to the right in the past thirty-fourty years that most of Rand’s criticisms bounce off like nerf darts but in the conservative mind they’re devastating indictments.

      It’s important to keep in mind that during her lifetime Rand’s objectivism was read out of the conservative movement for pretty much the reasons you mentioned; her materialism, iron laced small governmentism etc didn’t work with their beliefs. But now again there’s a certain imagination at work. Rand defenestrates the Liberals conservatives imagine exist (but generally don’t) and Rand lauds the small government principles that conservatives imagine themselves to adhere to (but generally don’t). She’s the opiate of the conservative masses.

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  10. Eric, your (and Will’s) understanding of what constituted “depth” in art is so cliche, mainstream and maudlin it makes me sad. No wonder you think Breaking Bad is the best show on television. PEG calls this wanna-be sophisticate bullshit out here:

    “I’ve always been left cold by one of the most-mooted arguments for Empire: that it’s the “darkest” episode in the trilogy. Yes. So what? Does a movie have to be “dark” to be good? Since when is that a criterion? If you’re older than 16, that shouldn’t figure in your calculations.”

    Four chords and false comfort? Time for you to get out of the kiddie pool and grow up.

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    • I find this to be a reaching interpolation of what Erik and Will actually say. What is it about going beyond the formulaic, which is largely what Erik seems to be talking about when he uses the word “depth,” that suggests darkness to you? Hell, much of the mainstream country music since the advent of “Nashville country” in the late early to mid 60s has been dark, but it’s all been pretty shallow.

       

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    • David,

      A few things. I’ll try not to be an asshole, but I’ll probably fail.

      1) I don’t think “dark” matters at all. I’m sure I used it up above, but that’s mostly because country tends to be all about happy endings. Upbeat and conventional. All the time.

      But I love not-dark art. I have written several defenses of Disney movies. Two or three posts devoted to Tangled alone. I get as tired as the next person of the anti-hero, and I’ve put down fantasy books that were trying to be edgy by going as dark as possible. So your little rant here is misguided.

      I wrote a post about why I like Breaking Bad, and the “darkness” of the show wasn’t one of my six reasons. The cinematography, acting, humor, soundtrack, writing – these all captivate me. The plot is dark, but my other favorite TV show is Parks & Recreation which, maybe you know, is a celebration of eternal optimism.

      2) Spell my name right. It’s all over the page and you misspell it?

      3) Frankly, this comment crosses a line. You want to call my understanding of art “so cliche, mainstream and maudlin” that it makes you sad? Call it wanna-be-sophisticate? Oh David, you’re so smart and pretentious it hurts. How do you sleep at night when you’re this awesome? When your understanding of art and everything else is so much more actually-sophisticated than saps like me?

      Dude, I deal with enough trolling. I don’t need it from the authors at this blog. Maybe it’s time you found somewhere else to write about your fucking boat.

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      • Erik: I don’t want to send this all meta, and I’m still deciding what I think about the Cheeks incident, but honestly I think you’ve got your Sensitivity to Trolling setting at Streisand (or, if you’d prefer, Palin) these last few days.  To avoid sending this all meta, I’m not going to say anything else on the subject, and it’s up to you whether you think I’m right or not.

        I’d also ask (but won’t insist) that others not respond to this comment.

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        • Mark. I agree, my sensitivity is very high for various reasons. Good reasons, but still…

          Bob was not banned however.

          To David, please disregard my #3 above. Words spoken in anger and I apologize. However I am saddened to wake up to such a personal attack from one of my cobloggers. I find your comment uncalled for and mean spirited. My reaction was nevertheless unwarranted.

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          • You’re right. I was peeved and pressed for time this AM and hit “send” when I should have hit “save”. Let me walk back the “sad” comment and acknowledge that you’ve established a wide-range of tastes, and I should have given you more credit.

            What wadded my panties into such a knot is this whole “openness” idea. Country music (Nashville or otherwise) is no more contempably cliche and familar than any other sort of music, and the stereo-typical country music lover is not more openminded or closemind than the average college music radio listener.

            King Missel captured this perfectly with their 1992 miss, It’s Saturday. Sadly there’s no online verison of the song freely available, so we’ll have to make do with the lyrics:

            I want to be different, Like everybody else I want to be like
            I want to be just like all the different people
            I have no further interest in being the same
            Because I have seen different all around
            And now I know that that’s what I want
            I don’t want to blend in and be indistinguishable
            I want to be a part of the different crowd
            and assert my individuality with others
            who are different like me
            I don’t want to be identical to anyone or anything
            I don’t even want to be identical to myself
            I want to look in the mirror and wonder
            “Who is that person? I’ve never seen that person before;
            I’ve never seen anyone like that before”
            I want to call into question the very idea that identity can be attached
            I want a floating shifting ever changing persona:
            invisiblility and obscurity
            Detachment from the ego and all of it’s pursuits
            unity is useless
            conformity is competitive and divisive and leads only to stagnation and death
            if what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense
            that’s because sense can not be made
            it’s something that must be sensed
            and I, for one, and incensed by by all this complacency
            why oppose only when there’s a war?
            why defend the clinics only when they’re attacked?
            why are we always reactive?
            lets activate something
            lets fish shit up
            whatever happened to revolution for the hell of it?
            whatever happened to protesting nothing in particular, just
            protesting because its Saturday, and there’s nothing else to do?

            Also reading Rod Dreher and/or Will Wilkinson always makes me behave badly. I’m sorry, and yes, I’m working on it. ;-)

             

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            • I’m quite w/Mr. Ryan’s observation here: Alt rock is just as conformist as country, and I’ve played them both, and everything from folk to noise.  Jazz is completely conformist, so much so that any jazz cat can tell you in an instant whether something is or is not jazz.  [Steely Dan is not jazz.]

              There are some pioneers out there—you likely have never heard of them, although your favorite musicians have.  But pioneers get all the arrows, and share the bargain bins with the overly derivative.

              The trick is to innovate, but not too much.  [Safer still is to cop from both the Top 10 and the bargain bin.]

               

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            • I think you’re right, popular art is a rule (with some exceptions) is going to be cliche, hackneyed, trite, derivative, or whatever other word you want to use for unoriginal. This is not surprising, nor, I think, does it address Erik’s point, though I don’t want to speak for him.

              Also, I don’t find pop culture the least bit nihilistic.

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            • Thanks, David. But I actually didn’t say that it was about openness at all. I said it was more of an infusion of politics into art that was the problem, and said it wasnt conservatism per se, but rather the obsession with culture war politics. You are responding to Will’s argument, not mine.

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    • I’ll go ahead and say I have a preference for dark, objectively speaking. Breaking Bad is one of my favorite television shows, although I don’t consider it to be all that dark. There are moments of zen throughout the series. Led Zeppelin and the Doors, probably the darkest groups around at the time, remain my favorite rock bands. Blade Runner and No Country for Old Men are quintessential exemplars of my taste in film: both are dark and understated.

      That being said, I think the end result, aesthetically, of the last forty-some-odd years of darkness in art is that it’s easier to do dark nowadays, so I can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making something optimistic and upbeat but not sappy or saccharine. This is why a film like Life is Beautiful really stands out for me and why my favorite book is Les Miserables. If that makes me aesthetically immature, so be it, but I’m more likely to fall on the no-accounting-for-taste side of this discussion.

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  11. Erik – I think you are projecting something into the country music you hear on the radio as a means to rationalize your dislike for the genre. Your admitted frustration listening to the radio is across the genres so why do you expect it to be any different with country music? I don’t listen to country music on the radio, in fact I recall once being shocked and genuinely confused to hear Lucinda Williams while station surfing in the car. Country on the radio is just like pop or recycled 70s rock. It is mainly for easy consumption and comfort, not for deep thinking (with a few exceptions of course). If you want to hear the best of any genre, you look for venues that are not radio right? Most of my favorite artists were rarely heard on the radio. The country music I enjoy I learned from people who like and have an interest in the genre outside of what is heard on the radio. If you are looking for conservative or hollow themes in pop, you will find lost of it just like in country. If you are looking for non-conservative or deeper messages in country music, you can find it as well.

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      • But I would say the majority of popular music regardless of genre is intentionally made to appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners. I don’t buy that popular country is driven by conservatism and more than it is by sappy adults and teenage girls. Why not blame them for the shallowness? Even at the college where I work (colleges are notoriously conservative ya’ know) the students chose to bring in a mainstream country artist. It isn’t a political thing, it is merely a preference thing.

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        • I was thinking a lot the same thing; that the music is more of a mirror of society, while different people bring differing views to that image.
          Communication in symbols is necessarily regressive to a point, until one becomes conversant in the symbol set.
          Music, art, and religion are symbol sets that are open to individual interpretation to an extent, in a way that words simply aren’t.

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  12. Speaking only as a musician, everyone seems to be missing the point.   Rock was lyrics wrapped around some tune.   We used to mix rock lyrics down into the sound to the point where the vox was nothing but another instrument, its faders always a bit lower than gtr.

    Country is a tune wrapped around the lyrics.   So is hip-hop for that matter.  Country doesn’t have a message so much as it has lyrics.   Don’t like the lyrics?   That’s because you can hear them.

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    • I think this is right, though hip-hop production has become more tune-based and varied in textures since it was sort of in its first- and second-wave heydays.  Not everyone would say this is an advance, however.

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      • Hip-hop is so utterly derivative.   Can these bozos actually compose more than two bars at a time which isn’t someone else’s reprocessed chune?   The genre is bereft of anything but ego.   Yes, country is preachy and silly, but it’s just a different ethos than the equally-absurd ethos of hip-hop.    The realities of the country life and the geto life are equally un-represented by the genres of music from which they supposedly emerge.

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          • I mean this jokingly, of course.

            But I think hip hop is one of if not the most innovative genres of American music in the last 2 or 3 decades, if only because it’s so young. It’s true that hip hop artists use samples from other artists a lot, but that doesn’t make it derivative any more than Dvo?ák or Wagner using elements of folk songs made their work derivative.

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            • There’s very little new in music and it’s all somewhat derivative.   Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is an entirely different and better thing than some sleazy little voiceover to an old Isley Brothers’ tune.

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              • That’s just it: hip hop is new in music. Sure, old school hip hop is ancient minimalism, heavy on beat and chant, but for the last 20 years, hip hop has become a wide-ranging genre full of stuff that I’ve never heard before. Sometimes that stuff involves the unique combination of different existing musical elements (say funk and carribean folk, or r&b and rock, or whatever), and sometimes it just creates new musical elements.

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                • Erm, hip-hop is diverging, that much is true.   But that just means they’re sampling from a wider range of material.   Hip hop, if the current Billboard charts is any indication, is a collection of very lazy people who believe they’re going to escape the need to learn to play an instrument.

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                  • There have been some damn fine tunes made by people who don’t play instruments… hehe.

                    Thief’s got a good track for the wights — left on an answering machine late at night…

                    Learning to play an instrument is far less important than learning how music works, in terms of composing. but maybe that’s just me.

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                  • There are some great tunes made by folks who can’t play a G scale.   Brian Eno was doing it quite some while back.   My theory of music says it isn’t really music until you can either play it well or make a decent recording thereof.   I write music I can’t play.   I can play it reallly slowly and push the tempo x 4 so it does what I want in the sequencer.   I’ll sit there and dick around with the ADSR for a single note until I get what I want out of it.  So I’m not against sampling, I’m saying I don’t particularly enjoy derivative music and heartily dislike some cheezy hip-hop artiste prancing around and rapping over an old Isley Brothers tune which I rather liked in the original.

                     

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                    • I’ve done quite a bit of MIDI sequencing.
                      I did Ravel’s score for Pictures at an Exhibition working from the score. That one took me about five months.

                      MIDI makes me miss the articulation of the notes.
                      There is an uncomfortable awareness of what’s missing.
                      It makes me pay more attention to that aspect of it in my playing.

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            • It’s true that hip hop artists use samples from other artists a lot, but that doesn’t make it derivative any more than Dvo?ák or Wagner using elements of folk songs made their work derivative.

              I think this is true.  I can’t stand hip-hop myself, but I have a good friend who has extensive musical training and a vast range of musical knowledge, and he loves hip-hop.  He says the purpose of the sampling is to demonstrate how you can make something new and creative from old parts–it’s not just taking pieces from someone else’s work because you can’t write anything yourself, but showing what can be created from the combination of different elements of different artists’ works.  And for the knowledgeable listener, half (or more) of the joy is in recognizing the sources of the work.

              It makes me regret not like rap, because I think that’s a remarkable project.

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              • Listening assignment: listen to “game over beethoven.”

                Tain’t rap by a longshot, but it’s a reimaging of another piece.

                The whole soundtrack is like that, and it’s pretty damn decent (some better than others, but ain’t that always the way of things)

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            • Oneohtrix Point Never reminds me of some particularly twee things I did when I got my first synths and learned to clip four track tape.  Let’s just say I’m not impressed, even by the new stuff which tries to escape from their drone phase.   Boards of Canada was doing this stuff better, back in the day.

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  13. By the way, I know Sam Gosling (the guy whose research Will’s post draws on), and I have to say, his research on music and personality, while cool, isn’t half as interesting as his research on hyena personalities.

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  14. I think your post (and Will Wilkinson’s) makes some very good points and leaves good questions to chew on, too.  Reading through the comments,   it looks like there is a need for everyone to just agree on a new term to clear up half the debate, though.  Can we settle on a term for “pop country” or “jukebox country”?   It’s  the kind of country music that can be heard in any public space and played by 100% of all country music stations pretty much all of the time.    It’s like  the stuff by Hank Williams Jr we all saw for 20 years every Monday night,  not the music by his father that is never actually played, as far as I can tell.

    I have to agree that  country music is unique in it’s steadiness and reliability.  While country, pop and classic rock may all be comfortable or nostalgic, country music has stayed constant across songs, over decades and even through generations.  That makes it just about unique in popular culture.  My father turned off the radio in 1966 because of all the weird sounds it was making, but even today he can happily listen to the most current bar room country jukebox.  Now THAT is constant, stable music.

     

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  15. Eric….  I speak as another alt-country fan who’s no real defender of anything that’s hit country radio and wasn’t recorded by George Jones in the last quarter-century.  But…

    easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular. Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism

    This critique [EDIT — minus the “cultural conservatism” comment] held in the 80s when Johnny Cash was dropped by his label — it’s the driving force behind that picture of him from the 90s flicking off the camera — he’s giving the finger to Nashville for being sellouts, not right-wingers.

    It’s the critique that Emmylou Harris wanted to prove didn’t have to be the case when she fought her producers and record company tooth-and-nail to get Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses in the Snow recorded.  (It’s actually the critique my father, who loved Emmy’s early stuff, made against everything after Cowgirl’s Prayer: the same albums I love, he thought were her selling out to the AAA-format.)

    It’s the critique implicit in Wanted! The Outlaws (Willie, Waylon, Jessi, and Tompar Glaser) — which hit #1 and sold a million copies.

    It’s the reason Waylon and Willie gave for ditching the establishment and creating “outlaw” country to begin with.

    It’s an old critique.  And I don’t think it has very much to do with politics.  I listen to Top 40 Country stations only rarely, and for the same reason I try to avoid Top 40 Pop, R&B, etc. stations: occasionally, you hear something decent or even good — but most of it is easy and unthinking, all surface, no depth, superficial — and sometimes even insular.

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    • JL – this seems to be a recurring critique of my post. It’s the “pop” of pop country that makes it dissatisfying, not the politics. Maybe this is true, but I can’t help but think that pop country has become much more of a conservative mainstay in recent years. Sure, the problem with crappy music is old. But country since the 90’s I think has really been not just pop but also something more. It seems to me that what separates “alt” country from mainstream is not *just* the pop, but also the cultural signalling.

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      • And I noticed, at the end of my post, that the names I mentioned are Country music’s lefties.  My point is that there’s always been the complaint that it’s been schlock on the radio — and if that schlock now happens to signal something vaguely political to its audience, well, it’s hardly some Nashville producer’s fault that marriage, guns, God, and the flag are have become intense political signifiers.  (But to what extent was this the case back in the Vietnam-era?)  I don’t know that country music has changed a lot of what it’s put into it’s lyrics and themes — if it’s become more “political” it’s because the audience is now hearing those lyrics and their themes as more political.

        The Dixie Chicks got in trouble not for their politics but for expressing shame to a non-American audience for a  president who was, among their geographic audience, immensely popular.  They took it as an insult to Bush and, probably, them.  Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks — their audience knows they’re Democrats and lean liberal (or, in Keith’s case, libertarianish).  No one really cares.

        But the reason it’s schlock is, I think, the same reason it was schlock back in the 80s and 90s and before.

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      •  Sure, the problem with crappy music is old. But country since the 90?s I think has really been not just pop but also something more. It seems to me that what separates “alt” country from mainstream is not *just* the pop, but also the cultural signalling.

        This has been an interesting thread, because I find myself agreeing with so many people on each side.  I think that’s because the two sides are not really quite talking about the same thing.  And I think the snippet above gets at Erik’s (or “Eric’s”) real point (at least as I have interpreted it).

        Yes, pop country would indeed be crappy simply because of its poppiness, even if it were devoid of political signalling/content, just as so much top 40 music is crappy because of its poppiness. But there is something else going on–something in addition to the poppiness.  Top 40 pop rarely has a real political element, whereas pop country has a really significant political element that adds to the sum total of its crappiness.

        Perhaps Erik’s wrong about that, although I’m inclined to agree with him.  But I think if anyone really wants to respond to his actual argument, focusing on something he’s agreed to (the crappiness of pop music in general) isn’t going to do it.  They’ll need to focus directly on that question of whether pop country does or does not have more of a political element–and a one-sided one–than pop 40.

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        • Country has always flirted with pop muzik.   The combination is usually dreadful.   The problem is down in the harmonies.   Rock and its silly mother pop fit chords to the scale.  Jazz and country go the other way, one chord at a time.   Listen to a country break, deconstruct it and you’ll see immediately why country can never go pop without a fundamental change, right down at a modal level.

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        • My response would be that you and Erik sound like one of those all too familiar people insisting that those Southerners and rural folks have an accent, but you don’t have an accent, you speak perfectly normal unaccented American English.

          Many of the things that you’re assuming “have a political element” or at the least a cultural one, don’t strike people who are born and raised in that culture as a strong element.  We all have accents.

          Most pop music isn’t going to be overtly political, like the pop punk stylings of Green Day or the work of Rage Against the Machine.  But neither is most country, including pop country.  What it does have is cultural markers that end up seeming political to you because so much of politics is not economic issues, not even positions on social issues, but cultural affiliation.  (To take one polarizing example, Sarah Palin’s political record as Alaska governor was not marked by extremism on economic or social issues.  But there was an instant and amazing polarization based on her being either “like me” or “not like me” that was entirely unrelated to anything she had done as governor.  She then apparently decided to run with that image for entirely personal and cynical reasons, which made sense for her anyway since she had become so polarizing.)

          At the same time, other music, whether hip-hop, punk, or even pop, do have cultural elements to them (which can end up seeming political since so much of politics is not even social issues but mere cultural affiliation).  The cultural element just doesn’t stand out to you because you’re part of that culture.  But to people from a certain mindset of how life is lived and of family, much of the music that you think as having no explicit cultural content does.

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        • I think the issue that at least some of us have is that he hasn’t (to my satisfaction) made his case about the political element. Cultural signaling? Sure, but that has long been associated with country music. It’s true of the not-radio stuff, too. And of non-country music. This leaves conservative art – if it looks at contemporary politics and issues at all – unacceptable in one form or another. The common complaint is that conservative art is too aggressively conservative. To turn around and complain about country music is to say that when it’s not aggressive, it’s superficial and failing to scratch below the surface.

          It lends credence to the notion that the problem is not so much the art that conservatives are selling, but that it won’t be accepted in any event unless it’s extremely abstract (Passion of Christ or Tolkien or something), or something that we can call conservative when it’s convenient and then yank back if conservatives try to claim it as their own.

          It’s extremely difficult to look at the Billboard Top 25 and suggest that there is a real political agenda that is tainting the art. The biggest problem with it is that it is bland, hence our talking about the poppiness. That’s where the superficiality is coming from. But heaven forbid it lose that superficiality, because then it would be too political and ruined because of that.

          Which brings me back to the question of what would be acceptable. Except something abstract enough that it couldn’t possibly be associated with anything resembling the Republican Party (so Passion of Christ and Tolkien are safe). Liberal art is not held to this standard (nor should it be). Which I honestly do wonder is the real issue. Anything conservative in the contemporary sense, whether strong or weak in its message, is associated with a loathed party. Conservatives are scoffed at when they approach things in this way.

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  16. P.S. Just to sort this out upfront, I don’t say that I “dislike” country. So will everyone quit saying that? I dislike a lot of it, but there’s some – like Zac Brown – that I actually do enjoy. Also, I’m specifically discussing pop country. Telling me that there is other, better country out there is beside the point.

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  17. Now with that obligatory thing out of the way…

    I think the recent wave of pop country is explicitly intended to feed into culture war tropes, particularly the nonsense of jingoistic blowhards like Toby Keith. I mean, just look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they made that comment about Dubya.

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    • JL mentions the Dixie Chicks also. I’ll answer you both here. I agree with you, Nob, that especially these days it’s designed to feed directly into the culture wars. Apparently very few people in this thread agree, but like I said I do listen to country when I drive, almost every day. It’s sprinkled throughout.

      JL – the fact that the Dixie Chicks did it out of country has little actual bearing on the backlash except to add insult to injury. They would have taken serious flack for their statements had they said them in America, too.

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        • Toby Keith gets a lot of flack for the boot in the ass thing, which I agree is jingoistic nonsense. But listen to American Ride! Despite being a balls to the wall anthemy song, it’s actually a fairly nuanced conception of patriotism.

          I used to hate Keith too. But once I got past the one song I really started to like him.

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          • I find the reactions to Angry American to be interesting, not the least of which because I do consider it to be a real artistic achievement. Keith captured the mood of a huge part of the country (and not just conservatives) in a way that few others, if anybody, did. I can think of a couple other attempts, but I don’t think anybody else really got that part right. It may be that this response wasn’t the best, but it was our response, put forth in three in a half minutes. I consider this to be true, and important, regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Afghanistan and (though this came well before) Iraq.

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  18. (Love this post!)

    From Eric:

    “I’m saying that the political movement that has propelled the culture war into mainstream politics on the right has infected, perhaps even subtly, the country music genre.”

    I don’t think I agree with this. There is a VERY SMALL section of country musicians thathave really beat the patriotic drum since 9/11. The biggest offender is Toby Keith and for that reason I always turn the dial when he shows up. But again, that is a VERY SMALL part of country musicians.

    I think what you are detecting is what I would call ‘small town populism’ that is a very big part of country music and always has been as far back as Hank Williams Sr. Bluegrass music ( a close cousin) is also filled with this kind of imagery going well back to the 1940s.

    What is important though is to not confuse this with some kind of political leanings. I know plenty of blue collar, union member, Democrats that love ‘small town populism’ in country music. That’s especially true below the Mason Dixon line but also in lots of the Midwest. And this ties in to a very old part of American culture. Look at the 1840 presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison. Look at Lincoln being called a ‘rail splitter’. Read some Mark Twain. It’s simply who we are. Trying to tie it to some kind of political subversion is to not really understand American culture.

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    • Mike, this is probably a big part of what’s going on. And Republicans should pay attention! Those are Reagan Democrats you’re talking about.

      The thing is, some country music does this very well. It can be clever. Twain-esque occasionally. But sometimes it feels like it tries way to hard. Sounds phony.

      Actually, though, the politics are still there I think. Again, I’ve said that the politics underscore the music. They don’t always show up explicitly. Which is why it works on a certain level.

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      • I agree much of it isn’t clever but it still works. It’s entertainment. I put it on the same level as a good shoot-em-up action flick. It’s visceral. When some guy sings about good ol’ boys around a bonfire in the woods, I relate.

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  19. As someone who knows too little about country music or pop 40 music, I’m not particularly well-qualified to comment, but then that rarely stops me, so here goes:

    I think any assessment that country music is an implicit political project (or better, site of a culture war that tends to favor one side over the other), must acknowledge reception, how people  who listen to it view it.  I realize, Erik, that you’re not taking this on, as you said in response to Will Truman:

    Will, I’m much less interested in learning about the people who listen to country than I am in thinking about why country is what it is and what it says about the state of affairs in our country. I don’t care to psychoanalyze people; I do care to understand broad cultural and sociological trends, movements, etc.

    However, by saying “must acknowledge,” I don’t mean endeavoring on the impossible path of what people get out of music.  I mean simply that it’s important to qualify any such argument as yours with the recognition that someone can take the most trite, conventional piece of art / entertainment / music and appropriate it into their own vision of the world in ways that are quite complex and evocative, even radical.  I’m speaking in generalities, of course, and I think the comment of yours I quoted above suggests we probably agree on this score.  I just wanted to weigh in on that point for whatever it’s worth (perhaps not much).

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  20. One more thought on all of this: conservatives have gone a long way toward developing a sort of rightwing identity politics. You often see this in a sort of self-victimization meme on the right. This translates, I think, into country music – but instead of adopting the “evil libruls trying to take over the world” thing that happens on rightwing radio, it takes a much more positive stance.

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    • “[C]onservatives have gone a long way toward developing a sort of rightwing identity politics. You often see this in a sort of self-victimization meme on the right.”

      It’s surprising how people will rush to invent victimization fantasies when they’re told that their ideology causes them to prefer a type of music that is objectively inferior.

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      • Quite.
        These people are so utter poverty-stricken they can only afford three chords.
        Surely there is some type of government program that could help these poor souls.

        Ooops!
        I said “souls.”
        That effectively kills the government program.

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  21. Yes,I get that argument, and I I think there’s a lot of merit to it. But I still think that by simplifying the genre to the couple of things likely to trickle out you severely warping your search results to the point where they become less useful.

    It’s not that “there are some underground bands that are good,” though I realize that sort of came off that way in the last comment. Their are plenty of huge guys that you’re just not likely to hear about if you’re doing cursory radio glances — robert Earl Keen, teve Earle, etc. Those guys are genuinely popular, just don’t end up on the radio in the ame way.

    Or, more pop-wise, Bead Paisley is as big as you get, and he’s got plenty of off-beat things going on. Listen to Toby Keith’s “American Ride: a little more closely — it actually turns out to be a sort of brilliant expression of a much more nuanced idea of patriotism than you expect out of mr. boot in your ass.

    The thing of what your thinking of is just sort of the baseline song for a certain set of pop-country: it’ worth thinking about, but I do think that you’re stretching it to terms like “country” and it’s wearing a down a bit.

     

     

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  22. Whenever I have a conversation with a country music fan about country music, say at a party, it always goes down like this:

    CW Fan: Do you like country western?

    Me: Some. I like Lyle Lovett a lot, and I like kd lang.

    CW Fan: They’re not real country western.

    And then we talk about something else.

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  23. Bad country music is the conservative cliched type. The GREAT country music is usually an output of the more liberal artists- Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash etc come to mind. Conservatives, by nature lack the empathy that is a cornerstone of true creativity.

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  24. I think the radio dominance of the kind of country music being discussed is a matter of simplicity more than conservatism. The “upbeat and conventional” preference is behind the most popular radio forms of all music.

    I live in a state with a huge country music loving population. But there is a ton of overlap between the audiences of radio friendly country, Nickelback, the Black Eyed Peas, and Maroon 5. Music that is simple, catchy, and lacking in depth will dominate the radio any day of the week. The comfort of the music is in the no brainer catchiness of it, not the hints of conservatism.

    At this moment, in the south, high school kids are listening to radio country and trashy ass-shaking pop rap in equal doses. Both are comfortable in that they are safe and predictable. Even rap music that is misogynistic and loaded with profanity provides the same sort of comfort in an odd way.

    The comment somewhere above that popular music is driven by young girls is the truth. In the south at least, mainstream rap and country are the two most popular forms of music. Girls love songs with simple lyrics they can sing to, and songs with big bass that they can shake ass to. Rock has definitely seen a decline which I’ve witnessed through the disappearance of rock radio stations.

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