Will Wilkinson writes about country music and, as is typical when anyone tries to connect it with politics, it’s pure projection. Bathing it in the kind of pseudo-scientific data points that prove virtually nothing except for wonky writers’ desire to be taken seriously, Wilkinson neither understands country music nor the people who listen to it. His conclusion is basically that country music provides simple upbeat messages for people who want simplicity in their lives. Wilkinson is sure to separate himself from such desires by pointing out, totally gratuitously, that he listens to country music in the car when he drives to the store to buy bok choy. Charles Murray wouldn’t approve of the food choices, but he would approve of the connections between bok choy and not real white people who country music isn’t made for.
Wilkinson goes on:
My conjecture, then, is 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.
And what is this country music of which he speaks? For Wilkinson at least, it’s clearly country radio. That’s fine I guess if you want to define it that narrowly.
One problem here is the connections in the minds of a lot of people between country music and rural people. And certainly the roots of country music were in rural America. But that’s long ago. During the recent period of country music history, which could probably be dated from Garth Brooks’ first album in 1989, the genre has marketed itself as suburban music for suburban people. Although the imagery of rural America is in country music videos, the prime market for modern country music is suburban women. The music itself is essentially recycled 70s butt rock with a little fiddle and a twangy voice.
This suburban country music is also reflected in the lyrics. The idea that people see country music as “upbeat” is funny to me. Has there ever been a genre of American music that so reveled in depression and sadness? I’m thinking for instance of Hank Snow’s 1964 album Songs of Tragedy or the many songs about dead soldiers released during and after World War II, most famously “Soldier’s Last Letter,” made famous by Ernest Tubb. Of course, that’s long gone. Rather, today’s country radio provides messages that fit in very well with the modern Republican voter: reinforcing what they see as traditional values based in an idealized rural setting that they see as threatened by B. Hussein Obama and his Weatherman-loving, Derrick Bell-hugging ways with his health care and such.
Or as Erik Kain says:
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.
Steph at Gang of 12 makes similar observations, noting after posting Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City”:
Basically, it’s a contrast between real experience and made up ones. The Bare song is definitely about missing home and a contrast between an idyllic (even if it wasn’t) remembered past and place that has been lost or left vs. a cold (literally) urban or changing world. In many ways it’s not so different in theme from something like the terrible Luke Bryan or Justin Moore songs that Will cites. But the Bare song reflects reality in a quite different way. It’s not some pretend idea of what the old days were or the country was like in a triumphalist “we are more American than you” kind of culture war. Nor is it pretty much entirely made by people who never experienced the kind of world they are writing about or enjoyed by people who live in suburbs but like to identify with this imagined past or real America. It’s more about the real changes and the underlying reasons why change is seen as scary or destructive to many.
This is also why references to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are effectively irrelevant in any discussion of modern country music. It’s not the same genre of music. Hauling out Cash or Willie to say that country music is not necessarily conservative obfuscates the point. Those guys are dead or old and came out of an entirely different culture and musical forms. Moreover, not only would Cash not fit into the country music business in 2012, but he didn’t fit in during the 70s either, when he was pushed aside (not that the music he was making at that time was deserving by and large) for the Barbara Mandrells of the world who were laying the groundwork for Shania Twain, et al.
While I don’t look to my musicians for political leadership (see the constantly wandering and incoherent political leanings of people like Neil Young and Merle Haggard for a couple of good reasons), there’s no question that country music, however we define it, has always more or less bent conservative, with a freak leftist like Kristofferson being the exception that proves the rule. I’m certainly not claiming otherwise. But I have a huge problem when writers who don’t even understand the musical form attempt to draw big conclusions about the culture war or American political life from a corporatized, test-marketed form of music that hasn’t had an original or interesting voice make a commercial splash in two decades.