Since fame & fortune knocked upon our door
I spend all my evenings all alone
Success has made a failure of our home
— Elvis Costello, from his country album “Almost Blue”
Earlier this month I was amused, but not exactly surprised, to find out that a handful of A-list country singers would be counterprogramming the Democratic National Convention in a couple of weeks. Apparently, they’re still waiting to hear from Chuck Norris and Sarah Palin, but the Charlie Daniels Band will be at the top of the bill, supported by marquee Clear Channel-country acts like Travis Tritt and Lee Brice, and a host of GOP politicians from the Carolinas.
Recalling the iconic VW buses of yore, the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation will also be on hand in their “Values Bus.” Merry Pranksters, Partridge Family — eat your peripatetic hearts out.
Early attendees are invited to check out something called “Capitalism Row.”
Had enough yet? I’ll stop.
It almost goes without saying that the country music world counts among its ranks a disproportionate number of right-wingers, from “conservative Democrat” Toby Keith to the GOP cheerleaders of “Rock the Red.” Given the demographic overlap, the unfortunate collision of Conservatism, Inc. and Trashville country at Charlotte’s Bojangles Coliseum seems almost fated. The musicians get a boost to their patriotic bona fides—practically a branding necessity in today’s country music world—the festival organizers get an hour or so of music and a few throwaway lines about how we need to rid ourselves of Barack Obama, and the paying customers, not thinking too much about the notion of a music festival-as-electioneering, seem perfectly happy to crap where they eat.
Later, some movement writer might hold up the weekend’s events as evidence that conservatives don’t completely suck at engaging that slippery concept, “culture.”
But some claim the connection between country music and right-wing politics goes deeper, that there are certain qualities in the music itself that harmonize with conservative values. In a blog post earlier this year, Will Wilkinson wrote:
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. A lot of country music these days is culture war, but it’s more bomb shelter than bomb.
He’s far from the first to make that argument. In fact, a running theme of the musicology on country music is that it primarily functions to reinforce a certain in-group solidarity. It does this by exalting the virtues of small-town life and its milestones: First love, driving pickup trucks, making-out on football fields at night, and libations like moonshine and cherry or strawberry wine — which few people have ever tasted, but we all take to signify the drinking habits of rural Americans when we need something more poetic than beer. When framed in the right way—usually some binary between inherently disruptive rock music and inherently traditional country music—it does indeed seem vaguely conservative.
There are two problems with this dynamic. First, to draw lines between genres of mass-market music in the 21st century is an exercise in arbitrary distinctions. One weepy pedal-steel fill does not a country song make. There’s a reason why, at a frat party at your average Southern university, there’s nothing particularly jarring about a DJ toggling between Top 50 pop songs and the latest singles from Big & Rich or Sugarland. I’ve enjoyed all the fulminating over Taylor Swift’s new album, that in her new single the “ex she’s snubbing her cute nose at just might be named Nashville.” The idea relies on the dodgy premise that she was ever something more than a pop star in cowboy boots, and she abandoned her country roots or something. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.
For this reason, I don’t give much credence to a 2003 study cited in Wilkinson’s post, which concludes:
Our findings provide evidence consistent with this idea: Individuals with a conservative self-view preferred conventional styles of music (the Upbeat and Conventional dimension), whereas individuals with an athletic self-view preferred vigorous music (the Intense and Rebellious dimension).
Of course, the methodology of the study was hopelessly flawed, relying on the assumption that the number of songs in a person’s iTunes library in a given genre was evidence of their preferences. And their categorizations of music that is “reflective and complex” (like folk, classical and blues) versus “upbeat and conventional” (country and pop) versus “energetic and rhythmic” (hip-hop and electronic) are almost laughable. I wrote about some of the problems with the study over at The American Conservative’s State of the Union blog:
Did Bob Dylan stop being reflective or complex when he recorded Highway 61, Revisited? Did he immediately become upbeat and conventional when he recorded Nashville Skyline (a very relevant album to the present discussion)? When black musicians started improvising lyrics over samples rather than blues forms, was the music less “complex?”
Modern country music is produced using the same techniques and electrified instruments, and played in the same social contexts by the same subset of people—mostly suburban whites—as every other pop music. It wasn’t always this way, but music these days is expected to be loud, studio-varnished, and suitable for listening on all manner of poor-quality speakers and earbuds; Jimmie Rodgers makes for a poor soundtrack to a game of cornhole. Yet conservatives make unique claims about country music’s values.
Conservatives champion country music for all the wrong reasons, just as they praise Christopher Nolan’s Batman films more for bucking Hollywood leftism than for their quality as movies. To champion country music for its small-town values is like championing the GOP for being the party of self-government. Underneath the rhetoric is a deep imposture, and buying into it isn’t a sign of faith, it’s a sign you’re a sucker.
The sad fact is that both country music and the GOP seem to abandon their more admirable values in favor of a more marketable nationalism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Toby Keith became a cheerleader for war, and he was rewarded with a spot on the top Billboard’s chart of country singles. Which raises the important point that, much as it puts off elitists like me, people eat this stuff up. It’s a shame, too, because there are really good country musicians working today.
Perhaps this is an eternal problem. The tribally conservative will identify with bad country music in the same way the elderly and nostalgic will forever ensure a market in Thomas Kinkade calendars. In conservative literature, Mark Levin’s latest hysterical squibs fly off the shelves leaving Tocqueville, Oakeshott and Nozick gathering dust. But these are errors of poor taste, not bad philosophy. Likewise, whether or not country music is conservative is a question for a propagandist, not a music fan. Both liberal psychologists and the folks of “Rock the Red” would surely say it is. But I’d still take Gene Autry and Gram Parsons over Ted Nugent any day.