Saturday, April 28, 2007


(News-Herald, April 26) Country music has always occupied an odd spot in our culture consciousness. It has often been treated like a poor cousin, even as it has almost always generated more money than basic “mainstream” pop music.

Perhaps that is what has caused the curious dilution of the product.

First, the sound of country has become more broadly defined. My brother maintains that if the Eagles were a new band today, they would be filed under country, and I would guess that would also be true of many other bands of our youth. Little River Band, those guys who recorded “Amy,” Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young)—ten minutes on GAC will turn up many performers who sound far less “country” than the oldsters. Some bands, like Lynrd Skynrd, have been turned into country bands retroactively.

In fact, watching videos, one wonders what exactly makes one performer country, or not. Many of the classic distinctions seem to have disappeared. Garth Brooks became a famously wealthy and sought-after concert artist not by following in the footsteps of Hank Williams or Roy Acuff, but by taking performance tips from KISS.

Country was always supposed to be more in touch with traditional values than mainstream pop. But I can find just as many half-naked, rear-end-gyrating, hydraulic-plasticine-breasted women worshipping cars and money in country videos as I can on MTV.

Rather than offering itself as an alternative to the world of pop and hip-hop, Country now gets right in the same line. Just one example—“Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” -- takes a term from the rap world to use in a country song/video celebrating, staring at, and otherwise treating like a piece of meat, the posteriors of young women. Even the blandly conservative Bonnie Raitt-sounding Sugarland requires its lead singer to wave her cleavage around on camera.

Then there’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” celebrating a young woman who likes to get drunk and naked (apparently in that order). In fact, while country fans have often been the sort of people to decry the evils of drug use, country music endlessly applauds the virtue of getting drunk until you fall down, throw up, or otherwise do something stupid. Currently in heavy rotation on GAC is “All My Friends Say,” a hilarious ballad about what our hero thinks he might have done while drinking himself into a state of alcohol-induced amnesia.

If country music does indeed celebrate and honor a world of older traditional values, it also a world where men start fist fights, cheat on their women, and drink millions of brain cells into oblivion. So if country music fans are going to claim that country music embodies some sort of moral superiority, well, I’m just not seeing it.

Country does seem to require an anti-mainstream pop attitude. Gretchen Wilson sings a song about how we should be glad that they aren’t all California girls. She and her friends stand there in the video, stripped down to bikini tops and the kind of shorts that don’t include enough material to mop up the amount of beer spilled at a church picnic, complaining about those skinny little girls struttin’ around in their size zeros. I am not an expert clothes sizer, but Gretchen and her size-zero-mocking friends appear to be big, beefy size 0.5’s. (She also takes the courageous stance that Parris Hilton is a jerk, which I’m not sure qualifies as a radical point of view.)

Often country seems to have to try way too hard to be outside the mainstream, but country stars can now come from the same bland over-hyped mass-produced American Idol musical sausage grinder. Plenty of songs hit the top 40 in both a country and non-country incarnation.

While country acts aren’t conservative when it comes to sex, drugs & alcohol, or recycling rock& roll, they are pretty politically uniform. So the Dixie Chicks, like Neil Young before them, can make music based on traditional folk forms and instruments, but be shunned by country radio because of their political posturing. And there are slightly fewer black country stars than there are white rappers.

But at the end of the day, all I can come up with is the twang. Big and Rich don’t make music that’s any more countrified than the Beatles or N’Sync, but they sing with that little twang and make sure to use words like “country” and “cowboy.”

It is what hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, country and performers from every other pop music niche have in common—putting on an act, playing the game, pretending to be whatever the marketing kings tell them to pretend to be, having a rowdy good time, then laughing all the way to the bank.


Dittman said...

I was hoping this one would make it to the blog! Well done! So, is there non-mainstream "country" you like? Do you think we'll ever see Lucero or Steve Earle at the Crawford County Fair? ;) (BTW, did you see this ( interview with Tim McGraw? Talk about marketing! His music says red state, but his behavior says blue of blue.)

Anonymous said...

Marketing is a part of all "popular" music sadly. Many times artists don't even get control over the image on the screen. Like Mike before me, I search out the Steve Earles, the Lyle Lovetts and the John Hiatts of the world.

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