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Coming Out of the Country Closet
This struck me. I’m a fan of what we in America call “country music.” I grew up listening to it throughout the 80s and 90s and, apart from a short disdain for it in my teen years, I’ve been listening to it my whole life. I thought about his response and it seemed he might be right. Ever since the late 70s (think “Urban Cowboy”), country music has gained a growing fan base among those not from rural areas and not from “traditional” roots. In 1981 Barbara Mandrell was prompted by the fad to release the song “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” But the fad turned into a steady trend. This seemed particularly marked in the late 90s, as some country stars like Shania Twain, Lonestar, and LeAnn Rimes had crossover successes with pop audiences. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that listening to the music isn’t the mark of backwardness it once was. Britney Spears is heaped with more scorn than Shania Twain ever was. Although even in country there is superficiality and unoriginality, unlike pop music it seems to be the exception.
I thought about titling this “That Twang Thang.” The truth is, I love the twangy sound of country music as much as I love everything else about it. Much as the notes of a blues song’s harmonica, stretched long, speak of feeling so bad it’s good, so the instruments that produce that twang stroke the soul and pull the spirit. In the slower tunes, the feeling evoked is of eternal heartbreak and sorrow-which can be strangely therapeutic when one feels as if one will never feel good again. (Wasn’t it Elton John who said “Sad Songs Say So Much”?)
In the faster songs the feelings are stirred differently. There is a bouncy, joyous love of living evident which makes one want to dance—or at least tap one's feet.
But the sound is only part of it. Unlike hip-hop where the lyrics seem to be picked for their rhyme less than what meaning they convey, in country music the lyrics matter. Most often they tell a story, with an intro, an important event, and a conclusion. Even when the lyrics are simply about something instead of a narrative, they are meant to be understood-and they can be. The subjects of the songs are relevant to a particular type of person. As one recent artist has put it, “They’re songs about me.” Hard-working people, pursuing life and love, have no trouble relating.
Country music has often been criticized for being “Tears in the Beer” music, appropriate only for those who’re wallowing in misery. An old joke says that if you play a country song backwards you regain your job, your dog returns to life and your wife leaves the other man and comes back. Certainly country music has it share of heartbreak songs, but so does every long-lasting genre. Its critics are wrong in the purpose of this theme. It is not the predominant one, and when it’s used it’s not meant to be malevolent but affirmative. The songs about heartache, job trouble, or the other struggles of life are meant to console. They say ‘It’s ok-we all have trouble. It’s ok to feel sadness or regret.” But if you hear a song with a tragic theme on a country CD or the radio, it is extremely likely that the next song will be one about the ecstatic joy of being in love—or achieving your goals—or of simply enjoying life. There is balance. There is a mixture of good and bad, joy and pain, as there is in life.
Is it naturalistic then? No. There are too many songs about overcoming obstacles, pursuing difficult goals, and achieving them. There are songs teaching the virtues of independence, justice, and integrity. There is plenty of mention of idealism and principle and doing what’s right regardless of how hard it is.
Admittedly, “what is right” is not always consistently rational. Even among my favorite artists there is talk of “tradition,” often for its own sake—and God's—and country's (“my country, right or wrong”). But songwriters and artists are not philosophers. They reflect the contradictions apparent in the culture at large. And they’re understandable contradictions. When one feels assaulted by cultural trends one can’t understand it’s tempting to take solace in tradition (the job one’s father did, the place where one grew up, the God one’s family prayed to). But this inconsistency is overshadowed by the dominant element of the genre: benevolence. Whereas in hip-hop one hears, “Look at me wrong and I’ll shoot you,” in country one hears, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Whereas in hip-hop one hears, “Let’s get the Courvoisier and find some bitches,” in country one hears “Let’s grab a beer and rest our aching bodies from a hard day’s work.” In hip-hop there is no distinction made between hedonism and pleasure as a reward of effort. Country makes that distinction.
Even sexually provocative songs—and yes, country music has them—carry a respect for the object of seduction. The other person is seen as an equal, worthy of the attention, and not just a tool for one’s pleasure. Sex is seen as an act of love and something to be done with care and skill, and not degrading to either person.
I once wrote an online journal entry expressing confusion and anxiousness at what I considered my “contradiction” in loving this music. There are many places where other fans of country music gather where I’d never be able to take my boyfriend—or at least not hold his hand. As someone enamored with the romantic idea of culture, sophistication, and elegance I thought my equally strong love of country music was a reflection of a divided self. Thanks to another friend I realized that it isn’t me who’s contradictory, it’s the fans and artists of country music. And as a person passionately attached to his values, I’m happy to admit aloud what once was a secret pleasure. Now I won’t keep my CD collection out of sight—I’m more likely to make you listen to Dolly Parton’s Jolene and dare you not to become a fan yourself.
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