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
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
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.