I ended my last post by asking:
“So if it’s not the fact that country music is formulaic that bothers me, what is it about the particular formula that I find off-putting?”
I realized the answer is right in its name: country music.
I grew up in a small town. Not the kind of small that conjures up a rustic image of living off the land and happiness, but the kind where you feel like you’ve been raised in the wrong place, and are constantly trying to figure out where home is. Country music was all around me, but not the kind I’d like to boast about. Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Jeff Foxworthy . . . this is what I thought represented where I was from; music for the blue collars. I can’t complain too much; after all, the first songs I ever wrote and the first time I learned to harmonize were all influenced by this godforsaken nu-country genre. But something just didn’t feel right. This is where George Jones comes in, and why he was important to me. George was my gateway drug to outlaw country and beyond; the music that, at risk of sounding profound, saved my life. It made me proud of where I was from, and shaped the way I saw country music. . . . I haven’t (yet) been through a tough divorce, had a problem with drinking, or anything that most of George’s fans find solace from in his music. But finding pride in where you come from is a wonderful thing.”
I understand what Burns is saying, am even moved by it, but I just can’t relate to it.
I grew up in the inner suburbs and have always looked towards and crossed into the city for my cultural life. Of course, in facing the city I have turned my back on the rural life that is being pushed back farther and farther behind me by suburbia’s steady sprawl.
As such, I have to admit I recognize myself in Chuck Klosterman‘s critique of country haters:
Contrary to what you may have heard from Henry Rollins or/and Ian MacKaye and/or anyone else who joined a band after working in an ice cream shop, you can’t really learn much about a person based on what kind of music they happen to like. As a personality test, it doesn’t work even half the time. However, there is at least one thing you can learn: the most wretched people in the world are those who tell you they like every kind of music ‘except country.’ People who say that are boorish and pretentious at the same time. All it means is that they’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound, and they know that hipsters hate modern country music.* And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner. Hipsters hate it because they hate Midwesterners, and they hate Southerners, and they hate people with real jobs.”** (Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, p. 175)
The key word here is “coolness.” Urban music is cool, not just in the hip and trendy sense, but also in the non-emotional, “mind your own business” sense, especially the underground strains I tend to favor (sitting here in my safe suburban home). The cool, hip attitude is detached and aloof, bordering on, if not outright embracing condescending snobbery.
Country, on the other hand, is not at all cool in this way. Instead, it prides itself on presenting the common life of common folk in common language. I prefer more subtlety. I too often find country’s simple lyrics simplistic, especially those that strike me as jingoistic, bordering on xenophobic.***
I am a proud American, but I find no need to constantly proclaim it, especially if it is meant to foster divisions of “us” against “them,” whoever “them” happens to be at any given time. I embrace America’s freedom and inclusiveness. For all of its talk about common values, country too often seems to have a very narrow definition about exactly who belongs within its common borders. Country can be just as snobbish in its purported anti-snobbery.
Rightly or wrongly, urban cool vs. country clannishness has become tied in my mind with progressive vs. conservative and I prefer the former.
And then there is country’s twang . . .
* Of course, many hipsters have come to embrace country in the decade since Klosterman wrote this, but only old timey and/or outlaw country (largely ignoring that the latter was an outsider rebellion against the former), which they relabel Americana or Roots.
** Yet, the page before the essay containing this statement, Klosterman writes:
I hate punk rock.
Actually, that’s not true; I kind of like punk rock, sometimes. What I hate are people who love punk rock. There has never been a genre of anything that has made more people confused about what art is capable of doing, and they all refuse to shut up about it.”
Apparently, even Klosterman defines himself against a type of music, or at least the fans of that type of music.
*** And I really do not understand country bands and fans who wave the Confederate flag while simultaneously claiming to be American patriots. Even if the “Southern Cross” does somehow represent southern heritage, it is the heritage of the Confederate States of America leaving the United States of America these “patriots” now profess to love.