Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been a bit occupied with Fan Fair, an orgy of every big name in the contemporary pop world of Country music that brought in thousands upon thousands of tourists from across the nation in order to buy boots, wear jean shorts and eat steak and spaghetti.  Oh yeah, and listen to music.

It’s been a long few days.

Country Music

As a teenager, it was simple to say I didn’t listen to country music.  It was a definitive statement, easy to defend.  I liked rock and punk and even some pop.  Country music need not apply.

But it’s harder to dismiss the genre whole hog these days.  Ryan Adams, Old 97’s, Wilco, Lucero; all acts I love that all make songs in the vein of Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons.  On the surface, Alt-Country is almost more a statement of politics than music style.  Country musicians are Republicans who hate Arabs and just want to drink beer or fall in love or both.  Alt-Country musicians are, well, not Democrats, but liberal-ish, and they hate themselves more than anyone else and drink hard liquor and split their time between Austin and New York City or Chicago and the women therein.

Those are gross simplifications, not fair or all that accurate (though, I think the Dixie Chicks can attest to the dangers of being a Pop Country act that doesn’t fly the Conservative flag).  To be honest, I’ve been having a hard time trying to explain why I can love a legitimately country ballad by Ryan Adams such as “In My Time Of Need” (as country in subject and tone as any song out there) and yet I cringe at the thought of listening to Toby Keith or Keith Urban.

The Evolution of a Genre

Part of it is how country music has evolved.  The music of Cash and Parsons (or Loretta Lynn for that matter) was filled with rebellion.  You could make a pretty strong case for a connection between truly old school country music and the punk ethos.  Obviously, country music is also rooted heavily in Christianity, too, which creates an interesting dichotomy, an internal conflict that Cash personified dramatically.

One need only listen to “The Pill” to know that country music has not always been a bastion of socially conservative family values.  In fact, country music is probably the first place women in music were allowed to espouse feminists notions of freedom and independence (music history majors, feel free to correct me).

I enjoy the rebellion of country music just as I enjoy the rebellion of punk music.  Just as I enjoyed the inherent rebellion of the Beat Generation.  Perhaps you’re sensing a pattern.  I like artists who encourage a healthy dose of status quo-questioning.

And this is, I suppose, what I dislike about so much of modern pop country music.  *Warning:  I am about to make a sweeping generalization that probably isn’t fair, and I’m okay with that.  It’s just my impression based on personal experience.*  The ‘rebellion’ in a lot of today’s country music feels fake, like a market researched version of rebellion (this is my problem with a lot of modern punk music, too).  In the heart of the Bush years, when social and political conservatism was running rampant, a lot of country musicians were writing ‘rebel’ music that seemed to imply extreme patriotism and rabid xenophobia was somehow subversive and cool.  *Here is where I point to one example, because it’s the only one that comes to mind.*  For Example.

Now, my issue with this sort of song isn’t exactly the sentiment (after 9/11, we were all in a bit of an ass-kicking mood), but rather how manipulative and manufactured it feels.  “And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.”  Really?  For a song that’s subtitled, “The Angry American,” it has less bite than a karoake version of “I Will Survive.”

(Compare that song to punk goddesses Sleater-Kinney and their post-9/11 album One Beat, specifically the angry, confused, heartbroken and terrified masterpiece, “Far Away.”)

It’s hard to take modern country music seriously as the music of rebels when it’s the biggest selling music genre in the country and it’s blaring out of the SUVs of pretty little princess-sorority girls.  Nothing against sorority girls, but they just aren’t exactly known for their aversion to authority.

Silly Love Songs

The other strain of modern country music that I just can’t relate to is the hyper-silly, overly romantic ballads.  I blame Taylor Swift.  Actually, I don’t really have a problem with Taylor.  She writes music like a teenage girl would write, and that’s what she is (or was), so I can’t fault her.  But, as she and her fans grow up, their outlook should, too.  If she’s 30 and still writing heartbroken songs about losing the boy next door (even though she’s a fucking hot blond), then someone needs to cauterize her mouth shut.  (She’d instantly be 200% more popular with men.)

(I appreciate that her “Mean” is sort of a country music, less-overtly gay version of “Born This Way“, so more power to her; still not my cup of tea.)

And so, that is my problem with modern pop country music.  It feels childish and lacks subtlety.  Alt-Country, on the other hand, seems like it’s written by adults with realistic (pessimistic) views of romance and nuanced understandings of our global environment.

Is that an unfair and biased view of the genres?  Uh, yes, obviously.  I’ve been saying so all along.

But it’s just music.  Music either affects you or it doesn’t, and for that reason, I find Whiskeytown’s “Dancing with the Women at the Bar” to be a gorgeous, emotionally honest work of art, whereas Keith Urban’s “Without You” is sweet but entirely uninteresting to me.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, I like country music.

Just depends who you mean.

2 thoughts on “Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

  1. Joseph – Thanks for the read, I can really relate to this post. And I was giddy when you mentioned ‘Far Away’ – such a great song. I believe that most pop-country is manufactured based on market research. However, the older I get, the more open I am to modern country as long as I can respect the sentiment. However, my dad is usually the one to recommend these to me, so there might be a little bit of ethos going on there. I would much rather have self-deprecating alt country any day, though because I like my music on the addicted suicidal side.

    • Like any genre of music, pop needs to work to set itself apart. I think people tend to feel that if they’re making pop fill-in-the-blank-genre it can be derivative and simple (and from a sales point of view, they’re right), but the best pop music was always just as innovative and eye-opening (e.g. Beatles, Michael Jackson) as any experimental music.

      But, of course, I agree with you, I like my music to have the faint hint of lingering death, which is why I like Ryan at his darkest and Tom Waits at his graveliest. (And Sleater-Kinney is (was) awesome.)

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