[4 March 2010]
I love music. All kinds. I can endure the sound of almost anything once. Only after repeated listens do I begin to get irritated. Even Kenny G’s squeals failed on their first few attempts at haunting my reveries.
I love country music. I’m a city kid. I don’t own a gun, let alone enough guns to necessitate a gun rack on the Chevy truck I also don’t own. My father does own a Ford truck, though, and he bred in me an appreciation of country fed through watching the Academy of Country Music Awards and the CMAs. These telecasts were as much sociological field work for me as entertainment.
In the early ‘80s, before the media deregulation of the following decade, country was still a niche market. None of the entertainers flashed Stratocasters on stage or designer duds. George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, and, my dad’s favorite, Willie Nelson, would step on stage and sing the same kind of old-fashioned odes to rural life that a resurrected Hank Williams himself would have recognized.
These unmannered performances bled sincerity. I ate it up.
Then a man named Garth came to town on a horse called Clear Channel. Next thing I know, Def Leppard and AC/DC producer Mutt Lange is making irresistible pop singles with his then wife Shania Twain. Except they call it ‘country’ because somewhere underneath those layers of synths and bass drums is a fiddle.
‘Music City USA’, once the home of true American folk heroes like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, was now an outlet for a bland, safe, disconnected-from-reality product tailor made for a segment of white America desperately in need of some self-esteem through flag waving. This top 40 Nashville ‘Country’ music aimed for a market. It no longer spoke for a way of life. I certainly didn’t identify with this market. I’m white, yes, but I didn’t feel threatened and I didn’t need my music to make me feel better about myself. ‘Country’ and I broke up.
The Rockista is a big ‘country’ fan. On road trips, particularly to and from her home state, we share radio time. I grit my teeth as we drive through the broadcasts of interchangeable ‘country’ stations, one less individual than the next. Some artists, like Brad Paisley, I grew to like. For the most part, though, it was something to be endured. If the DJ told me all the songs were from the same artist, I wouldn’t have blinked.
Last month, I finished a column while the Rockista watched the Major Label Telethon Formerly Known As the Grammys. As a pop addict, I could not prevent myself from sneaking a peek every now-and-then. Nothing arrested me from my work. Nothing, that is, until a winter-hat wearing huckster named Zac Brown started singing “America the Beautiful”. In the middle of the Grammys. For no apparent reason.
Suit: “Zac, most of young America has no idea who you are. We need to introduce you to them without scaring them off.”
Zac: “Great, we have a blugrass version of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ ready to go. Ice Cube will make an appearance as long as we promote his next family comedy.”
Suit: “Yeah, we can’t alienate your country fan base, either. We’re thinking more traditional.’
Zac: “‘Just the Good ‘Ol Boys’”?”
Suit: “We were thinking more like ‘America the Beautiful’. With Leon Russell.”
Suit: “Your dad knows who he is.”
I can’t recall a more manipulative performance not involving Oprah in some time. Not only that, Zac’s voice is plain terrible; he screams the lyrics. Mercifully, they only crucify one verse of the anthem before Leon Russell gets introduced.
Poor Leon. If it isn’t bad enough that he resembles Edgar Winter now, he also has to legitimize a bunch of poseurs who together don’t have the amount of soul Russell has in one fingernail. After a cursory lap through Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby”, the Zac Brown Band charge into their hit single “Chicken Fried”. I swear to you, the following lyrics are not satirical.
You know I like my chicken fried
Cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up….
Well I was raised up beneath the shade of a Georgia pine
And that’s home you know
Sweet tea pecan pie and homemade wine
Where the peaches grow
And my house it’s not much to talk about
But it’s filled with love that’s grown in southern ground
And a little bit of chicken fried
Well I’ve seen the sunrise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love
And its funny how it’s the simple things in life that mean the most
Not where you live or what you drive or the price tag on your clothes
There`s no dollar sign on a piece of mind this I’ve come to know
So if you agree have a drink with me
Raise you glasses for a toast
To a little bit of chicken fried
I thank God for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring.
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives so we don`t have to sacrifice
All the things we love
Like our chicken fried
You can say that this is just mindless garbage, no different than a Black Eyed Peas hit, but I disagree. Will I Am and his colleagues don’t wrap their material in any national identity. Why would they? They want to sell albums in China and France. They want a global market.
The Zac Brown Band, and today’s Nashville top 40 ‘country’ music, doesn’t care about the world. They don’t even care about the whole US. No, they are only appealing to those white folks who celebrate a cleaned-up, ‘redneck’ lifestyle of carefree joy. It’s Mississippi Without the Meth.
I have yet to meet these working- or lower-class whites who don’t suffer at least a little from stagnant wages, if they have jobs at all. Where are they?
People who love the US do exist, though. By testifying to their devotion to God, Country, and Family, some of today’s ‘hit’ country artists silently state that there are those who lack such conviction. These non-patriots want something more from their work than beaches, babes, and cold beer.
It seems fans of this brand of country music love it because it gives them an identity. If there is something vaguely familiar about the source of this identity, it’s because it follows the same populist pitch the modern Republican party has used since Ronald Reagan’s election.
It’s Us vs. Them. It’s the gun-toting lovers of liberty vs the weak socialist welfare leeches. The fact that modern America in no way reflects this dichotomy bothers these particular ‘country’ fans not.
You can argue that hip-hop sells itself on the same kind of divisiveness, too. I would disagree. Most hip-hop fans don’t celebrate the superficial, ‘drugs-and-hos’ cliches of the music. They realize that it’s an exaggeration of ghetto lifestyle. Hip-hop fans are in it for the beats and the flow, not so they can improve their corner’s performance.
The whole appeal of this sort of corporate ‘country’ music for its fans lies in its superficial elements. Eliminate the ‘redneck’ shout-outs or romantic regressiveness and you don’t have anything left. The music bends over backward not to challenge you.
Later that evening on the Telethon Formerly Known as The Grammys, the Zac Brown Band won the award for best new artist. In true, tortuous Grammy logic, the Zac Brown band released their album, The Foundation, in 2008. Never mind. The fact that more industry suits believed that Brown represented the best of the new more than any other nominee should convict the industry for its own demise.
I’ll leave you with the lyrics of another song from The Foundation, “It’s Not OK”. Or what I call it, The Most Passive Aggressive Song of All Time:
A man was bothering me today
I wanted to tell him to go away
But I stood and listened to him anyway, OK?
He said he didn’t want to shoot that man
It was his thing and I wouldn’t understand
He had done all that he can, OK?
I guess his body was as good as mine
Just like me he was wasting time
Turning over every stone to see what he could find, OK?
He was filling tank and he asked for money
I lied and said I didn’t have any
Then my conscience took over and gave him a handful of
Don’t do a thing.
Stay right there.
You’ll lie there.
You don’t seem to care
I know it’s hard to survive in the city
When beautiful days don’t look so pretty
And you don’t have windows to keep the night away, OK?
He was dirty and stink and just a bit crude
But I didn’t say that because that’s kind of rude
And he didn’t care what I had to say in the first place.
I wanted to say you’re a big disgrace
To the world, yourself, and the human race
And reach back and pop him one good time in the face, OK?
No, it’s not OK and I didn’t do that
But I gave him a smile and tipped my hat and
Told him to have a very nice rest of the day
I guess he bought some booze or shit
And sure that bothers me a little bit but
It’s his life and I can’t tell him how to live it
As he turned and started to go his way
I tried to think of something wise to say like…
You’ll die here.
You don’t seem to care.
Wow. With hats like these, who needs enemies?