Country Music

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Ever since Bob Dylan channeled the spirit of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie into rock-and-roll, American popular music has had (and has been expected to have) a political edge. With such senior citizens of political pop as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen continuing to be popular and influential performers, alongside such more generationally current figures as Kanye West, it is certainly evident that this tradition (notwithstanding all the Justin Biebers and Britney Spears out there) continues. But when cultural analysts consider the political messages of popular music, they tend to restrict their focus to rock and hip hop, often ignoring (or perhaps dismissing) the potent political semiotics of country music. But if we want to understand just what is happening in America today (from the Tea Party to Rick Santorum), it would be a very good idea to listen very closely to contemporary country, which is no more simply about lonesome cowboys and bad whisky than rock-and-roll is about sock hops and Bobby Sue. I was reminded of this recently by a fine column in the Los Angeles Times by David Horsey. Horsey notes the paradoxical fact that even as the middle class (and, we could also say, middle America) falls further and further behind in the hypercapitalist rat race, country music sends messages of dubious reassurance that, in effect, prevent the middle-American victims of contemporary socioeconomic trends from attempting to do anything about what is happening to them. Horsey focuses on the lyrics from two current country music hits—Rodney Atkins's "These Are My People" and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA"—to make his point. In the former song, Atkins describes the lives of stereotypical American rednecks, working at underpaid nowhere jobs during the week and only coming alive during manic weekends filled with beer and church-league softball. In the latter, Greenwood simply waves the flag, declaring that so long as America is the land of the free, everything else (from job losses to home foreclosures) can be endured and managed. [embed width="425" height="350"][/embed] Such songs are filled with potent political shibboleths (like family and mom and dad) that express an ongoing counter-revolution against the cultural revolution of the 1960s (which, in the mythology of country music, was simply about free love and illicit drugs: Have a look at Forrest Gump—the cinematic equivalent of a country song—for a good example of this mythology).  Sometimes that counter-revolution in country music goes back even further than the 1960s to the 1860s, as in a country song I once heard on the radio that openly blamed Abraham Lincoln for all of today's social problems (I kid you not). That country music is politically conservative practically goes without saying, but my point is that it is part of the texture not only of American popular culture but of American political life, and so it bears paying attention to. And what Horsey suggests is that country music not only expresses the counterrevolution against the cultural revolution, but also acts very much in the way that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno classically argued that the "culture industry" did: that is, as a way of distracting its listeners from the social inequities that afflict them. By telling people that their nowhere jobs and extreme economic vulnerability don't matter so long as they've got family, freedom, and foaming pitchers of beer, country music not only expresses the feelings of conservative Americans, it keeps them in their place by making them proud of their oppression. But that is an irony that I fear would be lost on a country song.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.