Thursday, February 10, 2011

The nostalgia and misogyny of country music

I have never been much of a music nerd, nor do I claim any kind of respectable taste in music.  I mostly just like what sounds immediately and superficially pleasing, while also lacking offensive (misogynist, homophobic, completely contrived bullshit) lyrics, and anything that is nostalgic.  Nostalgic, for me, means: music that I listened to when I was between the ages of about three and 13, or while cleaning the house, putting up Christmas decorations, going on several-hour-or-day road trips to family reunions or camping trips with my family, or trips from Minnesota to Missouri to visit my grandma.  Nearly all of it was, at that time, immediately influenced by what my mom listened to.  My mom listened to a lot of country music, and Billy Joel.  I'm not going to pick on Billy Joel right now (but who could, really?), but I can't possibly leave country music alone.

One ever-present theme in country music is a practically pornographic lust for the US of A.

The lyrics to this song are... gross.  It is written as a response to 9/11.  When it came out shortly after 9/11, it didn't feel like an inappropriately hostile sort of manifesto at the time.  I was 18 when 9/11 happened, and my mentality was at first similar to that of most many Americans: We felt a blow to our national safety, security, and community, and we first and foremost have to protect our country, and we have to punish the people who are responsible for our enormous loss and national -- bipartisan, even! -- wound.  Combined with my nostalgia for country music and my easy integration with the mood of the rest of the nation, this kind of song felt like exactly what we Americans needed to bring us all together, to save our country from the terrorists.

Now this nation that I love is fallin' under attack.

A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.
Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.

But then you start to think critically, and you realize that sentiments like the ones bolded aren't as innocent as they seem at first, aren't so pure in their intent to "bring the nation together," you start to hear other things differently, too, like this other part:

Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage: 
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An' you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cos we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way.

This is just fucking embarrassing.  Jesus.  When I hear this line, I am tempted to deny that I've even set foot in the United States.  I'll start calling myself Canadian, so no one can mistake me for agreeing with that way of thinking. 

Hey, Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,

And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.
And the eagle will fly and it's gonna be hell,
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell.
And it'll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you.
Ah, brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue.

Besides being an embarrassing display of ignorance and buffoonery on behalf of the entire Unites States of America, this type of country music serves to normalize genocide and promote nationalist propaganda.  And, like any good nationalist propaganda machine, country music is also rather notorious for its exceedingly misogynist lyrics.  Usually cited are older songs like Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man."  Lyrics of note: 

Sometimes its hard to be a woman

Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times
And he'll have good times
Doing things that you don't understand
But if you love him you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him
Oh be proud of him
'Cause after all he's just a man
Stand by your man

There are others, of course.  Most surprisingly, many of these misogynist songs are sung and/or written by female artists, like Lana Roush's "Don't Liberate Me," written in response to the feminist movements of the 1960s and '70s.

Also notable is the inherent man-hating in many of the decidedly misogynistic songs.  In "Stand By Your Man," for example, we are told that, "after all, he's just a man."  You know, the standard gender-based tropes and stereotypes that remain ever-present today.

Far more frightening is the stalwart and widespread love of country music songs which celebrate spousal murder.  One song by extremely popular country music singer Garth Brooks discusses his mother's murder at the hands of his father, who drove his semi truck into the motel where his wife was sleeping with another man.  

Mama was a looker

Lord, how she shined
Papa was a good'n
But the jealous kind
Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Mama's in the graveyard
Papa's in the pen 

My favorite part?  How he emphasizes that "Papa was a good'n."  Yes, clearly, he was practically a saint.  Damned whore mother practically made him kill her.  She asked for it, what with all that needing-affection bullshit!  He does, curiously, acknowledge her needs, when he says, 

Papa drove a truck nearly all his life

You know it drove mama crazy being a trucker's wife
The part she couldn't handle was the being alone
I guess she needed more to hold than just a telephone

She needs affection, physical affection, and it's easy for the listener to assume, based the way the story is framed, that being a trucker's wife is trying for anyone.  But her needs as a wife and a woman are only briefly mentioned, and later in the chorus, during the part where she's described acting on those needs, trivialized and shamed by: 

Papa loved Mama, Mama loved men

The rest of the song then focuses on sympathizing with Papa, and forgiving the crime because of the passion that caused it.  

Then there's "Ol' Red" by country music singer Blake Shelton.  The song is about a man who, wait for it, catches his wife with another man, and murders her.  He was sent to prison, and eventually, after getting on the warden's good side, he gets the privilege of being in charge of taking out Ol' Red, the prison's hunting dog who is notorious for tracking escaped prisoners.  He pays off a guard to send a letter to his cousin, who then brings a female dog near the prison grounds.  Our hero introduces Ol' Red to the female dog and, over the course of... a while, he gets Red hooked on his lady-meetings.  After he gets nice and used to his regular doggie conjugal visits, Wife-Killer keeps him away from her for a couple days.  On the Big Night, he lets Red loose to go find his girlfriend, and uses the opportunity to escape with his cousin.  They give each other high fives.  

Notable lyric?  The end, where he concludes, 

Now there's red haired blue ticks all in the South
Love got me in here and love got me out.

Yes.  It was love that got him into prison, because it was love that made him murder his wife, which is totally the same as two canines instinctively breeding with one another.

While country music is crawling with misogyny, don't be fooled.  Even country wives get in on the fun that is spousal murder:

High school BFFs Mary Anne and Wanda graduate high school, and while Mary Anne goes off to explore the world, Wanda just decides to marry random schmuck, Earl.  Earl starts abusing Wanda, and puts her in the hospital.  Wanda calls Mary Anne, who flies back home right away to forge a plan with her BFF... can you guess what it is?  Divorce!

Just kidding.  It's murder.

They poison his black eyed peas, wrap his dead body in a tarp, and toss him into a local lake.  After the cops come by to bring Earl in for abusing Wanda, they can't find him.  Earl becomes "a missing person who nobody missed at all."  Mary Anne and Wanda then open a roadside stand selling ham and Tennessee jam.

Some country songs, though, even if they aren't overtly misogynist, can be subtly misogyninst, by romanticizing old romantic tropes, like cowboys, and cowboys romancing beautiful women, then leaving them heartbroken as they go off to cowboy other parts of the land.  These are my favorite, because I can get my nostalgia fix while easily ignoring the subtle romaticizing of misogyny.  Like this other Toby Keith song, "Shoulda Been A Cowboy," which I love probably the most out of all of the country songs I can think of, maybe because I want to be a cowboy, at least a little:

Also, there's the reason why I like country music in the first place, which ultimately allows me to feel no shame for my continued and unabashed love of country music:

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is uninterested in sexist tropes; they are solely invested in enjoying their trailers, ponds, and moonshine.  And that's something I can get behind.

And, one of my personal favorites for its unusually neutral portrayal of the complexity of the decision to have an abortion, especially among Southern USians, is Tim McGraw's "Red Rag Top":

Country music, while monopolized by misogynist, nationalist propaganda-pushing psychopaths, can actually produce some pretty great stuff.  Even if your definition of "great" is only as deep as "what I liked when I was 12."  As a final note, Tim McGraw's wife, Faith Hill, is also a popular country singer who has popularized some decidedly feminist material, (or, at the very least, critiquing patriarchal ideals) like:

Other non-immediately-misogynistic but also not necessarily feminist country songs that I love solely for their nostalgic qualities:

Alabama - High Cotton (Official Music Video). Watch more top selected videos about: Alabama

Make me feel better by posting links to your own nostalgic indulgences.