Popular Country as Culture War Artifact

I’d like to expand on this when I have some time. It occurred to me in the shower this morning that the border between country music I do not take seriously and country music I do isn’t the line between new and old. It isn’t even the line between what gets played on today’s country stations and what doesn’t, though that’s a pretty good proxy. The border separates the music that feeds on and perpetuates culture war nonsense from everything else.

Most Americans (and I’d wager that this is true for most pop country listeners, too) don’t use their pickup trucks (if they have pickup trucks) in any sort of agricultural enterprise. More broadly, most of us have only a passing acquaintance with the down-home rural America in which most pop country songs are set. But pop country draws on a set of stereotypes to bolster an “us”/”them” mythology in which “our” supposed weaknesses (like xenophobia, or lack of education) are portrayed as strengths (rugged independence or whatever the opposite of “book smarts” is supposed to be). “They” are pansy-ass big-city “intellectuals” who are (either purposefully or misguidedly) trying to undermine “our” way of life. “We” are real Americans.

This is the same nonsense (euphemistically, “cultural conservatism”) that the political right has been exploiting since Goldwater to keep uncomfortable conversations about, for example, Vietnam, the environment and social equality from rising above the level of apple pie and hippie-bashing (and the political right has fully cornered the apple pie and hippie-bashing market).

So this is what I have a problem with. In much the same way that many popular rappers augment their images with a façade of hard-worn street morality in order to take advantage of an existing narrative about street life (and, in turn, perpetuate that narrative), pop country players fuel and feed on culture war tropes. Nothing shocking there, but it’s interesting, and a bit of a revelation to me.

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