A look at anti-intellectualism in the medium, and its negative influence on listeners
Let’s begin by stating the obvious here. Country music, as a genre, doesn’t hold a monopoly on stupid lyrics. Just flip your dial on over to the local rap or nu-metal station, and you’re just as likely to be assailed by unrepentant idiocy as you would be if you tuned into an hour-long block of Country Music Television (CMT) programming. Hell, I really can’t say that the stuff you hear on most college rock stations is any more intellectual than what you might hear at the annual Academy of Country Music Awards gala, for that matter. But the big difference between country and virtually every other genre of music out there is that not only does the format embrace its own inherent stupidity (celebrating its borderline-offensive stereotypes and hackneyed tropes like a Stanley Cup-clinching victory) but it’s an industry that goes out of its way to remain as insipid, banal, and unprogressive as it possibly can. The formulaic nature of mainstream country music is so by-the-numbers, it more closely resembles the process of manufacturing cheese than it does a bona-fide art form.
Of course, country music styling changes over the years; if you hear anything that even remotely sounds like one of Merle Haggard’s or Johnny Cash’s liquor-soaked cries for salvation from the 1970s on modern country radio, it’s probably because someone synched up the wrong MP3 file or something. The sound of Juice Newton and Alabama may be a thing of the past, but that same industrial formula -- basically. a complete and utter dependency on uniformity and derivation -- is still the most status of quos for country music radio.
And yes, I know that “country” music and “country-radio” music are two separate genres, with a gulf between them about as wide as the chasm between Poison and Gorgoroth. Ever a system that thrives on homogeneity, the mainstream country machine manages to almost instantly spit out any and all artists that have even the remotest tinge of originality and strands of non-conformity pulsing through their corpuscles; hence, “alt-country” geniuses like Vic Chesnutt and Son Volt never even make it through the application process to appear on CMT or any of the conglomerate-owned radio hubs across the U.S. of A.
And keep in mind, this is something that doesn’t just apply to the young guns; as soon as the trends moved towards light-and-happy pop-country in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of the grand lions of country radio-- your Johnny Cashes, your George Joneses (who I assume is drunk driving lawnmowers in heaven right now), even your Willie Nelsons -- all got the royal shaft in favor of support for such illustrious artists as Billy Ray Cyrus and Tim McGraw (whose big breakout hit, I must add, was a song caricaturizing Native Americans with the sort of quaint endearment usually reserved for Andrew Jackson speeches.)
Modern country radio music, suffice to say, is not really a salon of enlightenment these days. With a greater emphasis on honey-dripping pop country female performers (your Taylor Swifts, your Carrie Underwoods, etc.) and paper-cut-out-rough-and-tough-yet-soft-and-sweet pseudo-hick-crooners like Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley, the modern scene has about as much genuineness to it as a flea market Rolex. And despite the very vocal politicization of rural Red-Staters since Obama took office, country radio is still almost completely apolitical as a medium; old codgers like Ray Stevens and Hank Williams, Jr. may sell fuming-hatred-disguised-as-satire to the niches, but it’s most certainly not the kind of tune you’re likely to hear on RUBE 105.3 or 94.5 THE BUMPKIN. Even appealing to the political furies of its fan base is too much “deviation” from country radio’s tried-and-true formula for success, so it seems; as a result, we get a lot of sappy-crappy patriotic numbers (which, over the past decade, have been on the downturn, for obvious reasons), insanely vague and nondescript odes to rural living (celebrations of country decadence, that somehow leaves out all the references to diabetes, wife beating and rampant drug addiction) and surprisingly,a rather large subgenre of country-hip-hop gobbledygook -- in otherwise, the aural equivalent of an inverse Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup; two horrible tastes that, together, taste like the gustatory merger of piss and feces.
Beyond the trite and passionless love ballads and sardonic re-hashes of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” there’s not really much radio country has to offer these days. Just one listen to Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is enough to cause most listeners to recoil in abject disgust. The half-sincere lyrics boast of a fondness for Bocephus (about as close as most country music fans ever get to “classical” music, I am afraid), doing manual labor and a distinct hatred of “The Dougie,” i.e., a thinly-veiled attack against that ghastly “black culture” that threatens to tear southern culture apart at the seams at any minute. The irony that the song itself employs auto-tune and a decisively hip-hop-inspired rhyme dynamic, of course, is never acknowledged by the crooner himself. Imagine that; a country musician unaware of his own hypocrisies. And of course, the unrecognized cognitive dissonance doesn’t end there; despite a line that indicates a firm belief in the Judeo-Christian god (referred, in colloquialism, as “the man upstairs”), the exact same stanza contains references to hard-drinking and womanizing. In fact, half the damn song is the singer going on and on about his abilities to woo women into engaging in premarital sex acts, the most pitiful self-championing of one’s own heterosexuality since the heyday of David Lee Roth. Per Shelton, two of the utmost qualifiers for his own being are driving trucks real fast and chewing Redman tobacco when spitting jaw-dissolving substances and reckless misuse of an automobile are among your culture’s most distinguished characteristics, you know you’re part of a social milieu that doesn’t necessarily embrace the intellect, in any manifestation.
As stated earlier, a dedication to the formulaic and the mediocre isn’t exactly a sole characteristic of country music - lest we not forget, the same alt-rock revolution that gave us the Pixies and REM ultimately led to the humdrum nothingness of Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind, while the same post-gangster rap renaissance that gave us Raekwon and the RZA eventually spiraled into the soulless vapidity of Nelly and Soulja Boy. The differences between the genres, of course, is that unlike alt rock and post-1997 hip-hop, country radio has never really had a spiritual or creative Renaissance, of any kind. More or less, the industry shifted from just one kind of plastic crap (Shania Twain) to a different kind of plastic crap (Big and Rich) to a different kind of plastic crap (Taylor Swift). There’s never been a great revolution in sound, or style, or technique, or approach, or political identity when it comes to mainstream country; like several chunky turds in a washing machine, we’re just getting reheated, mildly re-shaped shit over and over. No doubt, country music caters to those with particular tastes; with that in mind, I figure the best term to describe that taste would be the audio equivalent of coprophagia.
I know this rant seems a little pointless. After all, why should I care what others find entertaining, and who am I to judge the tastes of others? A valid point, but that can’t stop me from making observations about the culture that country music caters to. In case you weren’t aware of it, rural country music fans are frequently folks that you wouldn’t want living next door -- in less gentler terms, the kind of “proud-to-be-ignorant,” racialist, violence-prone madmen that still port about ideologies to the right of the John Birch Society. Oddly, while the mainstream country music of the 1950s and 1960s echoed the tragic realities of such a lifestyle, modern radio country exists in this fantastical, make-believe hillbilly utopia, where mudding, Budweiser, and Skoal reign supreme and things that actually impact rural listeners -- things like unemployment, drug addiction, and classism -- are completely avoided by their preferred musical genre. Not only is anti-intellectualism and herd mentality brazenly celebrated in modern country, it’s an “art form” that remains callously, cowardly unaware of its own supposed culture, choosing to live in a high-gloss, consequence-less facsimile of rural living that’s not only inaccurate, but offensively artificial.
Even the absolute stupidest punk and gangster rap is able to refract a little bit of its actual culture in the recording booth, while country music steers away from the impossible-to-ignore realities of methamphetamine, alcoholism, rampant unemployment and social marginalization like Medusa’s visage. Much worse than lacking a soul (or for that, matter a brain), country music lacks both a spine and a set of functioning eyeballs; “ignorant” really doesn’t even begin to do describe the industry, really.
But what the hell, why not another retarded ballad written by some shit-kicker in a ten gallon hat about how much he loves his high school sweetie (because god knows, you’ll never hear a reference to “grad school” in a Trace Adkins number.) And why not another lachrymose, lethargic “praise Jesus for helping me survive another near-death experience” ditty, while topics like child abuse, lack of educational resources and the fact that a goddamned recession ever happened remain about as verboten in the genre as references to “atheism” or “feminism.” I wonder how many more odes to “being country,” without addressing the actual setbacks of living in the country, we’re destined to hear on airwaves from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. Clearly, the music isn’t a direct reflection of the reality of its fans, so who is to say that their preferred musical genre isn’t the one pumping stupidity into the culture instead of vice versa?
Of course, a paradigm shift ain’t happening, now or ever. The industrialists know what works, and the fans keep buying what they’re conditioned to. With country music and country fans, it’s a dyad of idiocy; and until one part of the equation wises up (which is about as likely as a pro-abortion jingle topping the charts in Nashville), the cycle of stupidity is destined to just keep repeating itself.