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Country Music & The Dark Side

I keep going back to this classic Will Wilkinson post on the psychology of country music, because it fits my experience. Here’s the gist: As you can see, country is the most “upbeat and conventional” genre of music. A preference for “upbeat and conventional” music is negatively correlated with “openness” and positively correlated with “conscientiousness,” […]

I keep going back to this classic Will Wilkinson post on the psychology of country music, because it fits my experience. Here’s the gist:

As you can see, country is the most “upbeat and conventional” genre of music. A preference for “upbeat and conventional” music is negatively correlated with “openness” and positively correlated with “conscientiousness,” and so, as you would then expect, self-described conservatives tend to like “upbeat and conventional” music (more than any other kind), while self-described liberals tend to like everything else better.

Again, those low in “openness” are less likely to visit other countries, try new kinds of food, take drugs, or buck conventional norms generally. This would suggest that most conservatives aren’t going to seek and find much intense and meaningful emotion in exotic travel, hallucinogenic ecstasy, sexual experimentation, or challenging aesthetic experience. The emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one,” the wedding day, the birth one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl’s gun-loving father, now I’m a gun-loving father threatening my girl’s teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.

My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.

This Wilkinson graf, I think, explains why my sister had a permanent chip on her shoulder about something as trivial as my food preferences:

 My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as merenostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

Some readers of my book have said, reasonably enough, that perhaps my sister resented me for being able to leave when she felt duty-bound to stay. Not even close. I was laughing the other night with one of her best friends about this, and we agreed that there was no place else for Ruthie Leming but the country — and not just the country, but West Feliciana Parish. Her pal, Amy, even said that Ruthie told her husband that if he was ever offered a promotion that would require the family leaving this place, that he was to turn it down. Period. The end. If she was so perfectly content here, why was she so angry inside about my leaving, and enjoying different things? Will Wilkinson explains it better than anybody else I’ve read.

Anyway. I am mostly not a fan of country music, so I don’t follow it. But Casey Quinlan writes that there is an emerging trend in country to focus on the dark side of small-town and rural life, not to idealize it but rather the opposite. Excerpt:

People love country music, in part, because it speaks to the heart of rural existence, a way of life that many people find happiness in and a culture that seems more authentic.

Yet, like all real cultures, rural life has its shortcomings. People become bored in a way that is distinct to an isolation of place. Rural boredom is different from urban boredom: Much of the appeal of cities is rooted in the excitement of newness, of novelty, so urban boredom is a result of being surrounded by stimulation yet still feeling alone. Rural boredom, by contrast, is often exacerbated by the tendency to wonder what you’re missing out on. It comes from wondering if there is more to life than a familiar community (like the one Miranda Lambert sings of) and the limited romantic possibilities and career options a small town offers. Musgraves, Clark, and Monroe capture that suffocation perfectly, and more artists should take their lead in being honest about the limitations of small-town life. Because sometimes, even country music’s unsinkable happy-warrior protagonist needs to reflect.

Readers of this blog who like country music: is this true? If so, how do you account for the popularity of this strand of country? What might it say about changing values in rural and small-town America?

(Thanks to the reader who sent me the Atlantic article.)



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