Traditionalists Against Country Music
If this is a “conservatives in the mist” piece then Will Wilkinson is Jane Goodall.
He describes the thesis of a silly, reductive study by a pair of UT Dian Fosseys as roughly thus:
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. (link)
Country music then, he says, taps into a conservative fear of new things by glorifying a sort of idealized American experience. Wilkinson continues:
What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. …
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?
Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.
First of all, the notion that country music is the most “upbeat and conventional” is obviously false. Everything on the radio is upbeat and conventional. Second, the study’s methodology for assessing people’s preferences is bogus; “a user’s preference for a particular genre of music was determined by the number of songs that appeared in each music genre.” In other words, they had judges go through 500 music libraries from around the country and ranked them according to predetermined genres, which were then lumped further into the predetermined categories of “reflective & complex” for classical, jazz, blues, and folk; “intense & rebellious” for “alternative,” rock, and heavy metal; “upbeat and conventional” for religious, pop, country, and soundtracks; and “energetic and rhythmic” for rap/hip-hop, soul/funk, and electronica/dance, with no attention given to how often people actually listened to the music.
It takes a psychologist to label blues and folk music “complex,” and it’s hard to see that fourth heading as anything but a ‘music for black people’ category. But more broadly, when you apply any history or specificity to this rubric it falls apart. Did Bob Dylan stop being reflective or complex when he recorded Highway 61, Revisited? Did he immediately become upbeat and conventional when he recorded Nashville Skyline (a very relevant album to the present discussion)? When black musicians started improvising lyrics over samples rather than blues forms, was the music less “complex?”
Wilkinson’s piece has merits beyond the bogus study he quotes though, and it can’t be denied that there’s some correlation between a conservative political outlook and country music listening. Read Rod’s posts on the subject here and here. One of the commenters hypothesized that, “country music is transmitting that concept of teleology even for underclass whites who are disconnecting from religious participation, as a sort of folk catechesis.”
This is an insightful point. However, those who would defend country music’s aspirational qualities have to answer for the vision of the good life to which modern country music calls its devotees. They have to answer for this:
And maybe I’m missing something, but this stadium performance at a national award ceremony of a song that venerates another modern country hitmaker doesn’t exactly strike me as an example of heroic folk culture. More like a marketing scam:
Dreher quotes Erik Kain‘s blog post that gets at the obvious fact that country music as the vast majority of people know it is woefully bereft of substance:
The conservative movement has been cannibalizing conservative art for years now, to the point where I’d say country music is far from a victory of conservative cultural or artistic success and is instead a mirror image of what conservative politics have become: easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular. Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism. …
[S]trong stories and compelling characters are absent in much of conservative works of pop culture these days. The political has overshadowed all that. The culture wars are destroying culture. I’m reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Urusla K. Le Guin right now and there’s this passage I just read last night where the narrator talks about civilization and war. War, he muses, is the antithesis of civilization. The two cannot exist at the same time. It’s one or the other. Perhaps something similar occurs with the culture war when it becomes so big, so overbearing and pervasive.
Rather than the conservative movement cannibalizing country music – it does to some degree [update: see below] but in an indirect way, by apotheosizing the American ideal expressed in it – I find it more persuasive that the purveyors of country music are simply responding to consumer demand. People will probably accuse me of being a closet Marxist for bringing this up, but I keep thinking of the seminal 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that talks about how the first artistic photographers avoided taking pictures of industrial technology despite the fact that the new medium depended on it. Similarly, a movie set is full of microphones, cameras and other gadgets, but the director avoids including those things in the movie because they’re not part of the story he’d like to tell.
Likewise, country is an orphaned folk music. Brad Paisley isn’t going home to a two-room trailer or a cabin on the prairie. It’s made in studios after careful investment decisions have been made and return on investment sufficiently predicted. I don’t know how we got from the Carter Family or even Kris Kristofferson to Kenny Chesney, but it’s clear that the forces steering country music now are different than the ones from which it arose. The last bit of Benjamin’s essay sounds strikingly similar to the Le Guin quote Kain cites: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. … Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”
Update: How did I miss this?