MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, September 20, 2014

September 20-21, 2014: Crowd-sourcing Country Music

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this week’s series, I’ve highlighted five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and connections of fellow CountryStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
Rob Greene follows up Monday’s post, noting, “I think this shows once again how complicated a genre country music is—far too often associated only with conservative ideology, but your interpretation of Parton's work makes a lot of sense.”
Paul Beaudoin also responds to Monday’s post, writing, “Interesting to talk about country artists, gender and identity. Parton's Jolene is a great song to think of in this respect. Rare is a tune where an unidentified woman pleads with Jolene to leave her man alone because she KNOWS she can't compete with her beauty. Our singer knows the man dreams of the ‘other’ but for her owself (selfishness?) hopes that her love will keep faithful to her. The main character's (who again, is never named) vulnerability is heard as quintessential American femininity - esp. through the voice of the songs composer and lyricist Parton. The soft yet resonate twang, the simple music accompaniment set the scene well for putting the singer's circumstances in our ear's mind. The listener becomes the unidentified lover who is pleading. Yet, when we slow down Parton's recording of Jolene, a wondrous transformation takes place - Jolene because transgender. With Parton's voice now sounding ‘masculine’ the pleading to Jolene now takes on new meaning. With this gender change new layers of meaning (understanding) come in to play. Parton's heteronormative lyric becomes homoerotic and suggests an even more complicated relationship than the original.” More broadly, Paul adds “Male relationships in much country music are about as macho as they come - drinking buddies, gamblers or gunslingers - men - American Country men - adhere strictly to the heteronormative code that is familiar to many (for example see Billy Currington's ‘People are Crazy’ with nearly 24 million hits ). Straight up ‘Gay’ country music (pun intended) is also a bit of a rarity. However, there has been huge breakthrough this pat summer with Steve Grand's ‘All American Boy’ (*curiously released just a few days before the July 4th in 2013). The video for the song appears quite hetero normative but the sensitive listener will hear a twist in the music just as the introduction ends. This foreshadowing suggests that not all is what appears to be. What happens when ideas of Steve Grand's ‘All American Boy’ become a part of the mainstream. With only about 3.4 million hits - it's unlikely to be more than just a blip on the country music scene.”
DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld follows up that post to add “A Boy Named Sue” “is not Silverstein’s only country song,” sharing both the original and this PG version.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any other country connections you'd highlight or artists/songs you'd recommend?

Friday, September 19, 2014

September 19, 2014: Country Music and Society: 21st Century Country

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Five recent songs that capture the genre’s evolving American story—and about which I won’t say too much, because you should let them say it to you directly:
1)      Jamey Johnson, “In Color” (2008): Johnson’s beautiful dialogue between a grandfather and his son manages to sum up much of the 20th century alongside its moving depiction of life, family, and love.
2)      Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (2009): Paisley’s ode to progress is a more direct and somewhat on-the-nose engagement with 20th and 21st century changes, but any country shoutout to Martin Luther King, Jr. is fine by me.
3)      Neko Case, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” (2009): The warnings of a self-avowed “maneater” aren’t exactly revolutionary—“These Boots Are Made for Walking,” anyone?—but Case’s imagery is as distinctive as her voice and sound, and it adds up to another side to those strong country women about whom I blogged on Wednesday.
4)      Eric Church, “Springsteen” (2011): You didn’t think I could resist including a song called “Springsteen” in this list, did you? Again, Church’s ode to a long-lost young love isn’t exactly the first of its kind; but in its self-referential use of pop culture to express those feelings, it represents another element to 21st century country for sure.
5)      Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow” (2013): I mentioned Musgraves and linked to this song in that same Wednesday post—but any country song that makes the case for both lesbian relationships and smoking pot has to be included in an analysis of new trends in the genre, ones that reflect but also continue to push forward their society, and ours.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses to any of the week's posts, or other country connections you'd highlight for the weekend post?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

September 18, 2014: Country Music and Society: Johnny Cash and Prison

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the message the Man in Black still has for us—if we can ever start to hear it.
In this very early post on my colleague and friend Ian Williams’ work with prison inmates, I made the case that the incarcerated might well represent the most forgotten or elided American community (and that they’re in that bleak conversation in any case). I wish I could say that anything has changed in the nearly four years since I made that case, but I don’t believe it has; perhaps Orange is the New Black will help produce a seachange in our awareness of and attitudes toward those millions of incarcerated Americans, and perhaps the proposed federal changes in drug-related sentencing will begin to make a dent in those shocking numbers, but as of right now it seems to me that the prison industrial complex is only growing in size and strength.
More than fifty years ago, one of the most iconic 20th century American artists and voices began a career’s worth of efforts to force us to think about the world and life of our prisons. I had some critical things to say about Johnny Cash in Monday’s post, so it’s more than fair that I pay respect here to one of his most impressive and interesting attributes: his consistent attention to that setting and its experiences and communities, from the 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues” through his many prison performances, culminating (but by no means concluding) in the groundbreaking live albums At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). My fellow AmericanStudier Jonathan Silverman identifies Cash’s trip to Folsom as one of the Nine Choices through which Cash most reflected and influenced American culture, and I would go further: it was one of the most unique and significant moments in any American artistic career.
Or it should been that significant, at least. Forty-five years later, with our collective awareness, understanding, and attitudes toward prisoners seemingly more negative than ever (although studies like this 2002 one give some reason for hope in that regard), I don’t know that Cash’s clear recognition of the shared humanity between himself and those prisoners—and, implicitly but clearly, between those prisoners and every other audience to whom Cash performed—has reached his fellow Americans in any consistent way. That might seem like a given, recognizing prisoners’ humanity—but when I read and hear frequent critiques of prisoner access to exercise and health facilities, to media, to decent food, to liveable conditions, to any of the things that seem to define American life as we generally argue for it, I’m not at all sure that such recognition is widespread. Perhaps we must first, to quote another prison song (sung by a man who did his own time for drug-related offenses), Steve Earle’s “The Truth” (2002), “Admit that what scares you is the me in you.”
Last country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17, 2014: Country Music and Society: The Dixie Chicks and Strong Women

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the strength and independence we seem to value, and those we don’t.
One of the central narratives of the country music scene over the last few years has been the rise of strong female voices and artists. Of course there have been examples of such artists for decades, including Monday’s subject Dolly Parton and many others, but the sheer number of breakout young female stars on the current country scene is undeniable: from established talents like Gretchen Wilson, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood to on-the-verge artists like Kacey Musgraves, the Pistol Annies, and the Band Perry (among many many others in each category). Moreover, many of these artists have risen to prominence with hit songs of female empowerment, strength, and independence, whether sassy and proud (Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”), angry and defiant (Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”), or simply self-confident and wise (Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”).
Among the most prominent, popular turn of the 21st century predecessors to these recent female stars would have to be the Dixie Chicks, a group that from their name to their early hit “Goodbye Earl” (2000), the single for which was paired with a tongue-in-cheek B-side of “Stand By Your Man” for added effect, embodied these concepts of strong, independent country women. And then came March 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her strong, independent perspective on the imminent Iraq War, telling a British audience that “We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." While it’s fair to say that the overall American reactions to Maines’ comments were mixed, with plenty of agreement and support from anti-war voices (including country legend Merle Haggard), it’d also be accurate to call the reaction of the country music scene and country fans overwhelmingly negative: from public record destructions and boycotts to private death threats, and just about everything in between.
Of course I understand that the specific historical moment of Maines’ comments—and the related, broader context of the “love it or leave it” version of patriotism which surrounded both the Iraq War and the Bush presidency—played into that particular response. But on the other hand, I would argue that gender did too—that the far more extreme and hysterical response to the Dixie Chicks (compared for example to the response to Haggard’s anti-Iraq War statements and song) had at least something to do with the fact that a trio of women were leveling this critique on the powers that be. Which is to say, 21st century country music and America in general might well support strong, independent female voices and artists, might even embrace such figures more fully than at any prior point in our culture—but it seems clear to me that there remains a glass ceiling on such support, one connected to images of what kind of independence is permissible from our artists and cultural figures and what isn’t.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 16, 2014: Country Music and Society: Patriotism and Images of America

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the genre’s frustrating embrace of lazy and even divisive national narratives.
As an AmericanStudier, and one who tries consistently to help us understand the complexity of our national past, identity, and community, few cultural genres frustrate me more consistently and thoroughly than the uber-patriotic country song. I’m thinking in particular about Lee Greenwood’s ubiquitous “God Bless the USA” (1984), which from its titular evocation of that trite phrase through its facile uses of parallel phrases like “proud to be an American” and “at least I know I’m free” embodies what I’ve elsewhere called the easy, unthinking version of patriotism. But even worse is Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” (2002)—I’m not sure I know of a more troubling or more false line about America than that song’s “We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.”
It’d be a mistake to simply lump Garth Brooks’ “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” (1993) in with songs like Greenwood’s and Keith’s. Besides taking itself a lot less seriously (no small distinction to be sure), Brooks’ song seems to envision a more broadly inclusive definition of the national community: as “one big family/Throughout the cities and the towns,” a family that “reach[es] for those who are down” and whose “heart is in the music/And they love to play it loud.” But then there’s the second verse, which I need to quote in full: “When Uncle Sam dips in your pocket/For most things you don’t mind/But when your dollar goes to all of those/Standing in a welfare line/Well rejoice you have a voice/If you’re concerned about the destination/Of this great nation/It’s called the American Honky-Tonk Bar Association.” So that titular family has a particular agenda, and that agenda is to express concerns about the future as represented by another part of the national community, a part that seems comprised quite specifically by those fellow citizens “who are down.”
It’d be important to contextualize that part of Brooks’ song in its historical and social moment, as part of the early 1990s move toward “welfare reform” that culminated in President Clinton and the Congressional GOP’s famous and deeply problematic 1996 law. But the song also connects to a much more longstanding and divisive national narrative, one that pits “working Americans” (Brooks opens his song by addressing those whose “paycheck depends on/The weather and the clock”) against the shiftless and dependent poor, divides “makers” from “takers,” argues that social programs like welfare represent a (even the most) significant American concern. Given the percentage of the beneficiaries of such social programs who are precisely the rural working-class Americans about whom Brooks is singing, his version of this longstanding narrative is as inaccurate as any. But it’s also just unnecessarily divisive, a definition of the national family that depends on exclusion as well as inclusion—and for an artist as popular as Brooks, such divisiveness can have a potent and destructive effect.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

Monday, September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014: Country Music and Society: Gender and Identity

[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On stereotypes, progress, and how the genre represents gender.
Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” (1969) was written by none other than poet and humorist Shel Silverstein, and it shows. “Sue” is one of the funnier mainstream hits I know, and it saves the funniest lines for the twist ending: “And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him/Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!” But underneath the humor, and indeed constituting much of it, runs a series of gendered stereotypes: that the worst thing a boy can have is a girl’s name; that at the same time the toughness that fighting to defend such a name requires is the most important lesson a man can learn; and even that fathers are largely absent figures whose principal role for their sons is to pass along such toughness (even in unconventional ways). As I’ll argue later in the week, Johnny Cash could be one of country’s most interestingly progressive voices; but his engagements with gender were not always so liberated, as illustrated by the stereotypical “Sue.”
Given the physical attributes that represent a significant part of Dolly Parton’s claim to fame, as well as the deeply traditional romantic ballad “I Will Always Love You” (1974) that is probably her most famous song, it might be surprising to argue that she exemplifies a far more progressive approach to gender and identity in country music. But I would make that argument nonetheless: that in songs like “9 to 5” (1980), with its portrayal of a working woman thriving on her “cup of ambition”; in her choices of acting roles that at first embody but then complicate stereotypes, including her debut as a secretary in 9 to 5 (1980) but also the madam in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) or the beauty salon owner in Steel Magnolias (1989); and even in her entrepreneurial career, such as her creation of the Tennessee theme park Dollywood, she has consistently depicted women as strong and independent, perhaps viewed but in no way limited by their physical attributes and identities. And in one of her recent hits, 2005’s “Travelin’ Thru,” Parton pushes even further beyond stereotypical boundaries and images.
Parton wrote “Travelin’ Thru” for the soundtrack of the groundbreaking film Transamerica (2005), which starred Felicity Huffman as a pre-op transgendered woman on a cross-country road trip with her estranged son. The song is striking in many ways, but most especially in its deeply spiritual imagery, linking the song’s transgendered speaker to Jesus himself: “We’ve all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree/And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.” But unlike Cash’s speaker, whose unconventional identity has been a source of constant pain and strife (one he rejects right up through that humorous final line), Parton’s speaker has come to a far more accepting perspective on her identity, both in its promise and its pains: “God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain/Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain.” For a country icon to write and perform such a song represents another meaningful step forward in the genre and our society—a step in keeping with Parton’s consistently progressive voice and career.
Next country connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

PPS. After finishing this piece, I saw this recent New York Times story on Dollywood and Parton as a gay icon. And I should also note here that my initial inspiration for this post came from fellow AmericanStudier AnneMarie Donahue.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

September 13-14, 2014: Robert Greene II’s Guest Post on Sports and Society

[Robert Greene II is a PhD student in history at the University of South Carolina, where he’s studying 20th century American and Southern history, African American intellectual history, and a lot more. He’s a frequent contributor to the U.S. Intellectual History blog, and one of the more prolific and engaging Tweeters I know. And I’m very excited to share this Guest Post on another of his lifelong interests, the social and historical meanings and impacts of sports.]

On College Sports Rivalries

Growing up in the Deep South, and attending two institutions there (Georgia Southern University and the University of South Carolina), it occurs to me that a major part of the college experience is, well, hating another college. There are times when I think about such rivalries as being trivial—what has someone from Furman University or Appalachian State ever done to me (as a GSU fan)? No one from Clemson or the University of Georgia has caused me any harm; why should I get red in the face when I see their colors (as a graduate student attending South Carolina)? Yet, I cannot think of the college experience without that element of irrational hatred.

I think the scholarly examination of sports, which has grown by leaps and bounds (and now includes a fantastic blog on U.S. Sport History) can gain much by interacting with American Studies, and vice versa. Considering sports rivalries, in part, can be helpful in looking at the broader implications for sports on society. I’ve also found myself thinking about different types of rivalries, as I hesitate to say that all college and professional sports feuds are created equal.

There’s something to be said for a greater examination of college sports overall among academics. Already, much has been written about race, gender, and college sports, but I think an examination of just a handful of college rivalries would offer a great deal to chew on. Some of these rivalries—South Carolina versus Clemson, for example, are reminders of deep, long-festering intra-state divisions that go beyond the gridiron or basketball court. For scholars, such rivalries can be used to examine deeper fissures in society.

The difference in passions involved in college and professional sports—with some exceptions, of course—is also worth noting. I find myself talking to plenty of people who prefer college football or basketball over the professional versions because of ideas of “purity” or, simply, because the college versions seem to have far more at stake for the average fan. I’d go so far as to say that, in the South especially (but this can also apply to some of the old feuds in the Midwest and on the West Coast) college sports and the rivalries that go with them offer something missing in most of the professional variants nearby. I think my father, as big of an Atlanta Falcons fan as he is, probably cares just a bit more about Georgia-Florida than he does about Falcons-Saints.

With that said, let’s not make the mistake that rivalries stay the same over time—or even that the fanbases do. The intersection of sports and the media matters here. How did the growth of television broadcasting of games affect fan support for teams in the second half of the 20th century? I’d venture a guess and argue that some of the big rivalry games—think Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, and so on—acquired a lot of casual fans on the Saturdays when they played. Of course, that’s not scientific, but the broadcasting of games on television, and before that radio, at least offered the chance for groups of people across the country to start caring about games not in their region. And think of Americans today adopting English Premier League teams, or fans in China adopting NBA squads—the imagined communities of fandom are something scholars can begin to consider more as part of understanding the relationship between society and sports.
Not to push the imagined communities aspect too much, but there is one last idea surrounding sports rivalries I’d like to consider—race and rivalry. Specifically, thinking about the inclusion of black athletes in the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1960s and 1970s—how did black fans gradually become part of Southern fanbases? What were the thoughts of black sports fans towards such college programs before their integration? There’s a lot that can be done with fandom, rivalries, and American Studies. I usually do intellectual history—but a part of me does, someday, hope to explore such questions.
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? If you’d like to contribute a Guest Post, let me know!