MyAmericanFuture

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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.

4 comments:

  1. This is a really fascinating post! 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.

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  2. Thanks Rob! I'm sure we could find more conservative songs of Parton's, and I don't feel qualified to make an assessment of the genre as a whole necessarily--but like most American cultural forms, it is at least complicated and rich and worth our full analyses for sure.

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  3. Thanks for writing this up, you do a great job shining a light on the progressive and liberal in country music, a genre much maligned a twangy conservative and plagued with intolerance. Not being a religious person I ha a hard time relating to what Parton said "God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain" but I think that this is not a line meant to be exclusive to Christians or people of religious faith. It's open to people who have faith and practice the verb more than possess the noun. At any rate I just love her.

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  4. Thanks AnneMarie! I think that idea, that the way we are is the way we are meant to be, is definitely potent beyond any particular version of belief.

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