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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,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?

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