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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

March 31, 2021: Key & Peele Studying: Country Music

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I’m going to be highlighting and contextualizing some of the best sketches from my favorite work of 21st century humor, Key & Peele. I’d love to hear your comedy favorites in comments!]

On what a silly sketch helps us see about country music’s frustrating evolution, and how history counters those trends.

Compared to the multi-layered genius of “Negrotown” and the political savvy and influence of Luther the Anger Translator, Key & Peele’s 2018 sketch “Country Music” is a bit more straightforward, an example of their impressive ability to take a somewhat familiar but funny comic premise and extend it to unexpected levels of silliness in just a few minutes. The heart of this particular sketch, as of many of theirs, is thus the two men’s delightful comic performances and the way they bounce off each other, in this case featuring Key as a country music devotee who only belatedly realizes the racist undercurrents of the songs he loves, and Peele as his new neighbor whose frustrations with Key’s color blindness (so to speak) help produce that belated epiphany.

But I wouldn’t be spending an entire week’s series on Key & Peele if the duo’s more straightforward comic sketches couldn’t likewise help us think about aspects of our culture and society. In the case of “Country Music,” the sketch’s hyperbolic silliness allows us to examine the only somewhat less obvious ways that the genre has in recent decades featured racist imagery and tropes. Take for example mega-superstar Garth Brooks’ 1993 hit “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” which builds on Reagan-era narratives about social programs and their recipients, contrasting the hard-working constituents of its titular organization with “all of those/Standing in a welfare line.” Or take for another example the names of the popular late 1990s and early 2000s bands the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum, both of which tap into histories of Southern white supremacy (and both of which were as a result changed in the midst of 2020’s reckonings with race and memory).

So yeah, late 20th and early 21st century country music has a problem with race (or several problems). But as that hyperlinked article reflects, and as I highlighted in this 2019 year in review post on Lil Nas X’s smash country crossover hit “Old Town Road” (2019), the genre’s actual history is far more cross-cultural than those racist undertones illustrate, featuring foundational African American artists who have influenced the current collection of diverse artists and voices. Seen in that light, perhaps the most telling moment in Key & Peele’s sketch is the early exchange when Peele’s character is so surprised that Key’s character is a fan of country music, a reflection (whether intentional in their writing of the sketch or accidental) of just how under-remembered both these histories and these contemporary legacies of African American country music remain.

Next sketch tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other humor favorites you’d share?

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