Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Country Music Used To Be Dangerous

Late in The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg extols Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Originally on track for abject failure, its lack of commercial success baffled record executives, who’d run it through an analytical program and determined it had the makings of a hit. They could tell, because it so completely resembled prior hits that its success should’ve been assured. So radio programmers manipulated playlists to ease “Hey Ya” to number one.

I read that story and thought: holy shit! Computer programs determine which songs deserve hit status based on their parallels to prior hits? Radio programmers hold doors for sponsored songs? No wonder pop music and commercial radio all sounds identical! “Hey Ya” is a good song, sure, but did it deserve more attention in 2003 than The Mountain Goats, who’d just released their first major-label album? Probably not.

At a restaurant recently, an employee surprised me recently by hijacking the in-store music player and switching to the classic country station. After a brief commercial, the very first song was Loretta Lynn’s “One’s On the Way.” A brief Conway Twitty love song followed, then the Statler Brothers’ classic “Bed Of Rose’s.” Beyond the simple acoustic instrumentation and clear vocals, I felt impressed by these songs’ raw, frankly subversive themes.

My dislike for current hit country music is well documented. But hearing these old songs, some of which I hadn’t heard for years, I realized that the old stuff isn’t just more aesthetically pleasing. This older, less commercial country music has a shockingly countercultural message. Loretta Lynn’s outright rejection of popular culture hype, or the Statler Brothers’ exposure of the weakness in conformist morality, really slap mainstream America’s face. Hard.

This outsider ethos contrasts brutally to the insider cliquishness dominating today’s country radio. Lee Brice’s “Parking Lot Party,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” or Toby Keith’s remorselessly pandering “Red Solo Cup” all desperately want to be liked. Sure, they may twang things up, trying to sound more muscular than the Statlers’ deliberate close harmony. But their motivating force is ultimately urban, flaccid, and aggressively slick.

While songs like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Hank Williams’ “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy,” and the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” come from very different backgrounds, they all represent outsiders struggling for a fair shake. They may lack specific political motivations, like Loretta Lynn’s feminist  “The Pill” or Merle Haggard’s (apparently) satirical “Okie From Muskokgee,” but there’s more to outsider culture than current events.

However, we’ve seen an inverse relationship between country music’s wealth, and its dangerous countercultural thrill. Listening to classic honky-tonk music, the songs of people whom life punched in the heart so often they grew thick scars, it’s tough to miss that they just see life differently than today’s glossy hit-makers. Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” is remarkably frank, not just in his heartbreak, but in his alienation from America’s mainstream.

Thus we see two conflicting forces: corporate-owned media, including record labels and radio stations, embrace slick party-time music. Just yesterday, while browsing YouTube, a sponsored ad urged me to sample Luke Bryan’s “new spring break anthem,” a sign of his corporate handlers’ desire for insider acceptance. Country music, as an organized force, resembles the fat nerd in high school, just begging for a seat at the lunchroom cool table.

Meanwhile, various artist at various times have resisted the push toward country insidership. In my youth, artists like Steve Earle kicked Nashville’s balls with music that defied white-suit politesse. Besides his Memphis-influenced musical pugnacity, his politics shocked the establishment—in interviews, he recounts his drug history and his close call with Death Row. Earle earned his bullish outsider standing honestly, and at times almost bloodily.

But less obviously, Dwight Yoakam threatened country insiders in ways Earle never could. Lacking Earle’s post-Vietnam swagger, Yoakam actually embraced something far older. He willfully channeled Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and other Bakersfield icons at a time when “Urban Cowboy” porridge dominated Nashville. Sure, his singles were often straightforward love songs. But we’d grown unaccustomed to straightforward.

Growing up, I didn’t realize how subversive Dwight really was. But by the early 1990s, his music had become so muscular and dark, while rejecting corporate cowardice, that any radio programmer playing his songs was almost performing civil disobedience. Dwight’s bleak, downbeat songs poked Nashville’s enforced happiness in the eye. It’s surprising how often he hit the Top Ten, considering how completely he rejected trendy optimism.

This Spartan outsidership survives, though undoubtedly, you have to seek it out. Artists like Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, and the Drive-By Truckers don't generate chart hits. But they exist, and they continue to speak for the audience that made stars of Hank, Johnny, and Lefty Frizzell. For audiences alienated by corporations that pick our hits for us, “Hey Ya” style, seeking these bold outsiders returns real power to real listeners.

No comments:

Post a Comment