Today my girlfriend and I went to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned. We had back to back appointments, so it meant we were there for an hour and a half – the most excruciating hour and a half of our lives. No, we didn’t get dual root canals or have our wisdom teeth pulled. It was far worse. Instead of the typical classic rock played in the office, someone had opted to play modern country music.
Before you say anything, let me be clear, I like country music – or rather “traditional” country music. The Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. I can’t get enough of it. I’ll even take some Dolly Parton, Eddie Rabbitt and Glenn Campbell from time to time. But modern country music bears little resemblance to its forefathers.
First off, all the music we heard seemed to be of the same vein. Every song mentioned drinking, if not specifically beer. Every song included a reference to how big a truck the narrator drove. And all the women wore short skirts and or cowboy boots. It was like painting by numbers. And as a result, none of it seemed genuine. It all seemed contrived. I myself wrote a country song which included all those elements. But that was back in the late 90’s. And the song was a farce making fun of those clichés. Almost twenty years later and the same contrivances are still widely being used. Where’s the growth and evolution? Any innovation to the genre seems to have come from Taylor Swift and are we really calling what she’s doing country music?
But what I don’t understand is how country music has risen in popularity over the last decade when the format is so staid and generic. If the hour and a half of modern country music I listened to is an accurate sampling, then it seems like there are no individual voices to it. In fact, at times the music sounded so similar I wondered if we were listening to an album and not the radio. All the songs regurgitated the same message, like a well-rehearsed story no one is interested in enough to scrutinize.
Once upon a time, country music was about heartbreak (Dolly Parton's “Jolene”, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin Heart” and “Why Don’t You Love Me?”) or pledges of fidelity (Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”) and sometimes even lust (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”). While the narrator of those songs – particularly when male – may have been hurt, they still seemed to revere their significant others. In “Jolene” the narrator doesn’t want to lose her husband, even though he’s likely cheated on her. In “Why Don’t You Love Me” Williams questions the dissolution of his marriage. He still loves his wife and wonders what’s changed.
The music I was captive to today was the opposite. One song told the tale of a man whose girlfriend was the envy of every guy. Everywhere the couple went, men would stare at her and wish she were alone. But rather than being proud of the woman he was with, he resented her. He resented the attention she got and that other men didn’t think he deserved her. Somehow she was to blame.
Another song spoke of a woman who other men would take to fancy restaurants downtown. But our narrator was going to take her into the corn fields and then catch her catfish for dinner. And while there’s something to be said about being different when wooing someone, it didn’t come across as much as an effort to show the woman who he really was, but rather what the narrator felt she needed. She needed someone authentic like him. Not a poser or drone like her other boyfriends. Somehow, without their having ever gone out before, the narrator knows what’s best for her.
Other songs were similar: she should love me because of the size of my truck, or because I drink beer. For music that’s supposed to be down home, there was an innate pretension to it. Eating in a fancy restaurant is pretentious and inauthentic as is drinking anything other than beer, or driving anything other than a pickup truck. If you’re not living the prescribed cliché of the country lifestyle you don’t deserve a pretty woman on your arm. But the unwritten sentiment is, you’re not a true American.
And this is where country music fans have been sold a false bill of goods. When twenty songs in an hour and a half all mine the same vein, there’s no originality, no freedom of thought or expression and no individuality. It’s a Pavlovian brainwashing: a simplistic ideology repeated over and over until reinforced in the subconscious.
Country used to be the music of the heartbroken and forlorn. Now it’s the music of the jilted and petty. Where once it was so lonesome I could cry, now it vengefully asks how do you like me now? And the answer is, not much.
And this is when it occurred to me: This is how we ended up with Trump as president. This is how we got to where we are. Because women are to be desired, but men still know what’s best for them. And no woman should ever eclipse her man. That’s not her place. Just because women can think for themselves, doesn’t mean they should. This is the message of modern country music. As told in the most simplistic, generic and trite way for ninety minutes.
And this is what millions of Americans have come to believe through the singular narrative of modern country music.
Unfortunately, drinking wine isn’t pretentious. Nor is driving a Prius. The pretension is believing that your way is the only way of doing things, or at least the best way of doing things. Refusing to drink anything but beer doesn’t make someone more of a man. It proves they’re a coward unwilling to try something different, unwilling to step out of their comfort zone and learn about something they’re unfamiliar with. It shows a need to fit in and a willingness to do whatever everyone else is doing. They can’t think for themselves. This is the dumbing down of America. Drive a truck and drink beer like everyone else. Don’t try new things. This is the new American way.
Going to an Ivy League school doesn’t make you pretentious. Believing you’re better than everyone else because you went to an Ivy League school does. But believing you’re better than other people because you didn’t go to an Ivy League School is the same thing. It’s an elitism of its own.
While I find the values pushed by these songs un-American, what bothered me most, what irked me beyond rationality, was how bad the lyrics and music were. How derivative, unoriginal and uninspired it all was. And that musicians, producers and engineers went to the trouble and took the time to record what to me, is nothing more than propaganda. That was the truly painful memory I will have from my visit to the dentist.
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