Miles Stephenson: On country music

Sunday, April 14, 2019 - 5:49pm

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Sherry Chen

Whenever I ask people at the University of Michigan what kind of music they like, I usually hear, “I listen to a wide variety of music. I like all genres except country.” After hearing this account dozens of times, I began to wonder if there was some intrinsic flaw in country music or if this was indicative of a demographic who believe it’s trendy to dislike country. After all, most people who condemn an entire genre lack a formal education in music. Any musician will tell you that every genre from jangle pop to bluegrass has the potential for great musicality and meaning.

Born and raised in the city of New York, I didn’t properly encounter country and its subgenres until high school, where I began to personalize my music taste more intently. I discovered the charm, beauty and romanticism that the genre has to offer and began to follow artists like Chris Stapleton, later encountering Eric Church, Luke Combs, Keith Urban, Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, Jake Owen and Toby Keith. Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” introduced pop country to new demographics while Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus has recently become a widespread cultural meme. Attend any party on campus this month, even those populated with lifelong urbanites, and you will hear “Old Town Road” played at least once, perhaps ironically or perhaps sincerely.

For years now, rap has replaced rock as the predominant popular genre in America. However, rappers like Lil Nas X and even Post Malone are bridging the gap between mainstream popular music and country, and for the first time in my life, it’s becoming trendy for urban demographics on the West and East Coasts to enjoy country music. But what’s holding country back from becoming the mainstream genre?

I asked students across campus about their thoughts on country and why it’s perceived the way it is by the urban elite that this university attracts. One sophomore said the following: “In terms of a bad rep, I think that in 2019, with social media especially…people see country music as the anti-rap music, and rap music is perceived as cool. What they are in my mind is cultural representations, and so I understand how that can be hated but as someone from Nashville, it’s my cultural music and music I really enjoy.”

Another sophomore said, “It’s associated with ‘rednecks’ who have a negative stigma … and conservatives, who are also perceived negatively in many parts of the country,” while a third interviewee stated anti-country rhetoric is tied to the South’s negative reputation with racism.

Toby Keith’s “The Taliban Song,” though melodic and narratively romantic, reminds us of the cultural offensiveness that people attribute to the genre with lyrics like, “I'm just a middle-aged Middle-Eastern camel-herdin' man … I've got a little two bedroom cave here in north Afghanistan.” Like all genres, some country can make people uncomfortable and push societal norms. One freshman student interviewed argued this song is an example of cultural appropriation and that Keith inappropriately adopted the story of an Afghan citizen to weaponize their story for jingoistic propaganda. Though I agree that Keith could have represented Afghan people with more nuance and respect, and that the song’s account of American intervention in the Middle East strays from reality, I find fault with the thesis that telling a story about a different culture automatically equates cultural appropriation. This kind of thinking can lead to another form of tribal bigotry: the belief that art should be ethnically or nationalistically coded, and that an artist can’t tell a story about a character from a different way of life. 

While “The Taliban Song” raises questions about country’s past, Kane Brown’s hit “Good As You” brings to country a sensibility unique to a white, Black and Cherokee multiracial identity. Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem (Brindemos)” features Mexican artist Jay De La Cueva’s entirely Spanish verses. Of course, we should be focused on the musicality of an artist, not their race or nationality, but in a culture where identity is on everyone’s minds, these artists and their musical contributions help lend a new modern face to country.

Like rap and hip-hop, the country genre also integrates masculine aggression into music. This is one of the reasons rap is so attractive to young, upwardly mobile males. Many people often wonder why Sperry-wearing high schoolers from Connecticut flock to rap concerts in the hundreds. While debates rage on about toxic masculinity, condemning signs of aggression in men, rap songs like Jay Rock’s “WIN” feature lines like “Get out the way … f––k everything else … Win, win, win, win.” This triumphant and rebellious ethos captures the minds of young men and helps them direct their own aggression into musical energy and passion. Country can do the same. In Chris Stapleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” his lines “there’s people all across the land from New York out to old San Fran / just don’t give a damn all the time / in an outlaw state of mind,” embody the same rugged individualism intertwined with male rap, and offers a subway-commuting, nine-to-five professional the catharsis of the cowboy romanticism that lies at the heart of so many Western stories.

So is the dislike for country music valid criticism or mainstream cultural elitism? Like any good debate, I think this is where nuance plays a role. Some dislike country because of its connection to past racism, others dislike it because it's trendy to like Lil Wayne instead, and somewhere in the middle are everyday Americans trying to identify with real and enjoyable stories that artists tell through their music.

Perhaps country’s journey along the spectrum of popularity speaks to a greater attentiveness that Americans have for their neighbors who might have been raised a little differently in a far off part of the country. They might not have a lot of pickup trucks or front yard beer bashes in my native New York City, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sing along with a friend who finds a piece of home in a song on the radio.

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.