Jul 07, 2015, 06:27AM

The Realness of Country Radio

Poptimism will eat itself.

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Critics love real music. That used to be the unchallenged consensus. Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash—they were authentic avatars of coal dust and grit, with real guitars dripping realness, for real. Abba, Donna Summer, Madonna, Beyoncé, and (in Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces) Michael Jackson, on the other hand, were all shallow video visual facades—shrink-wrapped nerf sugar-sticks to be pitied and scorned.

But over the last couple of decades, there's been a change. Suddenly, the rockists (who love authenticity) have been challenged by poptimists—critics who revel in the joys of shallow radio pleasures. One of the leading poptimists, Carl Wilson, defended the value of Celine Dion as a multi-faceted icon. Wilson's latest foray into poptimism is a recent article on Slate, in which he takes a stand for country radio—music perhaps even more despised than Dion's.

Wilson's poptimism moves are somewhat familiar by now, but still, he deploys them with panache. His essay revolves mostly around Kacey Musgraves, the latest country radio hope for people who dislike country radio and dream of a twang more diverse, intelligent, and authentic. "These Manichean scenarios of brave mavericks redeeming Nashville’s corrupted soul are obligatory for covering Country for People Who Don’t Like Country," Wilson insists. "They always spur a strong suspicion that the writers’ knowledge of recent Nashville country is restricted to a couple of songs they heard at the mall or on the car radio and could not turn off fast enough before returning to their regular playlists."

People have always resisted the changing pop landscape of country, Wilson argues. Before Kacey Musgraves, people put their hopes on Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams; before that, Gram Parsons. Snobby authenticity mongering "purity police" have always claimed to know more about country than the "working-class Southern and Midwestern whites who are its core demographic." Fie upon these poseurs, Wilson says.

What's interesting here, though, is that Wilson's pro-country radio argument isn't exactly anti-authenticity. Instead, his argument is all about embracing authenticity. People who like Musgraves, or (in the past) Steve Earle, he suggests, are interlopers, out of touch with real sentiment and lifestyle. Country radio is the real music of working class whites. Liberal country wannabees enjoy Musgraves' gay-positive message and shudder at country radio's sexism. But those working class fans are real despite—or is that because of?—their homophobia and sexism. "What those who look down their noses at Nashville share with the most reactionary members of the country audience (who are out there too, of course) is that they each often seem like they don’t like the country, the actually existing nation that Americans have to live in and cope with," Wilson declares. Country radio speaks to the authentic America, not to some whiny, non-American poofters who want to hear songs about gay acceptance.

I'm sure Wilson didn't intend to build his argument around the stereotypical, and offensive, argument that gay people are inauthentic and/or un-American. But authenticity arguments are tricky like that. Defining some people as real and some as less real is a powerful rhetorical move, which is built on, and often unconsciously reinforces, prevailing stereotypes and prejudices. This is why poptimism has been valuable. It's asked critics to question their assumption that, say, disco music made by black and gay people is less authentic than rock music played by white guys. Poptimism, in its mistrust of authenticity, demands a re-evaluation of who is seen as natural, normal, and real.

But Wilson's take on country shows that poptimism hasn't really gotten rid of the real. Instead, poptimism often simply re-jiggers who is considered authentic. White guys playing rock guitars are transformed from working class American truth-tellers to privileged pontificators disconnected from real Americans. On the other hand, Beyoncé is changed from a corporate product to an artist who speaks to authentic communities of black women, and to America as a whole.

Country shows these fault lines more clearly because it's in some ways outside the traditional rockist/poptimism dichotomy. Country isn't rock and it isn't disco. The (imagined) audience it caters to is at once privileged (white and male) and marginalized (poor, rural, Southern.) So Wilson finds his poptimist contrarianism suddenly, bizarrely ambushed by its own authenticity fetish. He rejects the touted realism of country working class identity—in favor of the touted realism of country working class identity.

Wilson's article is a sign that it's time to give the poptimism/rockist battle a rest. Rather than shaming people for the way their authenticity claims make them inauthentic, it might be more useful to acknowledge that, at least as far as music is concerned, authenticity claims seem broadly inescapable. The question isn't whether you've shuffled off the false consciousness of authenticity. The question is what, for you, is real—or what reality you want your music to create. I'm not a huge fan of Kacey Musgraves, but she's better than Florida Georgia Line—in part because the country I'd like to be real is a country where women get to sing (as they don't much these days on country radio) and one in which gay people are seen as real people.

But rather than being forced to choose between Musgraves and Florida Georgia Line, I'd much rather listen to Jason Eady's Daylight & Dark, my favorite country album of recent years. Eady is a country throwback in a lot of ways; his style recalls the 1970s easy-listening gems of Don Williams. Does that make him real? On the title track, Eady doesn't seem to know himself. "There ain't no conversation 'tween the daylight and the dark," he sings, "it's a worn out situation when you don't know where you are." I like the uncertainty there; the sense of missed connections, that old country weariness of trying to find the solid, true thing, and the lonesome catch in the voice as the singer recognizes the real is reality escaping, one more time.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • When I turn on country radio here in Richmond, it sounds like the same song being played over and over again. Same clichés rehashed to death. So I turn it off fast.I guess I'm not a Poptimist. Pop music with a cowboy hat on doesn't do it for me. Fans of Steve Earl, Gram, Lucinda etc tend to be more music fans in general who appreciate a good artist,regardless of genre.Maybe the people who listen to the stations I turn off are strictly fans of country, and these familiar songs make them feel comfortable.Listening to songs about drinking beer, pretty women etc doesn't get old for them.

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  • Wilson argues that all the songs don't sound alike..and I suspect that's the case for fans of the genre. People think all metal sounds alike, too, but it doesn't really.//fwiw, Miranda Lambert sounds pretty different from Florida Georgia Line sound different than Taylor Swift. Country radio is pretty bad though, overall. The genre has been struggling for decades, I think.

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  • I would just add that I'm a big fan of country music, but the stuff on my station just sounds insipid.

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  • Wilson recommends Chris Stapleton...who isnt' great, but is okay, I think, from listenign to him a little.

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  • I guess the question is what it takes to be "real". Did Rod McKuen really suffer all those lost loves? Any of the guys in hats ever round up cattle? In Mexico, traditional music usually involves sombreros on guys who may never have picked cucumbers, and tight riding pants with tassels, and a pistol, on guys who may never have been a near-feudal landlord. Sets the stage. For what? To suggest things. Like what? I used to have a country music television channel and I liked some of the videos. Some were of performances, some of fake performances with, presumably, hired audiences, some studio stuff, and some stories out and about in the world. I liked to watch the last to see what buttons were pushed. Elevator. Uniform. Flag. Church. Kids. Elderly. Dirty hands. Tractor. You don't have to have been directly involved with any of the foregoing to appreciate them, even if your appreciation is rosier than justified. Just for grins, see the production values in "My Daddy Never Was a Cadillac Guy". Avail. on youtube. It's said that country music is about a number of things' Work hard. Party hard. Don't mess around on your SO Get right with The Man. Children and old folks rule. Show up for the wars. Real is in the eye of the consumer. Nobody ever said Johnny Cash was a jailbird. But, as one liner note said, he saw life "as a sentence to be served". Sounds like liner note BS. But they're doing the best they can. And when you get real, in the real sense, I'd sure as hell want a redneck watching my back instead of a hipster.

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  • Rod McKuen was the anti-Leonard Cohen. He probably caused more lesbianism than Aleister Crowley. He was definitely a lesser poet than Crowley, and that's saying a LOT.

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  • The only country act worth following is HANK III.

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  • Alan, Something came up about my college career--class of '66--and so did Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. So I went wiki on the Mckuen. What a career. if he made a dime per volume sold....I saw a tribute to Hank Williams at Branson a couple of years ago. Guy was good. Sang well, good history of Hank I.

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  • The stations I get in my car play mostly men,it seems,and only women are currently making good country music. Kacey Musgraves is good. Neko Case too. I'll check out HankIII though,Alan. As for Rod McKuen,hard to figure out how he fits in here.Is he big in Branson? He should have been shot after writing "Jean," that is for sure.That song is a serious assault upon the senses.

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  • Richard I enjoyed your response and pretty much agree. And I know what you mean by your parting shot, though really, no such thing as rednecks or hipsters, just the eternals, jerks and good eggs.

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  • Hahaha, funny stuff Alan, but cut the poor old Golden Dawn Breaks on Marblehead a a little slack. As for Leonard Cohen, the Emperor of Tea and Oranges chased with International Coffee? I dunno, instead of playing the guitar, selling a little insurance couldn't have hurt his poetry.

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  • sub. I was referring to McKuen as an example, or not, of being "real". Did Edith Piaf live the kind of life she implied she did not regret? IOW, how much of what a performer performs is supposed to come from their own lived lives? If it doesn't, what now? Is there another kind of "real"? Like you get life right? There are a bunch of us in this country and it's unlikely you'd miss everybody when talking about some kind of life thing.

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  • I understood some of this.

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  • sub. The question is whether performers have to have lived the life they are, in this case, singing about. There have been a couple of rap/hiphop performers whose creds were diminishd when it turned out they were raised in the middle class burbs. Is that what it takes to be real? If not that, what? Old showbiz maxim to the point that when you've learned to fake sincerity, you've got it made. Are we talking about inability to fake sincerity?

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