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Beating a Dead Horseman: Why I Can’t Stand Country Music

“I can’t stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth. It reminds me of country music, which I cannot abide.”

Linton Barwick, In the Loop

Country music. There are few genres out there that even people who use the vacuous phrase “I like all kinds of music” draw the line at. Country is one of them. Rap frequently joins that list. There are a few who exclude jazz. Various forms of techno sometimes get the nod, but not so much these days, with “EDM” having finally washed up on the US shore, 30 years after the fact.

Before we head off the rails into what exactly is wrong with country music, let’s take a moment to admire that quote, a product of Armando Iannuci’s fiendish mind. Iannucci, the profane genius behind the swearingest show on British television, The Thick of It, has scripted some of the most quotable lines never repeated in mixed company. (“Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off.” “Useless as a marzipan dildo.”) This one, while lacking the usual f-bombs (and equally as frequent c-bombs), is devastatingly good.

[If you haven’t checked out The Thick of It, you’re missing out on some of the best paint-peeling dialogue ever to bleed through your TV speakers. Iannuci runs every script through a “swearing consultant” for maximum effect. Behold this mostly muffled “exchange” {and its sheepish “denouement”} and then head to the YouTube to check out the rest of the series.]

Country music, itself an almost self-consciously “rustic” form of music, is dismissed with a phrase just as rustic. Nobody “cannot abide” anything in this era. It’s obsolete vernacular being used to deride an art form whose purveyors frequently celebrate obsolescence. [And we’ll continue on without mentioning the casual linkage of country music and domestic violence threaded blithely into the fabric of that quote…]

They still like old-fashioned things like high school sweethearts, marriage vows, decrepit pickup trucks, lite beer and flag-waving Americana. They pride themselves with having a minimum of education and a maximum of good ol’ boy/girl “intangibles,” like being capable of drinking beer and raising hell. Various undertraveled areas of America are held up as paragons of virtue (the South, the backwoods, any place filled where people refer to themselves as “rednecks,” Texas [itself a country of its own]).

It’s a lyrical form of stasis. (The music keeps moving, but we’ll get to that later.) We like things the way they were before “progress” started moving people to the coasts, taking with them all manner of forward-thinking and culture and desegregation. Permanent nostalgia, delivered with a twang that defines them as “good people” — the kind that eat dinner at the table with the family and cut the sleeves off their denim shirts. The kind that won’t let a little thing like paraplegia or cancer stand in the way of living life. Very positive even in the most negative situations. The sort of thing that would be admirable if it hadn’t already become cliche.

[Quick break for something country-ish and tolerable, courtesy of mashupist KMT. Click through to his Bandcamp page to hear/download more.]

KMT – Jolene Is Mine (Dolly Parton vs. Jay-Z).mp3

As for the music itself, it continues to morph, grabbing whatever bits of crossover-ready rock and pop it can shake loose, devouring it all and regurgitating a bland paste that contains all of the attributes of the appropriated but none of ass-kicking (rock) or the earworming (pop). There has never been another musical format so intent on pandering to so many people at once. Any bit of risk-taking or originality is thrown out in favor of various Mutt Lange-isms. Layers and layers of polish are added until the only thing anyone can see is a shiny, distorted reflection of themselves.

Country gives you everything you want out of music, as long as what you want is just the highlights. There’s precious little anger, and what little there is tends to be of the “righteous” type, which is further limited by being mainly of the “self-righteous” type — which has more in common with patting yourself on the back for being so “emotional” than any ugly display of fury.

There’s no hate. There’s only God-like fully-justified vengeance. There’s no heartbreak. There’s only singers stating that their hearts are broken in smoothly assured tones, like a salesperson expressing his qualified dismay at your failure to add rust-proofing to the option list. My heart is broke (never broken), they declare, before telling you just how broken it is for the next verse-chorus-verse. It’s a few late nights, teary-eyed and sleepless. It’s never hours and days (and years) of bitterness, frustration and frequent indulgence of a psychotic overimagination.

Country music wants you to feel but it also wants you to be able to shift emotions in time for the next track. Right now, you’re wondering where she is. Now, you’re hoisting a bottle in the air, celebrating yourself for being in the company of such good, earthy people. Now you’re wandering down your own personal Memory Lane, as remembered by someone else using events that never actually happened.

It’s less an art form than an act of commerce. Music fans are used to commerce. After all, we have pop. Pop is commerce aimed at everything from the dancefloor to the bedroom. Country music presents itself as an Honest Music, but at this point, it’s more interested in spreading itself as thinly as it can in order to appeal to the widest base. It is, in fact, paper thin music.

[One more break: John Denver remixed by Database. Denver’s music was also paper-thin and as wispy as a Carpenter, but at least he had the good sense to exit early rather than be co-opted into some fiscally-sound three-way with Lady Antebellum or whatever.]

John Denver – Sunshine on My Shoulders (Superpose Re-Edit).mp3

THREE EGREGIOUS EXAMPLES

Shania Twain – Any Song

I won’t speculate on the emotional validity of her marriage to superproducer Mutt Lange (who added layers of top-selling gloss to bands like Def Leppard, Nickelback and Foreigner), but it certainly didn’t hurt her career. Her “superproduced” albums proved that you no longer needed to drag an accomplice from outside the genre into the studio to create crossover appeal. You simply needed to create shiny pop things and then add in the bare minimum of genre indicators to secure the label “country.” It’s tempting to lay the blame for country’s current watered-down state at her feet, and so we shall, because resisting temptation is for do-gooding sons of bitches.

(Speaking of do-gooding sons-of-bitches, another indication of country’s overwrought inoffensiveness is the fact that many Christians who decry every other form of music [outside of “praise music”] as “glorifying Satan” are willing to welcome country music into the fold. I’m sure exceptions are made for songs that glorify drinking [and there’s several of those], but otherwise country is just good clean fun.

Another indicator of its toothlessness is the fact that it’s the background music of choice at many businesses. The chance of offensive lyrics/unexpected noises is so low as to not even register. THIS IS WHY I HAVE HEARD MORE COUNTRY MUSIC THAN I’VE EVER WANTED TO, FAMILIARITY BREEDING NOXIOUS CONTEMPT LIKE SO MANY INBREEDING TWANGY RABBITS ON E.)

Billy Currington – People Are Crazy

There’s nothing like barroom philosophy, especially when it results in a successful artist stumbling onto another large sum of money by having an old man leave him his inheritance simply because he THAT ONE TIME showed a bit of humanity and discussed the finer things (beer, God, people) with another drunk at a bar. Even if this narrative is false (and it certainly is), the fact that Currington thinks people want to hear about how he became even richer is disturbing. Unless his narrator is supposed to be just some “average guy”and not Currington himself, in which case I can’t even wrap my mind around that. That’s a lot of disassociation to dump on the casual listener, Billy.

The repeated “philosophy?” God is great. Beer is good. People are crazy. FULL STOP. Think the hell out of that one. Most people will agree with two out of three, so go cozy up to the oldest career alcoholic at the bar and keep your fingers crossed.

Toby Keith – Any Song, But Especially Red Solo Cup

Keith attempts to horn in on Jimmy Buffett’s “I’m a madcap careerist who is celebrated by successful boomers and trust fund kiddies alike because I sing about drinking and beach life and THAT ONE TIME about drinking and casual sex” territory, crafting an ode to the only thing a kegger needs other than the keg itself. I suppose it’s a universal thing. Toby might be a millionaire but he still drinks his beer from the same cups as the masses.

It’s full of horrible touches, including backing “vocals” by an assortment of ultra-white hype men and some rhymes that Keith no doubt felt were some of the cleverest ever written:

“In fourteen years, they are decomposable
And unlike my house, they are not foreclosable
Freddie Mac can kiss my ass.”

OH FUCK YEAH ZING! Take that, fat cats! Multimillionaire Toby Keith has chosen to stand with the working man during this ongoing housing debacle! And all the while drinking from the same common keg without a hint of pretension! There’s something about how well he can write his name on the cup and make time with the ladies, perhaps using a surefire pickup line like, “I’m Toby Keith, multimillionaire,” and then remarking on the fact that they both have red Solo cups so why don’t they head out back and have some sort of redneck-y sex.

[Quick breather for something classic by Mr. Cash.]

Johnny Cash – The Losing Kind.mp3

AT THIS POINT I WILL BEGIN MAKING ARGUMENTS IN COUNTRY MUSIC’S DEFENSE.

(Feel free to leave. Or to get up and stretch your legs for a bit.)

1. Making country music is hard.

It seems simple. The same subject matter sung with the same earthy twang over the same instrumentation. Hell, Kid Rock pulled his career out of the gutter with a crossover single. Double-hell, the Head Blowfish, Darius Rucker, has completely resurrected himself with a second career as a country singer, very possibly doubling the number of black attendees at any given country concert in which he appears.

I’ve heard it referred to as the “Special Olympics” of music, a genre where anyone can be both a participant and a winner because the bar is just that fucking low. But it isn’t. Like any other genre, it requires hard work, talent, etc. to get to the top. Maybe the occasional nudge from American Idol. It seems cliche to state this, but to get an idea of just how tough making country music is, browse through this series of posts over at McSweeney’s which detail one man’s attempt to become a Nashville songwriter.

But Nashville, contrary to the belief of people who don’t really listen to country radio, doesn’t hardly ever want a downer. Very few downers. “Remember: your target is driving her minivan to drop kids off at school in the morning before she goes to work,” is the frequently quoted advice of one well-known songwriting columnist.

A good starting point is Why You Hate Modern Nashville which sums up most of what I’ve said here, before the following posts neatly pick apart all the points I’ve made.

2. Double-standards

Plenty of other genres rely on formulaic cliches. It’s not just country music being lazy. Rap music is just as lazy, another genre that relies on a holy trinity (guns, women bitches and bling) and whose mainstream appeal relies on used-up musical tricks. (808 set to “adequate.” Hype men shouting things. The same eight funk song samples.) There’s also a certain amount of pandering going on, with pop stars grabbing rap stars to bolster their street cred and a ton of half-assed “duets” that go the other direction.

[Another break: The Cramps were about half-country. They were also half-blues, half-punk and half 3/4-crazy. Let’s take a listen (and try to ignore the leather-pantsed fiend attempting to talk us out of our last cigarette and only virginity…)]

The Cramps – Muleskinner Blues.mp3

The biggest difference between these two genres is the perceived “safety” level. Very few businesses will tune the communal radio to the “urban” side of the dial during the workday. For the most part, rap is still upheld as indicative of What’s Wrong with America and Kids in General. And rap’s portrayal of the “hood” is generally unfavorable. Sure, never forget where you came from and all that, but you can’t get rich without getting the fuck out. (However, you can still die tryin’.) There’s lots of nostalgia, but it’s tempered with bursts of violence and bleak portrayals of crack houses and rogue cops. No one really wants to go back there and it sure as hell isn’t being glorified as being a “better place” than the world surrounding it. There’s a weird sort of protectionism driven by an even weirder loyalty that tends to add a bit of nobility to the people who populate the hood, but the hood as an object is something to escape, rather than something to yearn for.

3. Country fans aren’t stupid.

People who listen to country are not dumb, despite the genre’s insistence on portraying themselves (and by proxy, their fans) as some sort of holy fools. Living in the deep Midwest for several years has put me in contact with many country fans and for the most part, they tend to be no less intelligent than fans of other genres. If your definition of “smart” is solely going to rely on college degrees, GPAs and cultural spread, then yeah, you’ll probably feel these fans are a bit off. But while I may not be able to engage them in a conversation about economic theory, intellectual property issues viz a viz the motherfuckin’ internet and etc., these guys (and most of the people I know well are guys) know how to do extremely practical things like build a garage from the ground up, incapacitate a variety of rogue animals and repair anything from a vintage Ford pickup to a late model combine.

In terms of actual useful information and skills, they’re way ahead of me or most people that I would consider “educated.” The stuff they know trumps the stuff I know when it comes to day-to-day life. When shit starts to go sideways, who do you think you’re going to want backing you up? The guy who blithely types “viz a viz” into a rambling blog post or the guy who can get your vehicle up and running again using little more than his Leatherman (which he is never without)?

4. The mainstream always panders.

The mainstream is always weak, no matter what genre. Calling out a single genre for excess pandering is a strawman held together with bullshit. I almost completely agree with my own counterargument, but pop seems to be expanding a bit past its usual “everyone do what everyone else is doing” blueprint. Lady Gaga may be the second coming of Madonna we never asked for, but at the very least, her whole persona rides the edge of bizarre like no one else. Other pop artists are grabbing influences from outside pop’s closed circle and bringing a whole new set of influences to the mainstream. (Well, perhaps not the artists themselves, but certainly their producers are.)

Other than R&B’s refusal to rise above makeout music, pop is going in all directions at once, something country definitely can’t say. Only the safest, most universal bits of gloss are being applied to country’s skeletal framework. Formulas are great because formulas work, but the word “formulaic” is never a compliment. You can lay some of the blame at the feet of the undemanding fans but let’s face it: no artist with the slightest bit of self-preservation is going to feel the urge to escape a profitable rut.

AT LONG LAST, A CONCLUSION

As much as I try not to be a musical elitist, I’m afraid that country music is never going to “grow” on me. Call it close-minded, but the combination of lazy musical and lyrical shorthand leaves me completely cold. I can’t identify with the singers, the songs’ protagonists and I simply can’t “abide” the music itself. Of course, country’s an easy target, with nearly as many detractors as fans. The genre will never get much respect from those inclined to think (and write) about such things, which I guess is unfortunate. I’m sure I’d feel worse about it if I were here to defend country’s honor.

There are some things I like about it, but most of what I like comes from years past. Like Dolly Parton:

And (more recently), this caught my ears (and eyes). Taylor Swift (who has the most symmetric face I’ve ever seen) covering Eminem live (kill it at 1:40 to avoid Uncle Kracker):

And, of course, the Dixie Chicks turning on George W. Bush (and their own audience), which certainly means they won’t be invited to play a Wal-Mart shareholder’s meeting for the rest of ever. (Which they did in 2001. I know. I was there. Not at the concert, but a mile or so away stuck in a shitty top-floor dorm room on the Univ. of Arkansas campus. Remind me to tell you about it sometime…) I hate knee-jerk politicking as much as the next libertarian, but alienating your own audience is always a tough card to play. So, minor applause for that.

But when it all comes down to it, I have no interest in the genre as a whole. The music, lyrics and entire “god, guns and the American flag” pretension make it unbearable. And the few moments away from the holy trinity are usually spent espousing such dubious things as The South, The Country, The Beer and The Way Things Used to Be. I cannot abide.

-CLT

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Sonic Collision Mk. 3 featuring DJ Doc Rok

Washington, DC native DJ Doc Rok is one of only a handful of mashup producers whose most-recognized output is in the form of full albums.  Following (inadvertently) in the footsteps of Dangermouse (whose Grey Album crafted an unlikely partnership between the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album), Doc Rok first full-length mashup album, American Zeppelin, took a fistful of Led Zeppelin samples and made them play nice with Jay-Z’s American Gangster.  (Full album download here.)

DJ Doc Rok – Ignorant Shit.mp3

Speaking of ignant shit, Doc Rok has put together a rather spectacular selection of the lowest common denominator rap, featuring the sort of lyrics that make concerned parents fear for the future of America, normally in the form of letters to their Congressional representatives. Every track here is the sort of thing pointed at by the self-appointed guardians of culture as examples of What Is Wrong With Hip-Hop Today. For everyone else, it’s just a fuckload of stupid fun.

Doc Rok’s next project, The Biggie Hendrix Experience, takes two artists who went down during their prime, both of whom would be surprised to learn just how much dying increases your productivity. Jimi and Biggie have released somewhere in the area of 300 albums since their death, which puts them in Tupac’s neck of the graveyard, but still leaves them a few albums short of The Fall (est. albums – 377).  (Full download available here.)

DJ Doc Rok – Party & Bullshit vs. Foxy Lady.mp3

All this leads up to what is Doc Rok’s most masterful work yet. Take 50 Cent’s laidback low-key thugging, add some choice instrumental and vocal loops from back in the day (like possibly your parents’ day — the ’50s and ’60s), mix well and chill for an undetermined length of time. Serves party of 4. Fun for ages 7 to 70!**  [Full download available here.]

**(Theoretically. Mr. Cent’s affinity for ribald, sexually frank discussions, quite-a-bit-more-than-occasional swearing and offhand violence will most likely lop quite a few years off both ends of that spectrum. I mean, the kids will dance to it but everyone around them will be horrified and cover the kids’ ears/write letters to their Congressmen.)

Because I love you (mostly platonically, but sometimes more than that when you’re passed out) and I love this album, I’m going to give you TWO tracks to sample just in case the previous mastermixes haven’t fully grabbed your ears.

This is track that first grabbed mine:

DJ Doc Rok – P.I.M.P.mp3

And here’s the one that constantly repeats in my head (and mp3 player):

DJ Doc Rok – Rowdy Rowdy.mp3

Doc Rok isn’t solely a mashup artist, though. He’s got a long string of remixes to his name (check out his Soundcloud page for most of them) and crafts his own beats, one of which was recently used in an SNL sketch (beat kicks in at Ben Stiller’s entrance):

http://www.hulu.com/watch/287085/saturday-night-live-digital-short-v-necks

/s/CLT

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