Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Players, Haters in the House: Weakling Spikes the Mashup Punchbowl (Extended Edition)

[Parts of this post originally appeared over at Lost in the S0und. I had a lot more to say about the subject at hand but felt it might be a little rude to use ALL THE WORDS at someone else’s place. This being the home turf, I have no problem whatsoever with going long. Enjoy(?)]


Without juxtaposition, a mashup is nothing.

There has to be some sort of A+B tension in order to pull it off. If you’ve got one hip hop artist rapping over another hip hop artist’s beats, you’ve got a mixtape, not a mashup. The trick is finding something complementary, yet unexpected.

There’s no real analogue for a mixtape in other forms of music. An aspiring singer could conceivably sing one song’s lyrics over another song’s melody, but if anyone has ever done that, I have yet to hear it. This is where the mashup artist steps in, freeing vocalists from the constraints of their chosen music and allowing them to wander into other genres.

The greater the juxtaposition, the better the mashup. (In most cases. There will always be exceptions or stuff that just doesn’t work.) Did you ever have the urge to hear Katy Perry fronting Joy Division? Of course you didn’t. Don’t even come in here with that bullshit. No one wants to hear this and yet someone (in this case, mashup artist Oki) heard something the rest of us didn’t and performed Frankenstein-esque dark art to give us what we clearly didn’t want, but find to be surprisingly listenable.

Oki – Means to a Firework (Katy Perry vs. Joy Division).mp3

Extreme juxtaposition allows fans from disparate genres to meet in the middle, if only to discuss how FUCKED this mix is and HOW DARE THEY, ETC. Mashup artists know this and go crate-digging with enthusiasm, looking for stuff that shouldn’t work but does. Rock icons are demystified. Graves are pissed on. Genre limitations are burnt to the ground and salted. Audacity is the name of the game and whatever can have a hook (lyrical/musical) hung on it, will have exactly that happen to it.

Audacity. Juxtaposition. The unhealthy urge to put incompatible parts together and coax them into cohesion.

Weakling has done exactly that: juxtaposition with an outsized serving of audacity.

I was minding my own business, browsing the “Remix” tag at Bandcamp when I ran into this. I won’t put you completely in my unguarded shoes, though, because I have no idea where you’re listening to this and who else might be listening alongside you, so here’s this disclaimer:

WARNING: The following mashup contains some language that most people would consider unsuitable. It’s not so much the words as it is the context. Proceed with caution (and headphones preferably, if at work).


The track starts out amiably enough, with Biggie’s flow playing nicely off the repeated tones. It’s not until you get to the “chorus” that you’ll run into trouble. And it’s trouble that starts with playful verbal gunshots and ends with ugly-ass ignorant hatred.

Hearing this unlikely (and possibly unlikeable) “collaboration” featuring Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s The Limit”  paired up with samples and a reprehensible chorus courtesy of the equally reprehensible (and pseudonymous) Johnny Rebel*,one is tempted to ask themselves many questions, most prominently “Why?”

*If you’re wondering who or what a Johnny Rebel is, let me fill you in (follow the link above for even more info). Johnny Rebel is the alter ego of Cliff Trahan, a Cajun country musician who, during the tail-end of the desegregation fight in the South, decided (or was prompted) to write a string of singles celebrating bigotry. More (oh sweet jesus much much more) on him later in the piece (my god… it’s full of words).

This isn’t any normal mashup, aimed towards the fans of the rap (or fans of racism, for that matter). It’s not aimed at enterprising DJs looking to throw a curveball at the dancefloor or towards mashup fans in general. It’s not the sort of track that someone sends around to friends for their appraisal and appreciation.

No, this is the kind of mashup that puts a person in the uncomfortable position of listening to a blatant racist periodically spew hate (which pretty much makes it the only mashup in this category). When the chorus arrives in its horribly amiable fashion, it’s like being kicked simultaneously in the brain and soul. After getting sideswiped by Weakling’s tainted bootleg, we’re definitely different people than we were three minutes ago but we’re still no closer to answering “Why?”

Here’s a few theories:

  • Juxtaposition as lulz
    Trolling mashup fans with an “oh shit he did not just do that” sample. Nothing but shock value for the sake of shock value. While the internet is full of this sort of thing (I’m looking at you /b/ [and then averting my eyes as quickly as… ohnogodno…]), it seems both a.) unlikely that someone would go through this sort of trouble simply for lulz (it reeks of effort) and b.) the KKK members in the photo sort of tip the hand (but not completely, or enough, apparently — I mean, I saw the hoodies and stuff but didn’t think anything of it until the chorus rolled in).
  • Juxtaposition as statement (version 1)
    Black man trumps white fool. Biggie was big. And rich. J. Rebel is still some backwater cracker with a headful of bad wiring and an ignorant streak as long as the mighty Mississippi. Somewhat likely, especially considering that there’s very little crossover between NY gangsta rap fans and racist redneck Cajun country fans. Flipping the sonic bird to Rebel, hoping that this track comes up during his vanity searches via AOL (or whatever).
  • Juxtaposition as statement (version 2 — with complications)
    Even slavery and racism can’t keep the black man down. Biggie rose from the hood to the top before his untimely death. Johnny Rebel lives on, all but forgotten. Of course, Rebel may be having the last laugh on this track, being of the mindset that the only good nigger is dead nigger. But it’s a hollow laugh. (Which is probably the only kind of laugh someone like Rebel possesses.)
  • Juxtaposition as a tale of two clichés
    Black rapper. Violent, sexist, obsessed with money, drugs and power. White trash. Violent. Sexist. Racist. Obsessed with whites up and blacks down. Two forms of self-destructive ignorance. Crime pays vs. white bigotry.
  • Juxtaposition as a much larger statement on rap, racism, inherent violence and various other notions
    Johnny Rebel’s chorus vocalizes gunshots as a casual threat to both blacks and the whites who treat them as equals. His “wop bop bam bam” acts as an eerie precursor to the casual celebration of violence (most often against other blacks) that drives mainstream rap. “Wop bop bam bam” is just a forerunner to M.I.A. triggering gunshot/cash register samples in “Paper Planes.” Offhand violence driven by cash enterprise/turf protection.Rebel runs on hate and perceived superiority. Rappers are far more nihilistic, gunning down others to gain property, money and respect. Who’s laughing now? The South fought against recognizing African-Americans as equals for as long as they could. Now, without having to put any effort into their hating, they can see the entire system (prisons, inner cities, the Drug War) working together to hand the brothers just enough rope to hang themselves. Wop. Bop. Bam. Bam.
  • Juxtaposition as juxtaposition
    The “blackest” music ever vs. the “whitest” music ever. Who wins? No one. Or maybe everyone does, drawing their own conclusions and walking away a different person than they were three minutes ago.

Six theories, all of which could be completely wrong, and still plenty of headspace left over to craft half a dozen more. But rather than let this devolve further into Capitalist Lion Tamers’s Conspiracy Theory Generator and Overthinkery, why not just go right to the source?

Introducing the man behind the spiked (head)punch that is Biggie vs. Rebel, Weakling, who informed me that this track was originally part of bigger project entitled “South by South-west: 100 Years of Racial Tension in Music,” featuring various hip hop heroes rubbing sonic elbows with “bigoted white supremacist Nazi punk.” So, the kind of fun that can only be had by forcing people to play nice (via production magicks) who wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room together. (Or, more likely, someone in that room would be dead shortly thereafter):

CLT: Before we delve into this track and the concept behind it, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do when you’re not lacing mashups with toxic samples.

Weakling: I’m a front-end web designer/developer from Queensland. My job is my other passion to music. I’ve spent my whole life around computers which often makes me late for things.

As for this track itself, it’s quite the aural sucker-punch to lay on the average mashup fan. Speaking as one, we’ve come to expect some outrageous or hilarious juxtaposition (see also: Eminem vs. Lawrence Welk, Rage Against the Machine vs. Glenn Miller; Katy Perry vs. Joy Division) but are rarely (in fact, never in my experience) confronted with something as unexpectedly severe as this.

One minute you’re enjoying the masterful mix work, the next you’re trying to collect your jaw from the floor and your shattered brain from various places in your skull. It almost seems like the track should come with a disclaimer attached (as above). Was any part of the creation of this track motivated by a desire to “troll” mashup fans, particularly their tendency to enjoy hip hop more once it’s attached to music that’s “safer” or “whiter”?

Like the ones you listed, mashups are awesome when the tracks come from polar opposites. One of the first mashups I played live mixed Khia’s “My Neck My Back,” Alexisonfire, Public Enemy, Bolt Thrower, a Yo Gabba Gabba song and a bunch of others. I played it at a family-friendly open mic night and there were a few kids in the front row. It didn’t go down as well as I imagined but I had a really great time.

“Sky’s the Limit” was produced to be pretty tongue-in-cheek. I just liked the idea of getting two artists who would never, ever work with each other into a track, even if Biggie wasn’t dead. Mashup music is usually pretty fun with guys like Girl Talk and Yacht Club DJs playing party mixes. I kinda wanted to ruin that and make something a bit uneasy.

How did you come across Johnny Rebel’s music? As far as I can tell, it’s not the sort of thing you just stumble upon without either accidentally or purposefully straying into the uglier parts of the web.

You definitely have to dig deep to find stuff like Johnny Rebel. Movies like Romper Stomper and American History X brought my attention to nazi punk. One scene in American History X, the bigger guy is singing “The White Man Marches On” by Johnny Rebel in his truck and it stuck with me. I illegally downloaded one of his albums (I’m not going to fuel his music career) and listened to it for a few weeks non-stop.

What’s your take on hip hop today in general? (lyrics, production, etc.) Are you a fan? Who of? Who could you do without?

There are some awesome hip-hop acts floating around these days. Some of my favourites are Death Grips, Busdriver, Skepta, Die Antwoord, Army of the Pharaohs, dälek and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire. I’m also a big fan of instrumental stuff like Burial, Nosaj Thing and Daedulus. I don’t get the huge fuss over OFWGKTA. They’re not bad – I saw them when they came to Brisbane last but I don’t get the hype.

The production on Death Grip’s “Ex-Military” opened my eyes. It sounds like it was recorded under someone’s house with a webcam but it really works.
… 


I find it interesting that the word “nigger” still holds so much power when spoken by someone who’s clearly a racist. From my own experience, I can listen to a hip hop artist use it 30 times in 4 minutes without it registering as anything heavier than a comma. But when Rebel’s voice breaks through with the chorus, it’s like suddenly being shoved off a cliff and falling into the ugly underbelly of America. For all the talk of “reclaiming” the word and robbing it of its power, hearing someone use the word with its original derogatory intention still hits hard. It exposes that subset of humanity that will never truly be gone: the hardcore racist.

And it’s not just that subset. There’s a strain that lays under the surface of everyday life. It’s not so much flat out racism as it is simple prejudice. On one of his albums, Chris Rock points this fact out: “There’s not a white person out there who would change places with me. And I’m rich!” It pretty much seems that being poor and white is still “better” than being rich and black. (Sorry. That’s not really a question. But feel free to add any commentary or just ignore my thinking out loud and head to the next question.)

I completely agree, great comment. The context Rebel uses the word in is so much more sinister and defamatory than any black rapper could. As a painfully white guy, I can’t even imagine uttering the word in public.

As an Australian, what’s your perception of racism in America? Does it seem to be a larger problem than Americans perceive it or is it mainly present in the outliers on the edges of normal society? Does Australia have the same problem (or perceived problem)?

I visited the US at the beginning of the year and every city seemed really multicultural and tolerant – race never seemed to be an issue. That’s just an outsider’s perspective though.

Until the 1970’s, Australia had what was called the White Australia Policy, basically an anti-immigration policy for everyone not white, Anglo-Saxon. Australia is an awesome country but there is still some deep, underlying racism in pockets but it’s kept on the down-low. I like to think each generation is ironing out these social problems though.

As for the unfinished project itself, are you attempting to make a larger statement than simply playing off the juxtaposition? I mean, basically, you’re creating a project with a very slim audience. It won’t appeal to hip hop fans, mashup fans or racists, which would leave you a mixture of the curious, the accidental listeners and people who like to think Big Thoughts about music. It’s kind of like announcing you’re going to hammer out an unfilmable screenplay.

You’re right, I can’t imagine the project has a big audience which is fine. It’s corny but everything I’ve released so far is for myself. Every track I’ve finished I’ve released online for free and plan to for all future tapes. I’m sure if I had some big, monetary investment in the project I’d think to make something more commercial but while I can make music in the comfort of home at any time of day/night, I’m going to make things that I like, regardless of who wants to hear it. As a designer, I work in commercial art and Weakling is an outlet for me to explore without thinking about how my work will sell.

Are you planning on trolling white power forums with links to the project? (Because you should absolutely do that…)

Haha, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Kkk.com? I just noticed Google suggests ‘White Powerade’ when you search ‘white power’. I’d better turn SafeSearch off and delve into the dark interweb.

Well, good luck with that (and let me know if you need help trolling). Thanks for your time.

[Check out Weakling at his blog, on Facebook and his artist page at Triple J Unearthed. And by all means, swing by Bandcamp and check out his other electronica, all of which is 100% Johnny Rebel-free and, as he said, costs you absolutely $0 to get ahold of.]

MORE ON JOHNNY REBEL & BIGOTRY (POSSIBLY A BONUS SECTION OF SORTS)

Well, you don’t run into someone like Johnny Rebel without wondering exactly how far down his personal rabbit hole goes. Before we start wading into the murky depths of casual racism, let’s get a look at the little fucker, shall we?


[Writer Mike has summarized his look as thus: “I bet the guy looks like an ineffectual nebbish.” Dead on.]

Johnny Rebel is Cajun country singer Cliff Trahan’s “alter ego” (we’ll be dealing with plenty of semantic games during this piece, and this is just the beginning). He recorded a string of 10 singles under this name, sporting delightful titles like Nigger, Nigger, In Coon Town, Who Likes A Nigger?, and Nigger Hatin’ Me, all of which were deemed “too hot for the mainstream” (or whatever) and compiled as “For Segregationists Only,” presumably to cut down on returns from people searching for garden-variety, decidedly non-capitalized cracker music.

Despite this track record (a recording joke!), Trahan has gone on record as stating that he is not a racist, he “just doesn’t like niggers.” This racial-slur-as-evidence-of-lack-of-racism defense is a common self-delusion. I’ve actually heard this statement in real life (more than once). Supposedly there’s a difference between regular (“good”) blacks and niggers. Trahan’s nebulous defining line is based on “attitude,” as in niggers are blacks who walk around acting like everyone owes them something for decades of slavery. But it’s all good because Trahan knows and likes other blacks, having even worked with them in the studio while recording his segregationist album. Not only that, but not all blacks are niggers. Just “85%”of them. So basically 9 out 10.

(Closely related is the ever-popular “I’m not a racist, but…” with the remaining statement being clearly discriminatory. Much like Trahan, people using this pre-emptive defense are often racists, or at the very least, carrying around higher levels of bigotry than the average citizen who rarely begins a sentence on the defensive.)

It’s not an uncommon pseudo-defense of bigotry, but it is one that is definitely unique to whites speaking about blacks. I have never heard a version of this phrase applied to any other race, gender or culture. No one, to my knowledge, has ever said “I don’t hate Jews. I just don’t like kikes.” Or “I don’t hate Orientals. I just don’t like chinks.” The closest I’ve heard is explanations on the differences between gays and faggots. This is generally applied to (again) attitude and certain mannerisms.

[As a bit of a breather, let’s throw this whole discussion into the blender and watch a Canadian gay man sort it all out…]


(This doesn’t include people who use the word “faggot” as a catch-all insult [most of any online multiplayer gaming community] or as a self-referential catchall word to be appended to their status [mainly 4chan, in which newbies are “newfags” and the knee-jerk appending of “fag” to everything has led to the redundant incongruity of gay members referring to themselves as “gayfags.” That would require another few thousand words to unpack, and millions of words have already been expended in an attempt to unbox [as it were] the true intentions behind those using the word freely. Throwing my two cents in at this point would be like pouring an 8 oz glass of water into an Olympic-sized swimming pool and telling everybody how I helped “fill it up.”)

Listening to his interview with Howard Stern, one thing stands out. He seems like a halfway decent guy. I mean, yes, he’s the author of a string of bigoted singles but he doesn’t come across as someone filled with animosity towards the black race. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a piece of shit. It just means that he’s not in full “piece of shit” mode all the time.

Not only that, but he’s not a bad songwriter. If it wasn’t for the nasty, ignorant bile that passes for lyrics, some of these tracks would be downright hummable. For example, this one. (Careful with that — you may find yourself with it stuck in your head, and that’s pretty much the worst set of lyrics to have rattling around in your brain and attempting to escape your lips periodically.)

He comes across as generally amiable and doesn’t spend a lot of time attempting to justify what he’s done. But the few attempts he makes to justify these songs just don’t work.


First of all, there’s the claim that it was “just about the money.” While many people have done regrettable things for money, a small Southern label isn’t going to be throwing around the kind of money that shifts ideologies. Trahan claims to have made only around $5,000 from these singles, which isn’t exactly take-it-or-leave-it money, but it’s certainly not enough to persuade someone to crank out a collection of racially-charged tunes if their heart wasn’t already at least halfway in it.


He also claims these songs were “a product of the times,” specifically citing forced busing. While many people may have objections to this sort of forced desegregation, very few of them recorded a bunch of tracks loaded with non-specific hate directed at all “niggers,” which in the context of these tracks means all black people (there’s nothing in here pointing out the good, obedient Negroes). Piling up a bunch of wrongs and calling it “right” isn’t mathematically sound or even remotely credulous.

Moving a few decades on hasn’t healed any of Trahan’s wounds. He complains again and again [and again] in interviews about the “attitude” of these blacks who have earned his designation of “nigger.” He tries to brush off the singles as something from the past done for money, but his antipathy towards a majority of the black race hasn’t changed at all over the passing decades. If anything, he’s become more resentful over time.

Perhaps the only karmic satisfaction comes from the fact that Trahan/Rebel has been largely unable to capitalize monetarily on these singles. For the most part, bootleg versions and compilations swept together by unrelated “white labels” (and that’s a DJing/racism joke!) have cut him out of the royalty loop. (That’s if such a loop even existed – his accounts of the recording sessions make it sound like it was an upfront payment situation with no back end residuals.) Not that these albums would ever go platinum, but he does point out that originals are being sold for several times their face value on ebay.

Digging into Trahan’s recordings (and the sites that pay homage to him) is like picking at a scab. The wound is just under the surface, healing slowly. Racism and bigotry will never be completely eradicated and each legislative step towards this impossibility tends to make things worse rather than better, bringing with it new inequalities and a ton of backlash.

Proponents of changing human behavior through lawmaking unleash all sorts of unintended consequences and cling to idiotic buzzwords like “teaching tolerance.” To “tolerate” something is to suppress your true feelings while barely putting up with something. It’s not nearly the same thing as “acceptance,” which seems to be the goal, but even those pushing through legislation realize you can’t make anyone “accept” anything. So they settle for much, much less – asking people to give the appearance of acceptance under the guise of “tolerance.” Or else.


[A quick pause for some C&W meets Eazy-E, courtesy of DJ Topcat.]

DJ Topcat – Folsom Prison Gangstaz (Johnny Cash vs. Eazy-E).mp3

Racial relations are an ongoing problem in America and it’s not solely limited to whites. From my perspective is that racism is more prevalent than most whites* think it is but not nearly as omnipresent as self-appointed mouthpieces for various races imply it is after someone like Don Imus says something stupid. I think there’s an underlying tension that will never go away as long as “tolerance” is still preached rather than actual acceptance. There’s also a tendency for policy makers to overcorrect in an effort to make up for past injustices, which leads to backlash that makes the situation worse rather than better.

[*”Most whites” does not include those who wallow in “white guilt” and believe racism is mind-numblingly omnipresent, a trait found in nearly every white person around them, (except for fellow wallowers) and they’re even beginning to have doubts about them. These are the type of people that make up entirely new words for genders, sexual orientations and entire cultures so as to avoid words that might possibly designate a certain trait about that demographic. They also tend to create things like “rape culture” out of thin air and proceed to label as many non-wallowers with it as possible, all the while peppering their blog posts and Facebook Shares with trigger warnings. Frankly, they’re exhausting and hanging out with them is about as much fun as driving a rendering truck co-piloted by a talkative PETA staffer.

There’s enough barely-hidden discrimination in the world that I can’t find the energy to get worked up trying to protect everyone everywhere from possibly being offended/troubled by the use of common language. 

Example: trigger warnings for “Ableist language,” found about halfway down the page. The language in question? The word “dumb” as used in the context of “Most video games are dumb.” I’m really not sure the internet needs trigger warnings posted all over it. If so, then a simple stroll through Youtube comment threads would be enough to send anyone with the slightest condition into a recursive loop. I think people are generally tougher than the ultra-sensitive “protectors” give them credit. “Helicopter parenting” doesn’t turn out children with coping skills or self-reliance. “Helicopter blogging” isn’t doing anyone any favors, either.

I’m all for making the world a better place. I just don’t think that granting millions of people instant (and permanent) victim status is the way to go about it.]

There’s probably no true yardstick for how much racism actually exists and realistically, there’s never going to be a 100% solution. Generational change is probably the most potent defense against bigotry, but it’s a long slow process filled with setbacks and detours. If nothing else, an occasional kick in the head that results in re-examination of the world around you is very definitely a good thing. As uncomfortable an experience as listening to Weakling’s “teaser” track for his (hopefully) upcoming mashup album, I’m looking forward to hearing the finished product. Racism and discrimination are unfortunate and unpleasant, but the worst thing we can do is coast through life conveniently forgetting it still exists. Tracks like Weakling’s “Sky’s the Limit” mashup bring it all back into focus by catching listeners when their guard is down. If this and the rest of his planned “concept” mashup album startle more people into thinking (and talking) [and writing] about these issues, I’m all for it.

/s/CLT

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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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