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May 02

Cowboy Dreams

FT • 3,572 views

The Meaning of Country Music

If the top twenty on Country Music Video is any indication, concern about a pop invasion is a fuss about very little. These songs, and the images that accompany them, are comforting in their nostalgia for a world of conservative family values: even though the music video is the most postmodern of forms most of these videos maintain traditions settled seventy years ago.The reflexivity and non-linear nature of the music video works surprisingly well for most country songs, whose narratives are told in straightjacketed form.

There have been crossovers between hip-hop and rock. But country music is only heard on country music stations and networks. There is very little overt bleeding from rock to country, or from pop to country. When Shania Twain hit Number One on the pop charts she was given to the easy listening stations; when Leanne Rimes recorded pop songs her records failed to sell. Country on country stations is also different from the hybrid of country and traditional forms found in the recent Bluegrass revival – Ralph Stanley will never show up on CMT for example. So what can we learn about country by paying attention to its commercial heart?

I decided to find out by using the Top Twelve Peoples Choice from Friday, April 26th. The fact that these twelve were voted by the public (some via a website) was mentioned before and after every commercial break, but this was the only intervention from a third party. There was no one to be a intercessor between the viewer and the text. These videos were what the people of Canada viewed as important in their love of country music.

12. “Shut Up and Kiss me or Just Shut Up” – Michelle Wright
The title may be traditional, straight out of the Tammy Wynette school, but aside from that this is not very country. The video is an urban apartment, there are too many guitars, she is dressed in leather trousers. Everything makes it sound like the female reclamation of cock rock popular in 1995. But Michelle Wright has had a career in this genre for decades.

11. “The One” – Gary Allen
A ballad centering on a wish-fulfilment fantasy of monogamy. When Country started there were hurting songs and loving songs. This pattern has seen variations – the cheating song or the wedding song or the work-means-more-to-you-than-me song – but at the core of things there are still only hurting songs and loving songs. Since this is Allen’s search for love the camera’s gaze focuses on him. The shots we have of the woman who he is courting are elusive at best.

10. “Should Be Sleeping” – Emerson Drive
A hurting song about sleepless nights, the video splits between shots of
domesticity and live performance in a way that avoids clear narrative. There seems to be, in the addition of the performance footage, a second message about the difficulties of fame. However you cannot really say that out loud in a forum like this – people might think that you’re not grateful.

9. “I Still Miss My Friend” – Darryl Worley
A hurting song, not quite a cheating song but definitely one that talks
about leaving. It’s also one that mentions God as a source of inspiration:something that is rarely mentioned so plainly elsewhere but is a commonplace in country songs.

8. “My Heart Is Lost To You” – Brooks and Dunn
With its Telejano flavour and Spanish chorus this song shows the first departure from country tradition on this list. The interesting thing is how little of the huge amount of cowboy music in Mexico has bled into American consciousness. The video itself has three unrelated scenes: a couple dressed in black and white, black flags flying in the desert and a white corvette and a black truck racing through the salt flats. Stylish and apparently meaningless, this is also the closest to the videos on non-country channels.

7. “You Are” – Carol Lynn Johnson
The pretty girl sings while brief jump cuts show a naked back, a quarter face, a sleeve being turned up,a pec and a six pack and the crescent of belly just north of the belt line. As has been seen in “The One” and will be seen again, there is a concentration on the male body. This concentration fails to make him a person, which is odd in a song that is supposed to be about the importance of remembering there is one man for every woman.

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