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May 02

Cowboy Dreams

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6. “Tonight I Want To Be Your Man” – Adam Griggs
Adam walks past houses in a rather nice suburb, he is singing about how difficult it is for married couples to have sexual intercourse. So he proposes a solution,instead of being the husband – that protective force against the world – be the man. He recommends putting on the sweet soul music and engaging in “pure seduction” As he is recommending these actions the camera goes into the houses of husbands and wives who all happen to be watching the same video that we are. It’s like Big Brother telling Julia and Winston to go ahead and have sex, but with less of the urban grime.

5. “What If He Is An Angel?” – Tommy Shane Steiner
The television is on in the background and a man in a cowboy hat sings a message of compassion, with an explicit religious justification for helping those who are in need. These are lyrics that talk about both poverty and intimate partner violence – two things that country has been dealing with since the beginning. As noble as the intentions are there is a cloying sentiment to this song, a Protestant surety in the maxim that God helps those who helps themselves.

4. “Young” – Kenny Chesny
These people were rebels in their little home towns. They listened to rock and roll, grew their hair long and drank beer. They wanted to escape but never really did. So they play the same songs and try to forget everything. There is a class issue here: the drinking they do is working class and the place they drink is rural. The entire song and the video seems to be a nostalgia for their dreams of leaving the small town. The lack of women in this video is noticeable – their rebellion seems not to have mentioned woman at all. The last shot however betrays the themes of the rest of the video – the teenage versions of the band walk away from a high school. As they do they morph into their present selves and climb on a tour bus. Maybe the return to the hometown is just a vacation.

3. “I’m Going to Miss Her” – Brad Paisley
A song constructed around a bumper sticker joke (My wife says if I go fishing one more time, she’ll leave me. I sure will miss her). This video features cameos by Jerry Springer and Sports Centre hosts. This should mean that they have crossed over. But the pleasant suburban or rural suggestion of male companionship and the joys of simple things mark this as old-fashioned.

2. “Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde” – Travis Tritt
A convenience store robbery made into a short film starring Billy Bob Thornton and an attractive blonde. The chorus structures a story song that is closer to Woody Guthrie then it is to Shania Twain. The outlaw as anti hero has disappeared here, the bad guys get caught. Maybe if they had stuck to robbing banks there would be less of a chance of capture.

1. “My List” – Toby Keith
There is a sense of reflexive and corrective nostalgia. The song and the video encourage a scaling back of consumer culture. This is couched in heroic terms. There is an american flag, fire fighters, mothers with children and a big house with a porch. There is no mention of how to afford property if you scale back and the perfect world that the song suggests return to never really existed.

So there are the videos. If these twelve are clues to larger themes in this kind of music, and you extrapolate demographic information from them what do they say? They say that the suburbs still have children. They believe that love leads to marriage and marriage leads to children. That the world 40 years ago was less frightening then it is now. That stability is a virtue and the music that their grandparents listened to was as good as the music they listen to.

There may be a tendency to dismiss this as conservative backsliding – to say that the music and the videos encourage a way to thinking that people can no longer afford. That these are the people who do not care about progress and because of that encourage all sorts of nastiness – from the elections of politicians urban folks don’t really like to overpopulation to conspicuous consumption.

This binary between urban and rural, or more accurately between urban and suburban, is a false one. It suggests two separate worlds that are unable to communicate with each other. But are the lives of those with houses in the city and those with houses in the suburbs really so separate? Country music makes us recognize that the world does not move as quickly as we have been led to believe. It shows an awareness that lives do not change as much as we think they do. We dismiss this suggestion of comfort as safe and middle class while looking for other pleasures.

This stability has its virtues. It allows for variations on themes within a traditional structure. There is a recognition of domestic and foreign change, tied to a recognition that these changes are not necessarily positive. This is a critical function that for me is missing from the more urban genres of music. This is not entirely a good thing, and some typical criticisms of country are justified. There are blind spots on occasion that floor people who keep track. For example in Alan Jackson’s hymn about September 11th he admits to not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran. In the Tommy Shane Stiener song on this he encourages helping the disadvantaged only because it might bring divine rewards.

There are larger issues. Does looking in the past discourage you from looking to the future? Does a kind of coddling occur that lets country listeners be blind to progress? Is the assumption that God is the motor of events one that means country often misses human evolution? On the other hand, does this suggest that country is more virtuous ?

Of course not. Suggesting that one genre has more virtues than another suggests you are looking at them in the wrong way. But this is also a reason not to reject country out of hand. Analysis of patterns encourages us to view the culture that enters our lives critically. As much as you may not listen to country music, its scale of consumption makes it is vital to our culture. Your enjoyment of it is secondary. Country’s concerns and perspective are legitimate: rock and roll emphasises the importance of change, but avoids the domestic, and it is here that country comes into its own.

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