Hey, readers! Today, your Meta-ist is going to strike a bold new path and write on country music.
Listening to country music is not a popular pastime in academia, so far as I can tell, unless you’re in the South. (In that case, publications and tomes are devoted to it. See, for example, Emory University’s online SouthernSpaces or the publication list of University of North Carolina Press.) I confess to liking country music a great deal; it’s melodic: it’s got immediate memorable hooks: and, with only a little listening, you can pretty easily hear the affinities with Irish and Scottish folk music, in the fiddles and rhythm. Plus, the singers are often pretty terrific, if twanging accents don’t turn you off.
However, my subject today is not actually the music, but the look of country music.
Time was, country music singers looked like, well, country music singers. The men wore sequined and spangled suits (go to YouTube and look up Porter Wagoner) and the women sported huge bouffant hair (think Dolly Parton; look her up on YouTube as well, especially from the pre-1970s). They didn’t look like regular suburban white people throughout, I would say, the 1990s. Think the classic stars established before that decade: Johnny Cash; Loretta Lynn; Merle Haggard; Tammy Wynette; George Jones.
The difference was partly clothes and hair, but it was also something hard to put a finger on: they looked, well, country. Not quite tasteful or regular. They looked poor and not quite ready for prime time—even when, like Johnny Cash, they were on prime time. To see the difference, look at Dolly Parton and contrast her with her sometime co-harmonizers Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. The latter two look suburban, like the daughters of the middle-class Sunbelt they are. To modify a line from Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (relevant although describing a very different subject), Ronstadt and Harris have been reliably served lamb chops and orthodontia in a suburban setting. Parton hasn’t.
Partly that’s because many country singers were poor, once upon a time. The hardscrabble childhoods of Cash and Parton, for example, have been well-documented, and Parton, especially, has linked her outrageous sequins and high hair to being poor and desperately wanting pretty things.
It’s not just habitation of a particular socioeconomic strata, though. Country music singers were, once upon a time, marked white people. If we recall George Dyer’s White, one of the ur-texts of graduate school, white people are the norm; they are regular and don’t stand out; there is no valence associated with them. And that’s true of, say, singers associated with the soft rock heyday. Essentially, they look pretty much interchangeable with any other white guy or gal at a mall. Think James Taylor, Carole King, even Joni Mitchell (if artsy). But it isn’t true of country singers until fairly recently.
Now, though, country singers do resemble the rest of white America. Taylor Swift, for example, is a pretty and glam teenager-turned-young-adult who those at the mall can (and do) aspire to be like. Keith Urban looks like a normal long-haired guy, and so do Rascal Flatts (even if the lead singer is portly) and wears black leather.
Partly, that’s because the marked quality—the poor and rural origins in an increasingly prosperous and suburban nation—has faded. Most of these singers are the children of middle-class parents.
And worthy of comment.
Two well-established country stars, the host Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw, wore HUGE cowboy hats that came down below their eyes, cut off their eyes from the sight of the viewer, and looked really uncomfortable. For one thing, they didn’t seem to fit. Both men looked like small boys wearing their father’s hats.
Yeah, yeah, I know, the wearing of cowboy hats is traditional in the genre. For a long time it was called country and western, and the cowboy hats are a nod to that history. The open range. The mythic cattle hand. And so on.
But talk about marked. Two singers who used to wear hats, Blake Shelton and George Strait (who can be excused since he’s from Texas, where hats are de rigueur), have largely given them up, and you can almost see on their faces relief at being sprung from stupid haberdashery.
And I don’t believe it’s just a nod to history. The hats were so prominent, so oversized, that they virtually called out for comment.
They seemed to say: “I’m a fairly sophisticated guy in a medium a lot of you don’t think is sophisticated. And to prove it, see this damn hat.” (Both Paisley and McGraw are fine musicians with outside interests; capable of traveling in Europe and enjoying the culture.)
They are marking themselves, I think. The ill-fitting nature made the hats a symbol. In the semiotics of country music, it was a self-conscious, self-reflexive hat. A symbol of hats past.
And maybe, a sense that they don’t fit into the old marked category. They are not big enough to fill their father’s shoes, maybe? After all, the generation of Cash, Haggard, Parton and so forth made a huge leap: from literal poverty to riches, from the hardscrabble South to relative ease, from the confines of one American region to worldwide recognition. The more contemporary group—even if you factor in Paisley’s West Virginia roots and McGraw’s bumpy childhood–have always had more economic ease and more, well, cosmopolitanism.
I could see the “see this” nature of the hats as a political statement. The awards ceremony was surrounded by ads about hard working families with Chevys, serving in the military, and so forth.
It was also surrounded by P Diddy and the wide world, though.
Almost 20 years ago, I went to a very different musical venue—the Metropolitan Opera—to hear Luciano Pavarotti sing in Turandot. He was past his prime; by the time I came to opera, after a childhood and young adulthood of rock, folk, and yes, country, his tenor could hardly be heard above the orchestra.
But you could tell what a great singer he had been, by the tonal quality. More than that, though, in the middle of his aria, he hit a perfect space in body language and tonal quality—and it was apparent that he was singing, representing not only this particular passage, but the soul of Italian music. He represented, felt, the soul of his lineage.
Even if he was in so-so voice, it was a moving moment.
I think the Big Hat guys were doing something similar, visibly representing the past. If the hair of the women and most of the men in country is now roughly normal—unmarked and indistinguishable from any suburban mom or dad—the heads of some of the men aren’t. They are trying to embody their lineage.