Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From the heartland, the new macho

I’m going to out myself: I’m an avid country music fan. I shamelessly toggle between 105.1 KNCI (New County) and 101.9 (The Wolf) – the two local country stations – and when both are on commercial breaks, I play mix tapes. For those of you who aren’t aware, the Country Music Awards air tomorrow (Wednesday, November 9th), on ABC, at 8/7 central.

And even though it sometimes seems -- here in Davis -- that being a country music fan is “quirky,” it’s actually rather mainstream. According to a study by Market Research Insight (MRI), approximately 42% of the United States population, or 95 million people, also sing Taylor Swift in the shower. For the most part, country music fans represent Main Street; 34 percent are high school grads, 30 percent have attended some college, and 24 percent have college degrees. Post-graduates such as us JDs total only eight percent of country listeners.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, education proves to be the single best predictor of political knowledge. The MRI and Pew statistics, taken together, suggest that most country music listeners are less aware of laws and lawmaking than most JDs. (I'd say that this is consistent with stereotypes.)

This is relevant to feminist JDs because, in trying to promote feminist laws, Main Street is a constituency with which feminist JDs will need to communicate.

At first glance, country music might strike feminist JDs as more of an antagonist than an ally. Country music has a reputation for being conservative and for promoting “family values.” All too often, “family values” means “patriarchal values.” (See, e.g., George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant.)

Somewhat surprisingly, however, consideration of top country hits shows a surprising lack of “patriarchal” songs – songs that demean women or seek to keep them "barefoot and pregnant." On the contrary, country radio creates a significant social space for what an article in Newsweek terms “the new macho” – the concept that “men should do whatever it takes to contribute their fair share at home and at work,” even if that means doing laundry and changing diapers.

The new macho is manifest in many top country hits. For example, in Craig Campbell’s song “Family Man,” he sings “There's dirty shirts to wash / Dishes in the sink to do / And there's how many times / Does 17 go into 52 ... What keeps me keeping the faith / What makes me believe I can? / Family man.”  Phil Vassar’s song, “Just Another Day in Paradise” begins, “Kids screaming / Phone ringing / Dog barking at the mailman bringing / That stack of bills / Overdue / Good morning, Baby, how are you?” In Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff,” the protagonist, after a fight with his wife, goes to a bar. The bartender sends him home, telling him, “When she says I’m sorry, say ‘so am I.’” I could go on and on, but believe I’ve made my point – in stark contrast to other genres*, country stresses that it’s okay, even admirable, to be a “Mr. Mom.” (Coincidentally, the title of another song by Lonestar.)

The stereotypical “country music listener” aspires to hegemonic masculinity. (See Hugh Campell, Michael Bell, and Margaret Finney’s article “Country Men: Masculinity and Rural Life.”) However, close consideration of country music itself and of the culture with which it is affiliated proves this stereotype untrue. On the contrary, country music suggests that the men of Main Street may be more open to a feminist agenda then one might think. Country radio is an important, but overlooked, forum in which feminist JDs and working-class men might communicate.

 * Contrast, for example, these lyrics with those of the Rihanna song that we discussed today.


KayZee said...

Rose Sawyer, I was JUST having this conversation with one of our classmates today. I too believe that country music (at the very least in comparison with other genres) does portray a "new macho" as Newsweek coins the term. While I agree that many country songs can have a patriarchal slant to them, the overall message is generally positive.

I read an article on CNN this week about the rising popularity of country music in America. The Country Music Awards are becoming one of the most watched award shows, after the Emmys, Oscars and Grammys. In a time of economic and social turmoil, perhaps country's popularity is based in its simplicity. Despite the old joke that country music is just about a man losing his woman, his best friend, his truck and his dog, maybe it's more positive than we give it credit.

Lastly, I said today, and I will repeat it here, that I believe country music should be applauded for its overall portrayal of women. My personal opinion is that female country singers come across as very strong and outspoken. And I also believe that the way that male country singers address women in their songs, although perhaps patriarchal at times, are generally respectful. You would be hard pressed to find a country song that "bashes" women, as do some genres of music.

Caitlin said...

This article reminds me of a somewhat related ad I saw today while at the gym, advertising Tide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M28l-6LUp3w . The commercial features a fairly hegemonic masculine male, wearing a plaid, button-down shirt, folding what appear to be his young daughter's clothes. He says that with Tide, since he only has to wash the stained clothes once (he even refers to a very girly dress as a "thing," empasizing his lack of knowledge of the names of feminine clothes), he has time for himself. As he finishes saying that, his young daughter approaches him and asks him to French braid her hair, to which he responds, "herringbone or fishtale?"

While this commercial is very small, it seems to indicate a change in media portrayal of men being masculine but also devoting time to their families by doing chores at home.

Megan said...

I'd like to just come right out and say it as well--I like country music! And while I agree with the general consensus that country songs, as compared with some other music genres, are not overly offensive, there are still popular country musicians who write lyrics which glorify stereotypical gender roles. For instance, Brad Paisley's "I'm still a guy" starts with Bard, singing to his girlfriend: "When you see a deer you see Bambi, and I see antlers up on the wall." Granted, he continues the song by admitting that when he's with her (the object of his love), he'll do out-of-character things like write love songs, and carry her purse through the mall. However, he's "still a guy" and draws the line at facials, lotions, and manicures, all of things he equates with essentially "getting neutered." He finishes with a final assertion of his masculinity: "Oh my eyebrows ain't plucked, There's a gun in my truck, Oh thank God, I'm still a guy."

AMS said...

Rose Sawyer,

Thanks for the post! I've always been a bit resistant to non-pop country music, but the more I listen, the more I realize that country music profoundly influences many of my favorite artists (e.g. Led Zeppelin, Heart, etc.). Country music is also central to American identity. Although I've never lived the idyllic "simple life" often romanticized in the country music "stories," the themes transcend.

Earlier in the week, I heard an NPR story about Miranda Lambert. The story highlighted the rebellious attitude captured in Miranda's songs. Especially in the world of country, I can definitely appreciate a rebellious woman who (hopefully) empowers her listeners to also challenge the status quo.

The NPR piece also touched on Miranda's upbringing. When Miranda was growing up, her parents routinely opened their home to victims of domestic violence. Miranda explained that the women went back to their abusers about half the time, and, the other half of the time, they were able to find a way out. I'm curious to know whether her early exposure to victims influences her repertoire...

At one point in the story, the station played a clip of the song "Mama's Broken Heart" (written by Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Brandy Clark). In the song, Miranda contrasts her approach to dealing with the pain of a break-up with her mom's approach. Although she also sings of drinking and revenge, I found representative of an evolution in women's willingness to express themselves in public:

...Powder your nose, paint your toes/
Line your lips and keep 'em closed/
Cross your legs, dot your I’s/
And never let 'em see you cry.

Go and fix your make up, well it’s just a break up/
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady/
'Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together/
Even when you fall apart/
But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart.