Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Stand by your man" is perhaps a thing of the past: country music's feminist rebels

Let's start with the fact that this isn't the first Feminist Legal Theory blog post about country music, so I'm not too ashamed. I find myself in good company. However in a liberal region of the US and an intellectual environment no less –it’s not easy to admit an appreciation for country music.

This is particularly difficult in a feminist forum because, like Iris Goldsztajn in this article, I frequently find myself "desperately trying to reconcile the catchy tunes with their often clearly misogynistic lyrics." The more I celebrate my feminist ideals and understand myself to be a feminist (didn't know if I'd be saying those words six weeks ago, but grappling with the question goes far beyond our class), the more I switch the radio dial away from the local pop-country station.

Country music has gripped me from a young age, however –my mom and I have always sung country songs around the house, and though he'll never admit they're country, my dad was the first to get me interested in the stylings of Little Feat and Lyle Lovett and Chris Whitley. These are my roots. This is the kind of music that I think of when I think of home.

Even from my early years, I understood the genre to be male-dominated. The few women that did get airplay on country radio said passive-aggressive things to other women like "I'm begging of you please don't take my man." (No knocks on Jolene, though, this song is one of the best.) In addition, male country musicians and fans have been consistently misogynistic and patronizing toward female country musicians. One example is the tension and subsequent legal action between Dolly Parton and her song-writing partner Porter Wagoner, whom she called "very much a male chauvinist pig.” Another, the Dixie Chicks' enduring a slue of insults including "big mouths" and "dixie sluts" after their open criticism of the Iraq war in 2003.

I have thus been thinking a lot about relinquishing my love for country, and particularly pop-country, in a kind of protest of a genre that embraces ideals I find detestable. (Many indie-country acts out there have less of a machismo-misogynist feel: Ryan Adams, Shakey Graves, and The Civil Wars, just to name a few.) As I began to ponder this music-boycott, I immediately mourned the catchy, upbeat, guitar-driven songs that I had loved in the past.

Despite myself, I recently attended the Dixie Chicks last concert of their 2016 tour at the Hollywood Bowl. While the Dixie Chicks are seen as country outliers, they still fit squarely in the pop-country genre. I was afraid that I would return from this concert to Feminist Legal Theory class embarrassed that I'd crossed my own country-music-picket-line. But what I saw at the show thrilled me: I saw thousands of women. They danced out of their seats and full-throatedly sang songs like "Goodbye Earl" about a woman helping a friend out of an abusive relationship, and "Ready to Run" about avoiding marriage before you're ready. I realized then that if I want my pop-country music to be more feminist, perhaps I just need to look for it.

This is where women like Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Nettles come in. No one could call these ladies 'indie.' Like the Dixie Chicks, they're pure pop-country. However, Lambert introduced her song "Gunpowder and Lead" in a 2013 concert this way: "Now I've got to tell you two things: #1: I know how to use a shotgun. #2: It is never OK for a man to beat up on a woman. So that's why I wrote this pretty little love song."

Jennifer Nettles released a handful of songs with a feminist feel on her most recent album "Playing with Fire." The song "Drunk in Heels" has the lyrics:
Tired, tired, dog ass tired
Tired down to the bone
I've did a forty hour week
At the Quik-E-Mart
And another thirty-five at home
Dead, dead, the walking dead
Dead right on my feet
I like to put on my pajamas and go to bed
But no one in the house would eat
If I go to work
I have to makeup my whole face
And if once a month I wanna shoot the whole damn place
Well I just have to deal
If I bring home the bacon
I have to fry it up in a pan
I ain't saying that it's easier to be a man
But let's get real . . .

These current musicians who hoist a feminist flag remind that female pop-country artists have been pointing out paternalism's barriers for decades, if you really look for it. Dolly Parton's "Just Because I'm a Woman," Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," and more recently, Gillian Welch's "Miss Ohio" are just a few examples. More female empowerment country music can be found in this great article from the Country Music Project, or in this Elle piece entitled "Where Are All the Feminist Country Songs?"

I still listen to Dolly, Loretta, and Patsy Cline, despite that the majority of their songs are less forward-thinking than Lambert, Nettles, and the Dixie Chicks. I also still have a soft spot for all of the male musicians above: indeed, I'm convinced that Chris Whitley's Living With the Law is one of the greatest road trip albums in the world of music.

I think the most important lesson I've learned is that I can't abandon my music roots, just because their paternalistic origins haven't yet been up-ended. I think this sentiment goes for my roots on all accounts. It's time to look at them critically, and find new ways to view them. And also, to appreciate them for what they are, despite what they aren't.

And, for an upbeat pop-country-music ending from Sugarland: I hope "I will/Find what it means to be the girl/Who changed her mind and changed her world."


Earnest Femingway said...

Kyle Kate,

Thanks for forcing me to revisit popular country music. At the core of my lifelong dislike has been the underlying politics that I associate with the genre. However, unlike my favorite genres (hip-hop, classic rock), there is a really strong female presence; and not just a noticeable presence, a vocal political presence. I have always liked folk-country and oldies, but I think it is time to revisit the contemporary stuff. They provide valuable insight to a cross-section of our country that is too often generalized and dismissed.

Anaaf said...
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Anaaf said...

An individual’s taste in music doesn’t always have to be a reflection of their liberalism or conservatism. Despite the fact that country music lyrics have historically explored matters of the proverbial heart from a prominently male perspective. It is becoming more common for female country artists to express explicitly more feminist inceptions of romantic relationships, such as Carry Underwood, who describes her punitive actions against her adulteress partner (Before He Cheats).

Josie Zimmermann said...

Kyle Kate! I love this! I have had so many similar feelings over the last few years. I can't sing along to some catchy songs like "You Make Me Wanna" because I feel so gross saying the words. But I have also found some new women in Country to support. I love what Kacey Musgraves has been doing, exposing some of the vices of small town life that has been the cornerstone of Country for ages. Songs like "Merry Go Round," "Blowin' Smoke," and "Follow Your Arrow" show that liberal and feminist messages are perfectly compatible with Country music. It's just another area where consumption needs to be careful and purposeful.

Julie Maguire said...
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Julie Maguire said...

Kyle Kate,

I, unashamedly, have a deep love for the American country music genre and thoroughly enjoyed this post. I thoroughly agree that many songs in this genre can portray women in a somewhat subservient role to the men that are "out to get them" (yes, that is a Dolly Parton reference).

However, I also find that many of the songs written by women in this genre can be quite empowering. It can be seen in many of Taylor Swift's songs, particularly those that were written before her pop era began, really defy the concept of "stand by your man". Such songs include "Should've Said No", "Dear John" and "Mean". All of these songs openly bash her previous partners whom, she admits, did not treat her as she deserved.

This side of Swift is rarely appreciated by the media. Her "fauxfeminism" < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rebecca-bohanan/taylor-swift-and-the-bran_b_11101662.html > is slated and shamed for being insincere and selfish. Shouldn't the empowerment and support of women be encouraged regardless?