I used to hate country music. I would hear it at my grandparents’ house. I remember hearing my grandma sing along to those drawling voices and crunchy fiddles. My nine-year-old self cringed inside. The music was so gauche and uncultured. My grandparents grew up poor and uneducated, and I could hear it in their music.
Their radio would play an early subgenre of country called Country & Western. Country & Western was made for people like my grandparents: People who grew up in rural areas during the Great Depression and moved to the city during or shortly after the War. Country & Western gave these folks a connection to their youth.
Country music just sounds bad. The fiddles and the guitars are crass and unsubtle. And country lyrics are barefaced. But there’s still an interesting question to ask: Why do people like country music if it sounds so bad? The unsubtle instruments and simple lyrics are surely part of why it appealed to folks like my grandparents, folks with little money and education. But why does it have such staying power?
You might say that it doesn’t actually sound bad. It just sounds bad to some people. In other words, you could chalk this up to faultless disagreement. Country music sounds foul to those with sophisticated taste, but it sounds great for those who don’t have sophisticated taste. And there’s simply no accounting for taste, and no real way to adjudicate it.
But this answer misses something really important about country music. Part of the point of country music is to sound unrefined. There’s no disagreement. Country music fans know that it’s bad, at least if ‘bad’ means ‘unsophisticated’. That’s why they like it. Country music is a rejection of the refined values of high society. The musicologist Aaron Fox compares country music to smoking a cigarette: part of the appeal of smoking a cigarette is in its badness. By smoking, you express a kind of sublime badness against high society. Fox calls this the white trash alchemy of the abject sublime.
This rejection is explicit in country music. Here’s “(We’re Not) the Jet Set”, famously sung by Tammy Wynette and George Jones:
The lyrics to the chorus are:
Our steak and martinis
Is draft beer with wienees
Our Bach and Tchaikowsky
Is Haggard and Husky
No we’re not the jet set
We’re the old Chevrolet set
But ain’t we got love?
(Important: ‘Chevrolet’ rhymes with ‘jet’.)
These are not people with delicate taste. That’s the whole point! They’re unsophisticated. They’re straightforward. To borrow a term from Christine Korsgaard, country music appeals to people through their practical identities, in the ways that they see themselves and construct their lives. This is why so much country music is tragic. It portrays the mundane sorrows and struggles of working-class people. It reassures us that it’s okay to be dirty and sweaty and ugly.
And actually, most country listeners are not particularly poor—at least, they’re no richer or poorer than listeners in many other genres. But it’s not just the poorest who have a chip on their shoulder about cultured society. Even the relatively well-off may have qualms about the pretension of social elites.
Some country songs go further by emphasizing that country music itself isn’t cool. Check out the opening lines of “This Is Country Music” by Brad Paisley.
You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’
In a song
And tellin folks that Jesus is the answer
Can rub ’em wrong
It ain’t hip to sing about
Tractors, trucks, little towns, or mama
That might be true
But this is country music
And we do
This song makes a shameless appeal to its listeners as people who are not upper-crust, who are not urbane.
So this is the first and central point I want to make about country music. Many people love country music for its badness. In general, I’m fascinated by the many ways that we love badness in art. (Some of my work on this has appeared before on this blog.) We love some things ironically, like inspirational posters; we have guilty pleasures, maybe a soap opera; we love art that’s so bad it’s good. Country music offers a way to love social badness, or unsophistication. Country music makes us feel better about being the wrong kinds of people, about not being Proper. It makes us feel better about being ugly and not handsome, being simple and not Ivy League-educated. More than that, it makes us feel proud that we might not be cultured.
There’s much more to say about this. For one thing, while country music glorifies, or at least reaffirms, a kind of social badness or unsophistication, it doesn’t also glorify moral badness. Just the opposite, in fact. You can clearly see a traditional moral vision squinting in through the back end of the Brad Paisley song. This moral vision includes Jesus, tractors, and respecting your mama. It’s precisely because country folks are unsophisticated that they are supposed to know what’s right from wrong. George Strait’s “Heartland” is a more explicit—and creepier—example of this.
Furthermore, country music isn’t the only genre to incorporate social exclusion. This appears in rap, rock, emo, punk, gospel, and most obviously the blues. But there might be a worry about the way it appears in country music. Given the overwhelming whiteness of country music, it starts to look like social exclusion is uniquely bad in country music. It serves as a salve to fragile whiteness, a way to resist multiculturalism. It makes white suburban folks feel that their values are the right ones, that they are the ones hard done by. This is a real worry, and I don’t want to shy away from it. But I don’t think it means that the whole genre ought to be condemned.
The second point is that country music can still have real aesthetic value. From what I’ve said, it might sound like I think country music is nothing more than an empty placeholder for practical identities—as if it had no real artistic value, as if the artistic content is just a thin veneer for practical identities. That is just false. Country music has always required extraordinary talent and originality. Country music is appealing because it sounds rough and indelicate. The lyrics and sounds of country music grow out of that. But that doesn’t mean it takes no skill or has no aesthetic value as a result. Even though country music rejects delicacy and sophistication in a high-social sense, it still has room for aesthetic delicacy of its own. In fact, Roy Cook’s remarks about the alleged amateurism of punk music make room for the sort of thing I have in mind.
The third point is that country music can play an aesthetic debunking role. Because of its roots in social badness, country music debunks the shallowness of high-class taste. It is a defiant middle finger to pretentiousness. It accepts different values of art. And it is able to debunk what’s bogus about so much appreciation.
For example, I love classical music and jazz, but in my late teens I learned that many people who profess to love these genres are faking it. I noticed that many folks at classical or jazz concerts didn’t really understand what was worth appreciating about the music. What many people actually appreciated was common to many artforms: the virtuosity, the soul, or just really belting it out. This suggested to me that folks often love the appearance of subtlety or sophistication, not actually being able to perceive subtlety. Some artforms get high cultural cache only because they are rooted in a vague idea of subtlety, not because anyone perceives the subtlety.
Country shows don’t have this misdirected appreciation as often. But besides more authentic audiences, the values of country music are real. Country music taught me that it was okay to value music for a hummable melody, or for really solid drumming. It exposed the contingency of received taste. And, of course, there is something so delicious about loving the kind of music you’re not supposed to love.
Lastly, almost nothing here is unique to country music. In fact, my clearest guide to these issues has been Paul C. Taylor’s Black Is Beautiful. In his book, Taylor spends a great deal of time and care with his analysis of the relationship between culture and aesthetics. And many of Roy Cook’s thoughts about punk resonate with my take here.
Now that I’ve come to love country music, in all its bad glory, I wish I would’ve listened more carefully to the songs that my grandma sang along to. I bet she knew some good ones.
Notes on Contributor
John Dyck is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center.