Country-western family friendly?
Matt had been hearing a lot about the dark underbelly of the internet that is Big Hollywood, so he went to check it out and was immediately rewarded with this incoherent rant from Brian Cherry about the danger Miley Cyrus poses to America. It seems Cherry believes Cyrus is a mole designed to lure good Christian country fans into thinking unclean thoughts by pretending to be a good girl but actually being a naughty temptress. There are many problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Miley Cyrus doesn’t play country western music, as far as I can tell.
I can picture the steps that led Cherry to write this rant. I’m sure that the level of success reached by a dimwitted teenager spawned by a talentless hack annoys him. I can sympathize. But since he’s a member of the wingnut tribe, he believes that everything goes back to the tireless struggle between good conservatives and evil liberals, so he assumes his annoyance must be political in nature. Also, she’s female, and that reminds him of how much he hates that genuinely good band the Dixie Chicks. Thus, stupid rant.
But I think Matt and his commenters missed what was really awesome and hilarious about Cherry’s rant. The commenters at Matt’s immediately went to listing a number of famous non-Dixie Chicks liberal musicians (forcing me to point out to them that they forget Dolly Parton), and Matt didn’t really interrogate the source of Cherry’s claim that Cyrus is some sort of leftist Trojan horse, which is her sexy naughtiness. Which is what he has to lean on, because Cyrus probably knows less about politics than she does about writing songs. So in order to make his already-incoherent argument not sound even more incoherent, Cherry hangs his complaint on a verifiably false assertion—that country western music is “family friendly”.
Listing the liberal country musicians out there misses the point, since a lot of them have historically locked horns with the country music establishment, which Cherry is correct to assume is pretty conservative. But conservative isn’t the same thing as “family friendly”. For example, Loretta Lynn’s songs have always acknowledged the existence of sex, but she didn’t really face the radio censors until she released a song celebrating the birth control pill. And this was a woman who wrote a song where the narrator suggests that if her husband wants to come home drunk and ready to fuck, that he should stay in town—and it’s implied that he should pick up a hooker instead. Cheating, drinking, murdering: all considered common, respectable topics for country song. (Unless the Dixie Chicks do it, of course. Then everyone acts like story songs about murder are all of a sudden super offensive.) I ran a Genius list off the song “Jolene” (which implies infidelity, divorce, and seduction for the hell of it) to generate a goodly mix of country western songs just out of my collection, and I got this:
*A song about fighting by Johnny Cash.
*A song about being left by a cheater by Patsy Cline.
*Ramblin’-ness by Waylon Jennings.
*A song about drinking yourself to death by Ernest Tubb.
*A song about infidelity by June Carter Cash.
Just to name a few.
But Amanda!, you might say. You’re talking about that old country. Maybe nowadays mainstream country has cleaned up its act? This is a very good question, one that will take some research from me, because my relationship to what’s going on in mainstream country western has grown distant and weak ever since I stopped going to the honky tonk I used to sing karaoke at all the time. However, I did used to hear a lot of modern country western just a few years ago, and it seemed that the drinking-cheating-violence thing was still going strong. The main thing that changed was there seems to be an uptick is songs insisting that the singer is more redneck than thou, a classic case of protesting too much that really points to how much country western music is about generating a nostalgic fantasy more than reflecting a lived reality. But I digress. I decided to look at the Billboard country western charts and the lyrical content therein to see if country radio can really be considered “family friendly”. I even listened to some of them. Here to serve!
1) “American Honey” by Lady Antebellum. It’s hard to say what the hell this song is about, but it seems to be about innocence (read: virginity) lost. But it’s definitely shot through with longing for innocence, and is a drag. So, point to salvation. I’d call it a draw for acknowledging virginity, but it’s so cloaked lyrically that it’s hard to tell what she’s talking about, so they get to keep the point.
2) “Highway 20 Ride” by Zac Brown Band. This is a song from a man to his son explaining that he’s sorry the divorce was painful, but it had to happen. Objectively pro-divorce! Point, sin.
3) “‘Til Summer Comes Aroun” by Keith Urban. This song is about a fleeting love affair between the heartbroken narrator and a woman who appears to be a love ’em and leave ’em type. This song is not only sinful, but it’s really not even that conservative, since the naughty girl is portrayed as a love object and not criticized. Point, sin.
4) “Ain’t Back Yet” by Kenny Chesney. This song is about a ramblin’ man, and even references “Ramblin’ Man” by Waylon Jennings. Ramblin’ is sinful behavior, but the narrator claims no regrets. He talks about walking out to buy cigarettes and never going back, which is about the worst way you can break up with someone. It’s also got scandalously sexy lyrics:
She was a cut offs pepper sauce queen
Man, we were matches and gasoline
Big point, sin. Alas, while this song has fun lyrics, it sucks major monkey balls.
5) “Gimme That Girl” by Joe Nichols. This song is an ode to a woman being beautiful without hair and make-up, one that’s supposed to make women swoon but probably just annoys them, because of course it demands that you be beautiful without your make-up on. It annoyed me, but then again, it sucked, so it was hard not to let that color my feelings towards the lyrics. This song also has suggestive imagery:
Gimmie that girl lovin up on me,
old t-shirt and a pair of jeans
Sex is still sex when you’re wearing ratty clothes. Point, sin.
6) “The Man I Want To Be” by Chris Young. This song is about a man praying to be a better man to win a woman’s love. It’s god-heavy, and his conception of what a good man is can be best described as “bland”. Point, salvation.
7) “A Little More Country Than That” by Easton Corbin. This is in the category of protest-too-much songs where the singer brags about how country they are. These songs usually have one redeeming quality, which is that they often rock out a little more than most country songs, but this one fails on that count. It’s super boring, and a marriage proposal to boot. I’m giving this one to salvation, because the narrator talks about how he’s not a cheater.
8) “Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood. This is basically “Runaway Train” reimagined as country western. Underwood has definitely contributed to the long tradition drinking-cheating-violence songs with “Before He Cheats”, which was a kind of fun song about a woman who trashes her boyfriend’s car as punishment for his cheating. This song is not so fun. However, it is sympathetic to a single mother living in a halfway house. On the other hand, it’s impossibly corny and mentions god in it. Point, salvation.
9) “Gotta Get To You” by George Strait. I’ll admit, I got a little excited when I reached this song in the list, because the unending pile of suck I had endured might be relieved by Strait, who has some good songs in the catalog. This was not one of them. This is a love song, but it’s lyrically empty. Point, no one.
10) “Keep On Loving You” by Steel Magnolia. Simply putting a steel guitar in your music doesn’t really make it country, in my opinion. Sorry, Steel Magnolia. This song is a pretty explicit song about sex of the “having it all night” variety. I blush to reprint some of the lyrics:
So why don’t you lay right here
Let me just ease your mind
I’m givin’ you all my time
I’m gonna keep on, keep on loving you
Strong and slow, wherever that you want me to
Maybe my whole life through
The last lyric makes it clear—these are unmarried lovers who are Doing It, and they don’t even have a lifetime commitment of any sort yet. Plus, the lyrics suggest that they call in sick so they can keep fucking all the next day. Big time point for sin.
So there we have it. Ten songs, and half of them are sinning songs. Country western music hasn’t ever been especially family-friendly, and I don’t think that it’s changed its stripes in the past couple of years. Which is just as well; it wouldn’t be very popular if its lyrical content fell too far out of its target audience’s life experiences that include boozing it up, sleeping around, adultery, and divorce. The point is that I hardly think Miley Cyrus is some jezebel that will bring the sex-free Disneyland of country radio to its knees. If that’s Cherry’s concern, the damage has already been done.