Friday, November 08, 2013

The Country Music Crisis

I have two music-wake alarms, just to make sure. The first and primary one is my iPod; the second happens to be a country music station, primarily because that happens to be the station that was coming in loud and clear when I plugged in that radio clock, and secondarily because it clashes so extraordinarily with my iPod -- which consists mostly of goth metal, classic rock or covers of classic rock, and Finnish pop -- that it pretty much guarantees that I will get out of bed even if I get to sleep very late. But I often keep the station on and end up hearing a lot of country. One of the results of this is that I have acquired a new pet peeve, which is country songs about driving around in trucks.

I've heard a lot of country music in my day. And having come back to it after a few years of mostly hiatus, I confess to being somewhat appalled. It is not uncommon for literally half the songs to be songs, by men with very irritating voices, about driving around in trucks. This, which began as a source of bafflement to me, has been sharpened to the point of distaste, when I realized over time that a number of these songs about driving around in trucks have since been replaced by new songs about driving around in trucks. The montony is broken up only by songs about men leering at women or Brad Paisley's disgruntled "Southern Comfort Zone".

Now, country music has always been an unusually self-aware genre of music; its two major themes are (1) Family and (2) Country Music. And thus we have lots of classic songs about people in bars and honky-tonks listening to a jukebox or a band. It is not surprising that there are country songs about people driving around in trucks; a lot of people listen to country music while driving around in trucks, and country music will thus make songs about people in trucks. But the thing of it is, you can pretty much guarantee that people listening to music in bars have some kind of story, sometimes very emotional, behind their being there, which gets into the deep center of what it is to be human, and that there is a practically endless diversity in those stories. The primary reason for driving around in a truck, though, is that it's what you have to do to get somewhere else, usually the grocery store or school or home; I defy anyone to establish that people typically drive around in trucks for profoundly emotional reasons that speak to the human condition. Yes, it happens on occasion; there used to be some very good songs about truckers who just wished they could be home, or whose occupation just made loving and living too hard. I haven't heard a single song about the genuine and genuinely human hardship of a trucker, though; it's all about people going around in pick up trucks. And after a song here and there about driving by your ex's place, or about the fun of driving around with a hot girl riding shotgun, or (I will grant you that it shows a little ingenuity) driving your dad's truck because you miss him, you've pretty much used up the human interest potential of that storyline.

I will also concede to you that country music has a long history of being the only popular music genre that has a significant sense of humor about itself. Unlike pop, rock, or hip-hop, country music has always made fun of itself by parodying itself, or by shooting for a kind of fun silliness. There are plenty of serious country songs, but it's not at all surprising that among the classics are "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and "(I've Got) Friends in Low Places" and more recent favorites include "Redneck Yacht Club". Silly songs like this show up elsewhere, but in country music they're a constant tradition. But to the extent there's any joke in these songs, it's pretty unimaginative; there's only so many ways you can joke about how the hot girl riding shotgun is making it hard to drive before it becomes pretty obvious that everyone is telling the same joke over and over again. But a lot of them don't seem to be joking at all; you start realizing about the middle of the song that the dork who can't come up with a topic other than 'Pick up trucks are cool' is not having fun with the idea but actually thinks singing it makes him cool.

I will also concede that country music has never stopped experimenting, sometimes controversially. That's also irrelevant. It stops being experimenting when so many people are doing it that 'it seems like too many people are doing it' becomes a common complaint.

The irony is that it seems to be the men who are phoning it in. The women seem to produce songs that are pretty decent. You just never hear them, although occasionally Carrie Underwood or (more rarely) Miranda Lambert or (more rarely still) Kacey Musgraves will actually be played. This imbalance is also very strange: country music has always been one of the genres of music in which women do extraordinarily well. How in the world the genre could have so changed that repetitive songs by men are repeatedly outdoing obviously higher-quality songs by women (and, one hopes, by men, as well, although the only higher-quality work by men that ever gets played seems to be old classics, at very rare intervals), and in a matter of a handful of years, is baffling.

I had begun to wonder if this was just a peculiarity of the radio station I happen to listen to, but listening around a bit, plus this article have made pretty clear that this is quite typical:

These days, pop-country is more popular than ever — but also more despised than ever. Stars like Brown, Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, and Gary Allan have begun publicly expressing unhappiness with their format, which this year has become an increasingly homogenous platform for men (a few weeks ago, Carrie Underwood was the only solo female in the Top 20) singing about trucks and beers and girls and then more trucks.

Trucks and beers and girls and then more trucks. Yes, that pretty much sums it up; it's only a matter of time before someone writes a song about driving a truck, drinking beers, with a hot girl "all up on me", all at once, which country music stations will blithely play fifteen hundred times a day. Did all the country music songwriters get replaced by teenage boys? How many songs about trucks do you need?

When asked what musical trend needs to die out immediately, Musgraves responded: “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”

So that in itself is proof that not everyone in Nashville has gone completely looney-tunes. Sensible musicians need support. I might have to listen to more Musgraves; online, apparently, since the radio will barely play her because it's so important to play a long line of songs about men leering at women and/or driving around in trucks.

ADDED LATER: I think we can put it all in a simple sentence that should be intelligible even to the idiots who sing these songs. If all you can think to do with a woman is have her ride shotgun, you need to meet one.


  1. Enbrethiliel11:11 PM


    This was really fun to read! I guess the truck is part of the "branding" of these "bros." But if everyone has one, then the symbol is inflated into total meaninglessness.

    Since I don't listen to much Country radio these days, I needed the articles you linked to help me catch up. But now that I've heard it, I'll never un-hear it. =P

    By the way, the trucks I recall most vividly are those in Taylor Swift's Picture to Burn and the video of Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats. Perhaps they came too early for these issues to be part of their subtext, but Taylor's lyric "I hate that stupid old pickup truck you never let me drive" and Carrie's vandalism of another truck now have new meaning.

  2. branemrys11:12 AM

    They do, don't they! Country music prophecy.

  3. Chris_Huff11:27 AM

    Does Austin not have a radio station that plays mostly (if not exclusively) Texas country? I feel like Texas country does a better job of addressing the complaints you lay out here (maybe not the women one, though) than the Nashville acts. Since the music coming from Nashville seems to be driven by the bigger labels, it seems to be more susceptible to focusing more on the successful formula for big sales according to their market-based research, which appears to be the main problem here. Country music seems as popular as ever so singing about big pickup trucks and pretty girls dancing in the back of them must sell pretty well, apparently.

    I haven't been listening to country for that long, but I find myself to drifting to more of the Texas Country scene.

  4. branemrys12:24 PM

    It could. The only time I'm listening to any local Austin station, generally, is with the alarm clock, and I've never hunted around -- the fact that I listen to this one at all is just that it happened by accident to be the one that came through when I plugged in the clock radio I haven't used for years.

  5. MrsDarwin3:19 PM

    I found myself listening to the country station the other day when the oldies station (which now plays classic rock hits from the 70s and not the standards of the 50s and 60s which I remember from the oldies lineup of my youth) jumped to all Christmas music, all the time. At first I didn't know where I was what with the rather driving beat, until the lyrics started in that distinctive country access. The song turned out to be Hillbilly Bone by Trace Adkins and some other big name. It was catchy enough to hold my interest all the way through (the kids: "Mooom! Can we change the station?"), but the next song was Dirt Road Anthem by Jason Aldean, and featured -- you guessed it -- a pickup truck, driving down dirt roads. I changed.

    The thing is, the people I know who drive pickup trucks for branding reasons have no connection to anything "country" such as farming or hauling or living in the country, while the people who drive pickups for reasons of utility define themselves in more compelling ways than their choice of vehicle.

    I have to say that if anything would get me out of bed in a hurry, it might be hearing commercial country music blaring through my dreams.

  6. branemrys5:37 PM

    I was talking to my sister about this today and she suggested that a great deal of the appeal is probably that it's the closest thing to rock most people can get; for most people, the lyrics don't really matter much, as long as you can easily shout the chorus. I think there's probably something to that.

    The video for Hillbilly Bone is actually not bad, too. Of course, it helps that Trace Adkins's baritone can pull off things much more goofy than most people can pull off.

    The sad thing is that Dirt Road Anthem's probably the least brain-dead of the driving-in-trucks songs that are out and about. And what's baffling is that there are some really good artists out there, even among those who get the big label pushes; you can pick practically any Darius Rucker song and it's better than any of the songs that get better play.

  7. MrsDarwin7:22 PM

    I think it goes to show that "country" nowadays is more an attitude than any indicator of geographic or agricultural reality. I defy anyone to out-country me: I grew up in a trailer in rural Virginia and ran barefoot over freshly mowed hay fields and drove a riding mower and ducked my head during deer season and was even spanked once by a cow (true story!), but we never thought of ourselves as "country". Maybe things would have been different if we'd ever owned a pickup truck.

  8. branemrys7:26 PM

    In modern life, 'Country' means 'Truck Commercial'.

  9. Enbrethiliel2:25 AM


    Mrs. Darwin, you need to write a song now. I'd buy it.


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