Saturday, May 26, 2007

More Thoughts on White Trash and Country Music

Kismet moment: in Monday's post, I commented on two articles: Ron Rosenbaum's piece on country music at Slate and Matt Wray's article on "white trash". Intrigued by Wray's article, I tracked down a collection of essays that he co-edited, also entitled White Trash. And, lo and behold, there is a great essay by Barbara Ching entitled "Acting Naturally: Cultural Distinction and Critiques of Pure Country". Ching attempts to explain why country music is so disdained be intellectuals and explains the Catch-22 that many critics put it into. Some critics complain about its simplicity, that it is the work of rural primitives with no understanding of songwriting or musicianship. Others complain that it is slickly produced, emotionally manipulative pablum.

This essay was written in 1993, and in the intervening decade, old-school country music, bouyed by Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced renaissance and the influence of alt-country, has taken on a hipster sheen. This renaissance has romanticized the supposed primitivism of early country and disdained the prepacked commercialism of what has come to be known as "Wal-Mart Country". Today, the alt-country ethos has started to seep back into mainstream country through artists such as Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Big & Rich. But there is still a perceived divide between the hipster intellectuals who view old country has the work of charming primitives and the "white trash" who consume country as a regular part of their cultural diet.

This distinction, and the musical cross-pollination between the mainstream and the underground, has put country in a particulary white trash version of a problem common to all popular arts. The best example of this is the case of the Dixie Chicks. To non-country fans, the story is simple: brave artist makes a political statement and is crucified by her simple-minded, Bush-loving "white trash" fanbase. The story in fact is much more complicated. Even before Natalie Maines' famous comment, the Chicks were being viewed with suspicous eyes by many in the country world. They seemed to want to aspire to the hipster street cred of alt-country while keeping the financial rewards of mainstream country success. While on the one hand this alt-country cred meant keeping the rawness of old country alive in the face of the slickness of Wal-Mart country, it also meant taking a slightly superior attitude toward country music fans. The chicks, like other alt-country types, were trying to keep what they saw as the "real" tradition of country music alive despite the effort of country music fans (the "white trash" buying Wal-Mart country) to kill it.

As I said, this problem exists in all popular arts, it just takes on a specific class-consciousness in country music. All popular arts -- film, TV, pop music -- are created for mass audiences by a small elite subculture that considers themselves superior to the masses. Popular artists -- actors, directors, musicians -- are often fans of avant-garde artists who do work that they view as superior to their own. This leads to incidents like The Monkees hiring an unknown Jimi Hendrix to open for them and causing outrage when he simulates sex with his amplifier in front of an audience of prepubescent girls.

This tension will never be resolved and is in fact necessary for popular art to survive. The best pop art will synthesize the best of the underground and the mainstream to create a work that appeals to both audiences. this rarely happens, but when it does it is a glorious moment, and it is those moments--memories of past ones and anticipation of future ones--that keeps us coming back.

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