Country & the pop narcotic
In its dirty little heart, pop music is cannibalistic and no respecter of tradition. But country music exists in a world where the relationships — between rural and urban, old and new south — have become scrambled, hard to read. And if country embodies and expresses these problematic relationships, it might do so in a way that has as much to with pop music as with its own storied history.
Indeed, country music has divorced itself from a large portion of its own traditions, and gone the whole hog into pop. Some listeners might find this heartbreaking, but I find it invigorating to think about, say, Miranda Lambert’s 2005 hit “Kerosene” in terms of its debt to Lou Reed, or about an ultra-pop sensibility shared by country star Sara Evans and avant-popsters Scritti Politti.
Writers often approach country music as sociology — manure spreaders parked beside SUVs. It’s all about newfound affluence, troubled nostalgia for a pre-suburban past, George Jones Country Sausage and Biscuits in the microwave. On the other hand, pop writers often concentrate on the music’s formal aspects, although anyone who thinks about a touchstone of formalist pop such as the Beach Boys is advised to note the interplay between Brian Wilson’s ingenious chords and Mike Love’s banal lyrics. Listeners fill in the blanks left by the form/content split — this is democracy, this is pop music.
Still, I think that country music might well have moved into a position where it trumps pop in inclusiveness and audacity — an interesting place for a genre that has sometimes been regarded as provincial, limited, and, in its appetite for a larger audience, meretricious. Further, given the rich backdrop of country music’s history (the manure spreader is empty, the SUV gassed up), country might have a few things to teach pop about the struggle to convey meaning while keeping alive the essential gaudiness — the dreamlike quality — of the best popular art.
A few examples from last year illustrate how country music might work as a floating dreamscape, one that operates in the commercial and aesthetic space commonly reserved for pop. And while I think alt-country often works in a similar space, I’d like to concentrate on mainstream country.
Deana Carter’s The Story Of My Life is a brilliant distillation of teen-pop, California singer-songwriterdom, and post-Beatles artsong. Her voice is undeniably southern-inflected, and “She’s Good For You” is obviously set in Nashville, with references to Woodland Street and meat-and-three restaurants.
Yet “She’s Good For You” and “Atlanta & Birmingham” function more as dreams, or remembrances of dreams, than as examples of concrete reality. Country’s sense of longing, its autobiographical mode, is submerged in telegraphic, glancing representations of a more generalized dislocation. And these songs update songform; “She’s Good” features an interlude that might be part of a Brian Wilson ode to creative alienation.
Carter floats, lost in the psychic and physical space of California. Sara Evans, on Real Fine Place, takes domesticity as her subject. Real Fine is more obviously a “country” record than Carter’s, with tunes such as “Coalmine” (which disconcertingly posits “shotgun houses, shanty shacks” as a dreamscape enlivened by Evans’ desire to have sex with her coal-mining husband all night long — this is no alt-country representation of hardscrabble reality) and “Bible Song” making connections to country commonplaces while enveloping them in the lushest pop imaginable.
Evans’ and Carter’s records seem to exemplify a mode — one that is sure of itself and yet, at times, is confused about its place in the world — that draws upon country music while functioning as pop. The Story Of My Life appears more realized, more heroic in its willingness to scramble genres, than a record such as Amy Rigby’s fine Little Fugitive, which is cushioned by received notions of indie-rock hipness that limit our ability to project ourselves onto the performance — this is Rigby’s sane, well-lighted dream, not ours.
And I’m confident that Real Fine Place is a better record than, say, Big Star’s In Space, which might seem heretical to some sensibilities until one realizes that Evans’ “A Real Fine Place To Start”, penned by Radney Foster and George Ducas, not only uses the very same guitar figure as Big Star’s “February’s Quiet”, but also works as a far more compelling piece of pop.
Other records from last year address more directly the gaudiest dreams and most troubling nightmares of the country audience, and do so in ways that suggest the eternal nowhere of pop music might have replaced the specificity of country in the imagination of the new south. Keith Anderson’s tall-tale single “XXL” uses a guitar lick straight out of XTC’s 1986 Skylarking, brags about how big the singer is, and is probably the most imaginative, enjoyable and meaningless piece of psychedelica in recent memory.
Anderson and Evans simply disregard the old form/content problem and let ‘er rip. Gary Allan’s Tough All Over is a country record that is totally serious, morally conflicted, and as approachable and addictive as the flightiest pop — Dwight Yoakam with the hooks of the Pretenders, maybe. It takes as its pretext the 2004 suicide of Allan’s wife, an event of nightmarish proportions.
As do Evans and Carter, Allan sees past his own history, past country music’s history, and into the larger, more frightening world of pop, where we can dream with our eyes open. This way of seeing demands more from an artist, as it demands more from listeners. How to be autobiographical without being solipsistic, how to traffic in nostalgia without telling lies about the past — these are questions that both country music and pop need to address. And I think country music is ideally suited to provide some of the answers.