Why Isn’t Country Allowed to Change?
I caved this morning and watched Taylor Swift’s new video in a moment of writer’s block. Actually, it was a whole two blocked hours, so I watched the video twice. I know what’s going on with her; basically all you have to do is wake up and breathe the day that Taylor Swift press releases come out, and you’re in the know. So I wasn’t surprised that she’s remade herself into a pop princess, seeing that the new direction will foster artistic independence, reflects inevitable maturation and such (country is SO teenybop, no?).
I won’t belabour the problems in this video too much because I know you all get mad when I talk about TS on this site. Accordingly, here is my curt and rather superficial feminist analysis:
-stop it with the asses already. Why are gyrating girls necessary in the creation and marketing of pop music? The video could have been amazing without, and none of us would have noticed the absence of ass.
-Why, at 1:42, do we see men playing instruments and women only getting to be backup singers, particularly when Swift is an accomplished singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist?
-And finally, what bothers me the most is the horrendous proclivity Swift has for navel-gazey autobiography. Everyone cares about how much makeup I wear and who I’m dating, so I’m just going to lose myself in this rad song and shake it off. In other words, I could be concerned about the serious injustices in the world and use the platform of privilege bestowed on me to articulate real concerns to an ever-maturing and thoughtful audience of girls, but instead I choose to drown in self-absorption. Perhaps that’s why Ms. Swift chose the pop route over punk or rock.
I understand the function of pop-music-as-escape, of course, or I wouldn’t have been a Rick Astley fan when I was 8. And I shouldn’t force my expectations on a girl who I actually otherwise like and respect for her work ethic and dedication to craft; it’s just that I wish people used power when it was theirs in such massive doses to more positive and enlightening effect. Alas.
The point of my post is actually not to over-analyze “Shake it Off”, but to pose some questions that have been on my mind and are illuminated by Swift’s new artistic path. Or, just one question: why isn’t country music allowed to change?
It occurs to me in my CMT workout sessions every morning that as a listening audience, we are very hard on country music. It doesn’t matter if we’re Eddy Arnold or Blake Shelton fans, we all have very specific expectations as to what the music will sound like. It is not allowed to change. Country fans carve out their niche of preferred artists, eras, or sounds, and seldom deviate from that. Is this different from metal? I think so. You can either make the shift as a fan – going from hard blues rock to hardcore to mathcore, then back to speed, without ever losing your legitimacy as a listener – or you can experiment as an artist and be lauded for your willingness to push boundaries. Rock as a genre is like cheesecloth. Pour all kinds of shit through it and it will absorb what it needs to and let the unnecessary parts filter through. We get folk rock, indie rock, pop rock, blues rock, country rock, hard rock, soft rock, but somehow if any of those prefixes are put in front of country, we get upset that it’s no longer country.
This is a bit of a facile analogy. I’m willing to admit that, but I bring up comparable genres because I really do think they’re more flexible than country. Every time country tries to be flexible, it meets major obstacles. Eventually, some of those obstacles are overcome and we reluctantly agree to a new set of parameters for the genre, but it takes ages. If Taylor Swift or Shania Twain “go pop”, country fans lament the loss of the one they thought they’d laid claim to. If Jessica Simpson or John Mayer “go country”, people might not think it’s great, but they’re not mad at these artists (maybe thinking the country was only a poorly informed, temporary choice).
If I were fairer and compared country to its “traditional” American counterpart, the blues, then maybe I could find some answers. Both musics came out of long-standing acoustic music traditions that were the result of contact between Western European and African cultures. Both were recorded at the same time; the first recordings in each genre happened a couple years apart. Both were forced into artificially and racially drawn stylistic categories as a marketing ploy by the industry, despite being musics that freely crossed genre lines, and despite being performed by white and black musicians who had much more contact with each other than recordings from that era would have us believe. Both were moved into urban centres and electrified around the same time. And both became the foundation for that silly, nebulous genre, rock.
It seems to me that blues has been allowed a lot more freedom than country. One only has to integrate a 12-bar form or a couple of flattened scale degrees, and one is “blues”. You never hear “this song is not really blues”, but you often hear that same sentiment directed towards country. Maybe it’s because we never really knew what blues was – it’s been allowed to change nearly from the time it started. Maybe we allow it because we need to alleviate our guilt over appropriating a genre for our own purposes that initially belonged to – and was a direct expression of – a portion of the population that was oppressed in every imaginable way. But we hold country to much higher tradition expectations. And if not that – if one is indeed the hard line Blake Shelton fan – then one likely does not dig Dwight Yoakam or Waylon or Patsy Montana, all of whom were also probably breaking country rules according to at least a faction of the audience.
So anyway, I’ve just been wondering about our tendency to hang on so tightly to an imagined and static idea of what country is, and I have no answers, just lots of wondering. The moment of Taylor Swift going pop makes me wonder: then what is country? And why do we care so much?