Monday, October 26, 2015

State of Country: Wimmen and Queers

A quick note to my regular readers (which, according to my stats, is only about 13 of you) -- if you've been keeping track at home you'll have noticed that I've only been averaging about 3 updates a week since the school year started. I figured I'll go back to the MWF schedule for the time being so at least there's a regular update schedule. It doesn't affect anyone who's reading this, but it does impact the artists who've been waiting for me to write them up. Sorry and thanks for your patience. This also means my writing will probably become more pompous and ponderous, as evidenced below.

So to begin -- let's talk about country music. Let's talk about its place in our lives, whether you grew up with it or, like me, have almost no knowledge off he genre itself and like to lurk on the outskirts. Let's talk about the people who are on the margins of country music: women and the LGBT community. (You can be sure I'll change the title of this article when I repost it on No Depression.)

I had the inkling to write this post a couple of weeks ago after attending Pandora's Women in Country event. It's still not clear to me if I was invited because of the blog or because I live in New York, have a Pandora account, and have "liked" Brandi Carlile and a few other country singers. I'm assuming the latter.

I don't want to piss on Pandora's parade. It was a cool event -- free performances by two up-and-comers (RaeLynn, Cassadee Pope) and Martina McBride (who I didn't stay for) and a free open bar. The event raised money for a breast cancer awareness organization (because women have breasts. What other causes could unite women?) If you get invited to one, you should go. I was able to put my jaded New Yorker hat aside for 2 hours, and that takes more than a free gin and tonic.

But it's what was said during the concert that concerned me. I don't know Martina McBride from Adam, much less the two openers. I attended because I was curious to see if there would be some kind of panel or something. Instead, I was overwhelmed by a depressing heatweave of heteronormativity that left a sour taste in my mouth.

First up was RaeLynn's set. Like most country music destined for radio, it wasn't bad. It wasn't great. It would be like eating Panera every day -- it's not bad for you, but it's not actually healthy either. The only song that struck a chord with my friends and I was a song about her parents' divorce. Maybe because it came from her lived experience and emotions or shit? Unfortunately, she lost me just as quickly with her closer, "God Made Girls."

In case the pink in the screenshot made you want to vomit, here's what God made girls for:

Somebody's gotta wear a pretty skirt,
Somebody's gotta be the one to flirt,
Somebody's gotta wanna hold his hand so God made girls

So amid the Spice Girls feminism of "girl power!" that the performers expressed and Pandora founder Tim Westergren's thoughtful comment that Tomato-gate was "fucking bullshit," we have a song that in no uncertain terms idealizes women as a force to civilize those rugged individual male-folk. My jaw literally dropped when I heard the first verse and, my friends, the rest of the song doubles down on the message. You can rest assured that my next song-writing task will be an attempt to educate Ms. RaeLynn about third-wave feminism.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to make me see red. But Cassadee Pope did. At one point during her set (and this being New York City, nobody seemed to care about her songs until she and the band unleashed some Eagles and Tom Petty covers) she launched into the normal "It's so great to see you, I'm so glad to support a great cause blah, blah, blah" patter. But THEN she said, "This is a really important time for women in country music. No offense, guys, but there is sexism in country music."

No shit, Cassadee. It's in the music you and your colleagues are performing, not to mention the attitudes you enforce by not willing to put yourself on the line and condemn it. Why are you apologizing for something that isn't your fault? Why are you worried about offending people when you're confirming the truth? Is the cis white California tech bro the only one who's allowed to be angry about your industry? Isn't that the whole problem in the first place?

Maybe Keith Hill is right -- maybe people actually don't like female country singers. Why should they, when instead of singing empowering songs like Patsy, Emmylou, and Dolly used to sing, they're peddling some Music Row songwriter's nocturnal emission of a good, submissive woman.
Listen to the mixtape (it's old-school!) on Homoground
But! There's a jackpot at the end of the rainbow. Vice's cultural sub-whatever, i-D, just ran a piece on some of my favorite people in the world, the burgeoning queer country scene in Brooklyn (just about the only part of Brooklyn I like). It featured my beloved Karen and the Sorrows, the Paisley Fields, Kings, and My Gay Banjo. I won't steal Alice Newell-Hanson's thunder, but she does emphasize how meaningful it's been for hayseeds of various stripes to find music that incorporates all parts of their identity.

Music only works when it comes from lived experience (see above) -- and that is absolutely what country music is about. Hope in the face adversity. You don't even have to be a queermo from the south to feel that -- Karen and I went to the same fancy high school here in New York. Country music is, of course, American at its heart, and the best of those songs exemplify the best American ideals: perseverance, common sense, humor -- the kind of rugged individualism that emphasis being true to yourself, rather than being a violent gun for hire. Just as country music has the power to attract a couple of private school-educated Jews into its fold, it's expansive enough to welcome LGBTQ artists and even female humans.

The artists highlighted in this article (and a number of others who don't even live in Brooklyn, whom I'll highlight in the coming weeks) write songs that matter: songs about bravery, self-love, and, of course tears in beers. Whether you're queer or not, these are songs you should care about. They are the polar opposite of mainstream country songs glorifying partying, off-road racing, and static social roles. They proudly equate being a pig in shit with happiness. They ignore another important feature of American culture, the best of them all: the constant search for progress, equality, and meaning in our lives.

Us gays may be causing all of those floods and hurricanes, but it may be possible that we're the ones who can save country's soul.

If you want to explore more queer country artists, click the various tags on this article.

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