A music critic suggests makers of and listeners to country music are mostly in the suburbs, not the country:
Of course the actual lives lived in those small towns are somewhere within these songs, but many of the details are glossed over, romanticized, politicized or just plain ignored. There are megachurches in small towns now, not just cute little white chapels. There are Meth labs. There are business sections of town that don’t look too different from what you see in suburbs around big cities; e.g., not very pretty. There are factory farms, which bring some uglier realities than the idyllic farms of country songs (the stench of large-scale hog farms, for one). There are immigrants from other countries, possibly even (gasp!) illegal ones, often working the least appreciated of the farm and factory jobs. There are eccentricities and new developments that just don’t fit the portrait of rural America in country songs.
Plus, the country singers and songwriters aren’t all living in the country these days, but are just as likely to be found in your McMansions in the suburbs (look, for example, at the neighborhood Brad Paisley stands in, whether it’s actually his or not, in the music video for “Welcome to the Future”).
Country music fans live in such suburbs and cities, as well. Country today preserves the myths, half-truths and conjecture associated with the divide between small towns and cities, rarely acknowledging the gray areas in between. (Montgomery Gentry: “Don’t you dare go running down my little town where I grew up and I won’t cuss your city lights”). In country music today there is a constant sleight of hand going on with regards to “the country life”, shuffling up ingrained ideas of what it means with ones rooted in today or yesteryear.
Sometimes this might be political, a way to smuggle (or, more often, showcase outright) conservative ideas about the way America should and shouldn’t be. More often it’s probably of convenience or laziness, repeating past successes or playing into what artists imagine their audiences want to hear. But on another level this is about genre, about preserving a certain library of scenes and stories, to make the music recognizable as country and further the tradition. Then again, genres are shaped by the minds of the fans as much as the musicians, and by the times we live in.
In this argument about country music, the themes of country music highlight (a stereotype of?) the rural nature of America even as the producers and consumers are all part of a suburban or exurban existence. I tend to think of suburbs as an American adaptation to the issue of cities versus rural areas, a debate that began in the early days of the American project. The suburbs offer some of the city life, particularly the access to business and culture, with some of the country life with single-family homes and lots and a closer proximity to nature. In this case, the genre of music highlights a past era of American history as we are clearly a suburban nation today.
Are there country songs that celebrate the suburbs? I’m always on the lookout for cultural products that highlight the suburbs. Also, is it fair to single out a country music star for a McMansion – do other music stars also in suburban McMansions?
If there is a popular genre of music that holds out an ideal vision of the country life, is there a genre that does the opposite, hold out an ideal vision of city life?