Just being Miley

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

21 April 2010


Thanks to Matt Yglesias, I came across this rather nutty post from Brian Cherry. It accuses Miley Cyrus, the Disney Channel actress/pop star/whatever, of being a left wing fifth column on America's Country music scene. Viz:

Music and American politics have become linked, with most of the genres in the “Hope and Change” category. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a country artist I am acquainted with talked about the stress of that election and how her vote was putting her at odds with her family, friends, fans, and industry (three guesses who she voted for). To change the very culture of that industry, you need to pave the way for the shrill Natalie Maines types with the seemingly harmless Miley types. Ms. Cyrus is presented to us a fully Disneyfied young lady with a Christian background and the values to boot. This is the sort of person that the Middle America country fans should love, right? As with many things in the entertainment world, her image is a well manufactured myth and the truth is that this young lady brings an entire suitcase of San Francisco values with her as baggage when she eventually breaks into the country music scene.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to debunk many of the basic errors in the post, and I don't really care exactly what politics, if any, the girl behind Hannah Montana holds. Suffice to say that the only genuine evidence for Cherry's argument is "Wake Up America," a rather awful song from Cyrus' patchy, occasionally marvellous, sophomore1 album, Breakout. "Everything I read is global warming, going green; I don't know what all this means," Cyrus sings. If she didn't swear such allegiance to her Nashville roots in "Party in the USA" I might be tempted to believe Cherry's charges of liberalism against her.

But more interesting than Miley Cyrus is the complicated relationship Country music has with American politics. In short, if Democrats are smart, they will be paying attention to the Grand Ole Opry.

Cherry's post claims Country music as conservative without a second thought, and why wouldn't he take his assertion for granted? For decades, conservatives and liberals have understood Country to be the domain of the right, and have been fairly happy with the arrangement. Liberals didn't have to bother with the rubes, and conservatives had a sector of the troublingly left-wing entertainment industry to call their own. It was easy to point out Merle Haggard's anti-drug, pro-draft Vietnam-era anthem "Okie From Muskogee," or Toby Keith's retributive, pro-ass-kicking anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" as examples of ideological conformity, and even easier to ignore Willie Nelson's decidedly liberal opinions on marijuana legalisation or the fact that Toby Keith calls himself a moderate Democrat.

To be sure, Country music is music made for the Red States, by the Red States, and both its themes and its performers are traditionalist and frequently conservative. When he proclaimed October 1990 to be Country Music Month, George H. W. Bush declared that the genre "springs from the heart of America and speaks eloquently of our history, our faith in God, our devotion to family, and our appreciation for the value of freedom and hard work." George W. Bush used Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" in his 2004 campaign. And more recently, Miranda Lambert, who this weekend won the Country Music Awards' Album of the Year prize, re-recorded an old Fred Eaglesmith song about getting a gun to keep away a government man. Topical, perhaps? Incidentally, Lambert's parents are private investigators who investigated Bill Clinton on behalf of Paula Jones' legal team.

But the Red States are more complex than either side will allow, and what Country music and the Republican party have most in common is a shared understanding of the salience of American identity politics. And though that means stars like Gretchen Wilson might have a bit in common with Sarah Palin, it doesn't mean her audience will vote the same way. Both Democrats and Republicans can, and do, value faith, family, hard work, community, and generosity to strangers and the less fortunate. Both Democrats and Republicans, for that matter, have experience with drinking, partying, loving, losing, and cheating. As Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins sing, "everybody's got a hillbilly bone down deep inside."

And in the last year or two in particular, Country music has had its odd Democratic moments. Interestingly, one of the most prominent was a tune by John Rich released last year in the midst of the American recession, titled "Shutting Detroit Down."

 

 

"Shutting Detroit Down" is a paean to a blue-state, blue-collar, union town, sung by John Rich2, the man who wrote John McCain's 2008 campaign theme song "Raising McCain." The words could be sung by a Democrat or a Republican: "I see all these whining big-shots on my evening news," he sings. "About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you/To come running to the rescue." It's the kind of lament that could as easily be authored by Glenn Beck as it could be by Matt Taibbi. And the chorus is as good an encapsulation of the American public's non-partisan rage as any:

The boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town
D.C.'s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground
While they're living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town
In the real world they're shutting Detroit down.

Less overtly political is a song that similarly shouts out Detroit's embattled working class, Pat Green's 2009 single "What I'm For." Between singing platitudinous tributes to icons of Americana (the Gettsyburg address, past-their-prime boxers, the wisdom of the elderly) Green makes a pointedly contemporary show of support for the Motor City's auto industry employees. The song also honours the decidedly non-rural "inner-city teachers" and takes an implicit stand against law-and-order types by sticking up for the "ex-con out of prison who just wants a second chance." What starts off as a corny homily veers surprisingly close to being a liberal stump speech.

But the most significant example of Country music's liberal sympathies comes in the form of one of its biggest current stars. Brad Paisley, a West Virginian guitarist with a deft playing style and a witty pen titled his latest album "American Saturday Night." The title track is a love-letter to the cultural richness of America's melting pot. "Everywhere has something that they're known for, but usually it washes up on our shores," he sings; it's a small-town song with a global outlook. But more telling is "Welcome to the Future," the tune Paisley performed for Barack Obama at the White House.

 

 

The song starts off light-heartedly, with Paisley, a good ol' boy in a white hat, musing on how, as a kid, he spent hours at the video arcade, and marvelling at the way today he can play those same games on his mobile phone. But by the third verse, the song's larger narrative coalesces:

I had a friend in school, running back on the football team
They burned a cross in his front yard for asking out the homecoming queen
I thought about him today, and everybody who's seen what he's seen
From a woman on a bus, to a man with a dream.

Paisley's touch is light; he makes no mention of the President, or Election Day 2008, or the historic nature of Obama's victory, or even of explicit racial categories. But the song is as emotionally resonant a narrative as any that lays claim to describe the changing nature of America signified by this President's victory.

And unlike the pilloried, anti-Bush Dixie Chicks, Paisley is more beloved by the Nashville industry than ever. Nashville speaks from a distinct perspective, but it is by no means necessarily a Republican one. If it ever was, the Country music listening, exurban public of the flyover states is no longer the exclusive domain of the Republican Party. If I were in charge of the Democratic Party's future political fortunes, I'd be listening to a lot of Country music.

 


 

1 Not actually. Discussing the Cyrus discography is complicated by virtue of her predilection for releasing albums credited to her alter ego Hannah Montana.

2 As I revealed in 2008, John Rich campaigned for McCain, but only donated money to his primary opponent Fred Thompson. Meanwhile, his one time songwriting partner Big Kenny, the man with whom he wrote the words, "I see people gettin' mad on CNN/Who's right: Democrats or Republicans/I don't care who's right or wrong," donated to the Obama campaign. The two no longer work together.

Tags: Bailouts, Brad Paisley, Conservatives, Country Music, Hannah Montana, John Rich, Liberals, Miley Cyrus, Pat Green

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