Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric

At this conference, I will present a paper entitled “Backroads and the American South: Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric.” I will be presenting as part of a panel on “Music, Meaning and Identity.”

My exploration of this topic began in the odd juxtaposition of, on the one hand, long drives spent listening to the few FM radio stations that come in on the lonely, winding roads of rural Maine, and, on the other hand, my work as a graduate student, studying regionalism and the writings of scholars like Lori Robison and Richard Brodhead.

An example:

“The pull of the idea of the country is toward old ways, human ways, natural ways. The pull of the idea of the city is towards progress, modernization, development.” – Raymond Williams


"Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun
And you might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome son
Our necks are burnt, our roads are dirt and our trucks ain't clean
We won't take a dime if we ain't earned it
When it comes to weight brother we pull our own
If it's our backwoods way of livin' you're concerned with
You can leave us alone
We got a fightin' side a mile wide but we pray for peace
'Cause it's mostly us that end up servin' overseas
If it was up to me I'd love to see this country run
Like it used to be, oughta be, just like it's done
Out here, way out here" -- Josh Thompson

Popular country music, like the song above, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard country charts in September of 2010, pulls the lifestyle and ideology described by Josh Thompson from the margins -- from "way out here" -- to the center of mainstream pop-culture.

In part, this paper – which is hopefully only the beginning of a larger project – is about the repetitive narratives found in country music lyrics. In a broader sense, however, it explores a socio-political climate in the post-9/11 (and even more specifically, post-2008) United States.  

In brief, my argument is this: Country music tropes function to create and perpetuate a specific relational identity that celebrates a rural, working-class lifestyle and conservative social values, and opposes modernity, urbanity, wealth and intellectualism. Further, through regional nostalgia, this identity takes on racial overtones. I offer a close-reading of these lyrics and explore their appeal in the contemporary moment. This essay suggests that the identity creation and “othering” that occur in country music resemble the rhetorical strategies used in conservative politics – particularly those used by the Tea Party. In combination, a dialogue is formed that shapes a particular notion of who and what is “American.” Ultimately, I wish to explore the role this pop-cultural form plays in a larger discourse of belonging, power, and enfranchisement.

To listen to/view one of the songs from the sample I use in my paper, see: Toby Keith, “Made in America.” 
(This song reached #1 on the Billboard country charts in 2011. It also reached #40 on the Billboard “hot 100” chart.)

-- Liz Swasey

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