the past in pop culture

Tag: country music

Workin’ for a Living

The New Deal

The New Deal (Photo credit: Greg Foster Photography)

Labor Day honors work and workers. Maybe that seems like a truism, but it might just be truthy. As more than a few commentators have noticed, recent political rhetoric more often features “America’s small-business fetish” than concern for the conditions of work. The 2012 presidential debaters jousted about the definition of a “small business,” but only to cloak themselves in the mantle of populism. Small business owners are heroic, job creating, risk takers—which leaves one to wonder what the rest of the population is.

Everyone else, and that’s the vast majority, is, in the words of Huey Lewis and the News (and Garth Brooks, in the 2007 version), taking what they’re giving ‘cuz I’m working for a living. This is a pretty perky song, but let’s admit that it’s about realizing that you just can’t get ahead by waiting on a paycheck. It’s surely no coincidence that the 1982 original was pop and the newer cover is country and even in the 80s, the lyrics of Dolly Parton’s country crossover song 9 to 5 hit the theme of worker exploitation a lot harder. Country singers have kept on singing to the blue-collar class in the tradition of Woody Guthrie while recent pop, rock, and rap are a lot more likely to be about money than about work. Case in point: Bon Jovi who had the 1980s rock anthem Livin’ on a Prayer about a diner waitress and her unemployed dock worker boyfriend now leans Nashville.

Country is more likely to be about sincerity in a contemporary pop culture that favors cynicism, irony, and self-reference. T.V. and movies about work and working tend towards sarcasm, not solidarity. Two words here: The Office. Watching workers on screen these days is likely to remind one that work was the price we paid for original sin. We might roll our eyes at the fictional Mark Zuckerberg’s heartlessness in The Social Network but let’s admit the dominant notes of the movie are envy and admiration. I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad. And etc.

These are the days of the one percent and the rest. Labor Day is a day devoted to the dignity of work. Work in the abstract. Self-employed or working for the man. Work for pay, even if paltry. It’s a Gilded Age holiday, after all.

Intentional Anti-Racist, or Walkin’ on Eggshells

Giant Cowboy Hat

Giant Cowboy Hat (Photo credit: camknows)

This is a post about the-music-video-that-can’t-be-viewed on youtube. If you’re not sure what song this refers to, here are some clues. Take the first clause of this post’s title and turn the words into their antonyms. That will get you the song’s title. Still don’t get it? The second half of the title is quoting from the song’s lyrics. Gosh, need more help? Giving it away with a link wouldn’t be any fun, but if you’re really stuck, try googling the phrase, “The Worst Song Ever™.”

At the time of this writing, just over two days have passed since the song was released, the video posted to youtube, all copies of the video removed from youtube, and a torrent of social media unleashed. There’s not a lot to add at this point. The artists-who-created-the-song-that-can’t-be-viewed are well-intentioned but hapless bumblers; or they are publicity hounds; or they are part of the problem—depending on who you read and where you stand.

One thing that we can conclude is that there sure is a problem. A white country star and a black rap artist reach for reconciliation and stumble into recrimination. Accidental Racist (let’s cut to the chase: the hyphenated euphemisms were getting out of hand), according to its lyrics, claims that “the past is past.” It almost sounds like a deliberate rejection of Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That might be giving the songwriter a little too much credit, but as Faulkner knew well, the South and its past have a powerful hold on the country’s imagination.

Still, it isn’t often that references to Reconstruction come up in top 40 music, even if it is country. Here is Accidental Racist’s two line history lesson:

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years

Brad Paisley’s critics point out that skipping from Reconstruction to the present leaves out a few things that might be relevant to a history of American race relations. Lynching. Jim Crow. Segregation. It reminds one of the blowback that Ken Burns got for the concluding volume of his Civil War documentary series. He, too, left out a lot of the really tough stuff in favor of wrapping it up with a reunion of Confederate and Union soldiers. Historian Eric Foner called this the “romance of reunion” that substituted white reconciliation for racial justice.

Not that Paisley pretends that past was pretty:

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done

In the song, a white customer wearing a Lynrd Skynrd t-shirt reflects on what the black man who was serving him at Starbucks might have thought of the Confederate flag on the shirt. The black man, whose part is sung by LL Cool J, describes his own look of bling, do-rag, and low slung pants and wonders if this makes the white man think he’s a hood. The two have little in common and the distance between them is the song’s reason for being.

It’s striking that this musical conversation associates white with Southern with country and black with northern with urban. It’s as if the Great Migration of rural black southerners to the urban north was complete and absolute. Somehow lost in the equation is the black South and the white North (and a whole bunch of other groups besides). It’s this, in part, that makes it easier to dismiss the song. If racism in America were just a matter of white people from the South hating on blacks who left and went North, well, it would leave the rest of us in a much easier position. But it’s not that simple and never was.

In the absence of the video that’s presently in so much hot water that it might as well have been titled Song of the South, it might be a good moment to recall an earlier country tune that trod some similar ground. In 1975, Tanya Tucker had another take on the South’s history and future.

Our neighbors in the big house called us redneck
Cause we lived in a poor sharecropper shack
The Jackson’s down the road were poor like we were
But our skin was white and theirs was black
But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand I believe the south is gonna rise again

It might be time for a re-make and a cross-genre mash up. Mix it up with some southern rap and leave the eggshells behind.

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