Following Up: Country Music And Language
From yesterday’s blog post, nearly 100% of the feedback I got was regarding the use of profanity in country music (the one bit that knocked it from actually 100% to just nearly 100% was Chris Burlingame, who now simply wants to post on his own blog about loving Miranda Lambert and being an outlier on most of the things in my previous post — fair enough). Or, as I listed it, language. So, I thought I’d dive deeper into the topic of language.
My former co-worker took to Facebook to remark, “You brought up the profanity. To emphasize the point, in a market where I used to work, the leading country music station refused to play ‘Rodeo’ by Garth Brooks because it had the word ‘damned’ in the lyrics.”
Not a surprising anecdote. That song came out on Brooks’ 1991 album, Ropin’ The Wind and technically the song says goddamned, which is a pretty big profanity in the world of country music values.
A Twitter friend and fellow author sent me a link to her favorite “implied profanity” country song.
And remarked, “Well, country sales are far more dependent on country radio plays than any other genre (I think), and CR = clean.”
Also accurate. In spite of their location, previously established as being largely urban and suburban, country fans are less likely to use the Internet to discover bands. Bands in the genre are less likely than other genres to use the Internet, until they reach a breaking point, to galvanize fans. They also, differently than other genres of musicians, don’t use Internet benchmarks (YouTube views, likes on Facebook) as marketing materials. Rising artists very much still market themselves based on the places they play residencies and what prestigious locations or heritage acts they’ve played with. Country music’s word of mouth doesn’t involve Facebook or Twitter shares. It’s what Willie Nelson (or something of equal stature) thinks of you.
I want to establish that so it’s understandable why this genre is most dependent on radio play. Every band goes out of their way to get even the most minuscule amount of play on radio. Country radio makes or breaks acts. And country music radio programmers are certain they’re programming a family station. Unlike hip hop and pop, where flagship stations in New York or Los Angeles (or Atlanta for the former) can make or break an artist on a national level, even the smallest of markets in country counts. So the small town values, which insist that songs be at least technically clean are of the utmost importance.
Interestingly, the inability to actually use profane words in country music doesn’t mean country feels the need to play it safe. Legends in the genre have been willing to push the envelope. For every 100 artists who feel they have to encompass so-called red state values, there’s a Loretta Lynn who will write a song like “The Pill” (not to mention “Rated X” or “Fist City”).
The modern day equivilant is Miranda Lambert, whose “Gunpowder and Lead” is about as massive a female empowerment anthem as you can imagine, with incredibly strong 2nd Amendement/pro NRA undertones.
Seriously, anyone who was taken back about Lambert’s criticism of Chris Brown after the 2012 Grammy Awards needs to listen to that song to erase all surprise.
Themes of revenge, personal responsibility and equality for women are historically not shied away from in country music so it’s a fascinating curiosity that profanity still is.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, someone commented on my blog with a comparison. They said.
I remember reading some interview w/ Elvis Costello and he was talking about having tried to write a song with Ricky Skaggs (around the time of the Almost Blue LP, I think) and RS at one point said something like, “Man, you’ve got too many words.”
See now that’s how you get my attention: by invoking Elvis Costello, one of the greatest lyricists of all time in my opinion. The thing about Costello is he won’t use a plainspoken word or turn of phrase when a complicated one will do as well. The man has a phenomenal vocabulary and and even more amazing knowledge of history. The kinds of lyrical conclusions he can draw are simply not the work of your average person.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ricky Skaggs (who, at the height of his career, had a genuinely impressive mustache), please take a moment to view one of his biggest hit song.
It’s easy to see what drew Costello to Skaggs: he’s an amazing guitar picker. Not player, picker. He’s a Kentucky bluegrass artist at his core. And if you read his bio, you will find he is impeccably credentialed. But being a gifted artist and a clever lyricist are worlds apart.
Skaggs is indicative of all of country music. Across the board, the vocabulary used is simplistic, as are the themes. The real question becomes one of linguistics: is vocabulary related to intelligence?
There’s no firm answer. I suggest not looking down on country music for it’s linguistic simplicity because there is something beautiful about being able to economically express ones thoughts. There is a talent to it.
On the other hand, it is well known that intellectual curiosity is an indicator of intelligence and seeking out simplistic music is an established sign of being less complex. But that assertion has as much to do with the complexity (or not) of the music as the lyrics. But this impassioned defense of country music by an English professor (to be read in full, if you have the time) might change your mind on appreciating linguistic simplicity and economy. In part:
Country songs are familiar, yet defiant. The first line of any respectable country song starts up after the traditional romance plot ends (“She got the goldmine, I got the shaft”) or after the singer realizes the complexity of the worker’s situation within capitalism’s oppressive system, etc. (“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt”).