Thursday, January 15, 2009

Country Music and the Cultural Rear Guard

Country Music and the Cultural Rear Guard

My family is pretty careful to stay away from pop culture, but we do occasionally turn on the country radio station. Most country music, so it seems to us, has a less overtly aggressive, sexual beat, and tends to have a bit more positive a tone. Not coincidentally, this sound tends to go with more positive lyrics.

The stereotype is that country music is about your dog getting killed, but that's only one example of the bigger theme in country lyrics: attachment to enduring things. If country singers talk about their dog getting killed, the point is that ordinary things like loving your dog are Real. Country music is, roughly, about what's normal. There's a sense of humor, a chuckling sort of, "yeah, that is what really matters, after all."

I don't know a lot of songs, but here's the chorus of one I've enjoyed lately:

Come on in boy sit on down
And tell me about yourself
So you like my daughter do you now?
Yeah we think she's something else
She's her daddy's girl
Her momma's world
She deserves respect
That’s what she'll get
Ain’t it son?
Hey y'all run along and have some fun
I'll see you when you get back
Bet I’ll be up all night
Still cleanin' this gun

I don't know if this bears explaining, but the point is: finally, family grounds us, makes us more real. And, even more, that after all our carousing and foolishness, being parents helps us understand what we missed when we were younger. We turn into our parents, and that's not such a bad thing. Now I see from a bigger perspective, and I'm that crusty old dad.

Here's a much dumber one:

Too old to be wild and free still
Too young to be over the hill
Should I try to grow up
But who knows where to start
So I just sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Do my best to waste another day
Sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Let the warm air melt these blues away

Nothing profound -- and honestly, without the fun horn line, I doubt anyone would listen to it -- but there is something captured here about reaching middle age and just trying to figure out who the heck you are. I can't help but think of my wife's step-father, an overweight, bald, bearded, steel worker in a depressed town in rural America, who spends what money he has on his camper and his truck. I bet Paul chuckles when he hears this song, because, yeah, there I am!

By contrast, even the "nicest" rock music is pretty nihilist. I'll date myself by quoting the lyrics from an old song, but I think this band is still really popular:

I want you to notice
when I'm not around
You're so very special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doin' here?
I don't belong here, ohhhh, ohhhh

Well . . . I guess there's something nice in there about our disproportion before goodness? But compared to the realism of country music, this is a world with nothing but Me and my desires. This isn't something a dad -- at least a healthy dad -- sings, or chuckles at. It's the music of a kid who watches too much tv.

That's a pretty strong example. But, to pick the most lame thing I can think of, here's Don Henley:

and i can tell you
my love for you will still be strong
after the boys of summer have gone.

Oh, great. Not that love isn't a nice thing, but again, this is the world of tv, the world of no context, a world without family, without consequences, just me and my desires. (Looking up the lyrics, I found that the verses are much worse.) The invocation of "love" is, perhaps, the darkest part: as if summer flings have anything to do with the meaning of love. This is someone who doesn't know what it means to be human.

This is the world of Seinfeld, and Friends, and far worse, where everything's fun and laid back precisely because actions don't have consequences; where having sex with your friends is just a funny background joke; where children might appear as props, but nothing else. It is the world Decontextualized, the world of Nihilism, the world of nothing but me and my desires. Country music, perhaps, stands for waking up and realizing that Jerry's apartment is not real life, and at the end of the day, there are richer things to think about, things bigger than ourselves and having fun.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to exalt country music, but just the opposite. What I find most remarkable, and disappointing, about country music, is that you can have ten songs that would make my wife's step-father chuckle, and evoke something real -- and then up comes one almost as tawdry as the rock station, about decontextualized sex, and moving from partner to partner, and all the rest.

So my question is, what's going on here? How is it that a genre with such good instincts can totally drop the ball?

There's a parallel, I think, in talk radio. I know smart people aren't supposed to say this, but I think Rush Limbaugh is very insightful. He really understands politics, and political theory, and economics. He's a bit crude some times, but that doesn't surprise me: lots of insightful people are less than perfect as human beings.

But the next most popular talk radio show host is the nominally Catholic Sean Hannity, who talks all day about traditional values, but scoffs at his Church's teaching on contraception -- actually says he doesn't care what the Church says. Talks all day about law and order, but now and then speeding comes up, and it's not that he has a principled distinction, he just says, oh, I don't care, I just like going really fast. Okay.

I think what's happening here is a cultural rear guard. A rear guard, I think, is the part of the army that covers your tail when you're in full retreat. A cultural rear guard is not the sign of health. It's the last stand of a culture in full retreat. Country music -- and Sean Hannity -- is not going to make our world a better place. It shows that people vaguely remember better things. But it's not sufficient.

There is a difference between good instincts and good judgment. The country music demographic has good instincts. They don't want to live in the world of Jerry's apartment. They knows there's something bigger, and richer, and they can chuckle, half thoughtfully, when a good song reminds them that life is more than Me and My Feelings and good nihilist fun. And that's a good thing. But they do not have what it takes to stand up to the onslaught of modern nihilism. They are no more than a rearguard, in full retreat.

I'm finishing up Rusell Kirk's 1953 classic The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Through a study of English and American thinkers, he lays out a political philosophy. He calls it "conservatism," and that's a good word for it, except that the word has different connotations now. "Traditionalism" might be better, because Kirk proposes that the only way to maintain good values is through staunch opposition to progress. There's much to be said for this: for moving slowly, for carefully considering the wisdom of our ancestors, for the value of custom, and letting people live their lives without having to rethink things every ten years, and the general inability of humanity to think it all through clearly. Indeed, these ideas are meant to be a central theme of this blog.

But tradition is insufficient. The modern world is there, confronting us. Small town folks like my wife's mom and step-father can avoid the world to some extent, but the tv is in their home, the radio is in their truck, and the magazines are in their grocery store. And anyway, tradition itself is not just instinct, but the internalization of discernment. The greatness of tradition is precisely its discovery of better ways; true tradition and true progress go hand in hand.

And anyway, it takes some discernment to figure out what constitutes "the tradition." Our forefathers rarely had access to books; more of their children died than survived. Our modern medicine creates a new world, but it is a new world that our forefathers, in some sense, longed to see. The same is true of modern travel, despite the ways it has ravaged our culture (as I have often noted). Is it more traditional to be poor, or to fight against poverty? To be ignorant, or to seek learning? In the realm of culture what does tradition teach us to love, and what does it teach us to abhor?

These are not easy questions. And that's precisely my point. Tradition is very important. I value the thinking of Friedrich Hayek above all because he shows how tradition can be maintained only be decentralization (since even benevolent tyrants inevitably trod on custom). But tradition is insufficient without discernment. Simply being "conservative," in Kirk's sense, too often leaves us with country music: upholding some traditional values, but without the clarity of vision to turn the onslaught of modernity.

And let me add: Kirk is a great hero of the country against the city. The country is the place of tradition, of puttering on, the way things have always been. That is fair. (Though I think those who have never lived in the city fail to realize the ways that true urban living is also very small, and local, and custom-bound.)

But hiding in the country is no more of a strategy than hiding in country music. The country, I would like to suggest -- at least the American small town -- is not so much traditional as behind the times. When the times are moving in a bad direction, as they are, that's not such a bad thing. But it is not a winning strategy, it is a rearguard action. Being a decade behind on fashions does not protect you from them.

Those who truly want to conserve what is best in the human tradition (and the Western tradition, and the Catholic tradition) need discernment. They need to rely, not only on custom (though custom is essential), but also on the ability to tell right from wrong, to discern the spirits, to read the signs of the times. The country is the place of the rearguard, but the city is where the battle is engaged. Until we retake the heights of culture -- the marketplace, the school, the palace: the city -- the country can only be a hiding place, while we wait for the slaughter. True traditionalism must reclaim the city, through custom mingled with discernment. That is real Christian humanism.