Class, Pt I: Anything But Country

When I got to graduate school, I immediately went looking for the Unitarian Universalist congregation – they always have the most interesting, simpatico progressives – and almost immediately met Dave. He was getting his PhD in ethnomusicology.

In what, now?
I had never heard of it, either.

Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures, by which we usually mean “foreign” countries, but also what we consider “traditional” American cultures like Native Americans, Appalachian hillbillies, or bayou Cajuns. It might also be a specific subculture’s music, such as particular subsets of trans and gay music culture, or Jewish New Yorkers, or first generation Muslim American rappers. I don’t know a lot about the field, though I always perk up when an ethnomusicologist pops up on NPR.

As soon as I met Dave, I immediately wished I had known this field of study existed when I was an undergrad. (This happens to me a lot.) I knew immediately what I would research for a PhD in ethnomusicology. I had considered it years earlier as one of several possible dissertation topics if I were ever to pursue a graduate degree in English literature or rhetoric: the tradition of ending a country music album with a praise song.

scan0052After years of tone-deaf derision, I had become a country music fan in high school because the only way to see my best friend consistently was to join her at line dancing.
To my surprise, I liked it.

I was terrible at the dancing, but I liked the music. Country had a catchy, driving beat, a simple VCVCVBC structure, and easy to understand lyrics. Though I never quite felt accepted where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, country music sang about the culture I had grown up in, with an endearing mix of pride, nostalgia, critique and humor. (It wasn’t overtly political yet, pre-9/11.)

When I went abroad, as much as liked German techno and Swiss Mundartmusik, Britpop and Dutch crooners…. As much as I enjoyed all that, I missed country.

When I was Stateside, cruising around in a rental car, I loved nothing more than to crank up Collin Raye and the Dixie Chicks. These weren’t my people, not exactly, but they were people I recognized and maybe even understood a little.

As I began buying country music CDs, I started to notice that the last track of many albums shared something in common. “God Bless the Child” by Shania Twain. “Walking in Memphis” by Lonestar. “There Will Come A Day” by Faith Hill. “Hats Off” by Alabama. “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good” by Le Anne Womack. “God’s Will” by Martina McBride.

Other artists – not country, not explicitly Christian – do it, too (Jewel comes to mind), but it’s particularly pervasive in country. I always wanted to do more research into the phenomenon of the praise song as coda, and its possible connection to the deep dedication to Christianity that permeated the country music-loving community I grew up in.

So I’ve never really understood the “anything but country” crowd, and they’ve always made me inexplicably uncomfortable.

Today I think I found my explanation in the article “Everything Except Country and Rap:” What You Really Mean by Laura Pochodylo:

To admit you like country music is admitting you like something inherently and purely working class, which jeopardizes your status as middle class. There’s a real anxiety in this, and country music is an immediate “flashpoint,” in Hubbs’ words, for this internal struggle of outward presentation.

“Country music’s potency as a creator of classed taste and identity is evident in the derision and anxiety it arouses in the dominant culture,” Hubbs explained.

The middle class white actively avoid identifying with country music and hip hop because it represents something they’re afraid of being perceived as: something other than white, and something lower than middle class.

I struggled with my admiration of country music, as I was raised solidly upper middle class, and was privileged enough to go to school to get a degree in a field of cultural studies. It felt voyeuristic for a bit, the same way being white and appreciating the culture of hip hop does. I was an outsider, and I believed this music was not for me, and maybe I liked it just because it represented something intellectually interesting to me.

Pochodylo’s story sounds a lot like mine … or what mine might have been if I had heard of ethnomusicology at 16 instead of at 25.

She has done the research I’ve never taken the time to do, and explains a history of race, class and Billboard charts that I had no idea existed. It’s shocking, and everyone should read “Everything Except Country and Rap:” What You Really Mean by Laura Pochodylo.

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