Country Music Tells The Red States How To Think
ountry music tells the red states what to do. It is the moral and ethical base for the heartland, reflecting and broadcasting changing value. It becomes a narrative history of what is right, what is wrong, what is understandable, what can be forgiven and what cannot. It explains why the cheating song has lasted for the entire history of the genre, and why love songs always seem to have both a normative and transgressive base.
There are two songs that find themselves together on country radio that have told the most about this kind of thinking, that provide a reflective mirror of what is happening now—Kenny Chesney's “Anything But Mine” and Toby Keith's “What Stays in Mexico.”
”What Stays in Mexico” tells a story of Gina and Steve, from Phoenix and Sioux Falls respectively (notice the locations—the boring, suburb-choked cities of the flyover, and cities where the audiences are located). They are each on separate vacations to Mexico, they hook up and feel guilty, what with Steve being married and Gina being an innocent abroad (she's a first grade teacher, for one, and first grade teachers provide a moral example). The song's convention is brought even more forward by the lyrical clichés, this being a carefully curated collection of trite maxims which is no more sophisticated then Lynn Anderson's “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”
The chorus is the most egregious example, with "Don't bite off more then you can chew, or "there are things done here the devil wouldn't do," but there are also lines like "She hopped right in the shower with a heavy, heavy mind/He knew it was the first time Gina'd ever crossed that line." That cliché should be an example of how the moral core of the song, the basic message of country—i.e. don't fuck around, because fucking around will provide a crushing weight of sadness and possibly divorce.
What becomes transgressive (aside from the libertines' anthem of the title) is Keith's voice—it is arrogant and smug, a voice that does not believe his own message, and a voice that almost dares the listener to forgive, and even encourage such trysts. There is then a conflict in the message and delivery—a tension between what is being said and how it is being said—that allows for a ray of moral ambiguity to shine through.
The dramatic irony in Keith's song is absent in Chesney's “Anything But Mine,” because little Kenny is so fucking earnest that any irony would escape his grasp. Any of the conflict that appears is actually written out, so that we can parse the text itself, like Baptists looking for a proof text.
The strict narrative of “Anything…” is like any of the other nostalgia-laden weepies he seems to be fond of (cf. “Young”, “There Goes My Life”, “I Go Back”, etc. ): A couple has a semi-tropical affair, they have sex, he has to go back to Cleveland, they part and there is much sadness. What makes it the anti-cliché then, more odd and more divisive then any of the songs that come before it, is the moral ambiguity of the text.
This would be the ultimate in heteronormative, been-there-done-that work, except for lines like "In the midst of the music I tell her I love her/We both laugh cause we know it isn't true," which rudely jar against the chorus, where the narrator declares his undying love. This is made even more clear in Chesney's sad and rolling baritone, where he sings low, and the song has the gravity and expectations of a funerary hymn.
There is permission in Keith, a roaring, good ol' boy love for pleasure, that evades any of what should be done—there is an expectation that boys will be boys, and girls will be girls and there is nothing wrong, even if Jesus thinks it's a really bad idea. There is no permission in Chesney, who infuses the most innocent and obvious love song with a melancholy longing and an almost explicit guilt.
It's weird then, the reversal of these two songs—permission towards adultery in one, and a warning never to fall in love, because you will feel "the sting of summer on my skin". The most pleasurable thing imaginable, a new love, and a young love, and being somewhere warm and wonderful—and dancing at night when the sun sets, and this being not a notice of joy but of physical pain, nobody but Chesney has made the machismo of nostalgia more clear.
Going back to the geography--of Cleveland, Phoenix, Sioux Falls—They are all the same kind of city, in the middle of America, with the suburbs exuding out, conservative in the sense of conserving traditions and customs--by name checking them Kenny and Keith indicate audience participation in he most obvious way—they tell the citizens of over looked America that their concerns are being addressed. They attach an oral tradition to a new kind of sexual morality. They preach to the converted, with a dignity and respect, so the artists are respected back (with sales, sold out concerts, moments on talk shows, awards, number one videos on CMT, number one singles on the Billboard charts, and stadium shows).
This is the new country, without the Opry and Music Row—that might be the real subversion then, a commercial usurping of country's traditional message, and a deconstruction of the usual sexualities. There is power there.
By: Anthony Easton
Published on: 2005-03-10