I recently read this post about gender roles in country music (via) which reminded me that I’d been thinking for a while that there’s an interesting space for feminism in country music. What follows is my somewhat haphazard speculations, but let’s start with Kristan Rawls, from the linked post, setting the stage:
There’s a script for women in commercial country music … Of course there are exceptions, but the ideal country woman is often blond (and white), feisty, world-wise, and hot. She is deeply possessive of her man, and aims to squelch competitors for his affection. She gives the appearance of working-class roots even if she didn’t grow up working class, and she’s equally comfortable talking about guns (Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”), Jesus (Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”), and heterosexual romantic relationships (Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away”). But the ideal country woman was not always thus. What has emerged as stereotype was innovative and fresh when Loretta Lynn began experimenting with these themes in the early 1960s. . . . .
I don’t listen to enough country music to know how prevalent that image is, but it isn’t surprising to hear that country music has, like many places in the culture, figured out how to takes images of forceful, powerful women and package them in a way that is safe, non-threatening, and sexy. I think, however, that there are ways in which Country music is hospitable to feminist material, which are minimized by that summary.
Let me suggest, as a very broad generalization, that pop music tends to describe emotional experiences — what does it feel like to be young and in love, or young and pissed off, or just young driving a fast car. It’s about the reactions that people have to the world. Country music can be much more specific about the actual experience in the world that prompt those emotions. As part of the genre it is more descriptive of life as it’s lived.
You may have heard the joke, what happens when you play a country song backwards?
“You get your truck back, you get your dog back, you get yer girl back and life is good.”
That may be an old joke, but, having just heard a country song about somebody losing their dog, it’s an amazing thing. It doesn’t hurt that that particular song was written by two of the best songwriters alive, but it’s really powerful to hear a song about that personal an experience that’s written so directly.
Making the personal public and political is serious business. Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect.
It would follow that there is a way in which Country music is inherently hospitable to feminist storytelling. I have no doubt that there are many other ways in which it’s inhospitable but, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Loretta Lynn, mentioned above, was writing country songs. There are famous feminist songs in many genres, but it’s hard to imagine The Pill as anything other than a country song.
I was thinking about all of this when I recently heard “Say Yes To Booty“, about, as she puts it, drunk sex, and the lack of appeal thereof. It’s true that she fits the description quoted above, she is white, blonde, and attractive. But I would argue that is a feminist song, and that it describes the frustrations from life experience, in a way which seems distinctive to country music. You could also compare that to the more explicitly political song, “I Spent My Last $10 (On Birth Control And Beer“.
Which, finally, brings me to the song which got me thinking about this question a year ago which is, perhaps, a harder case. When I listened to, Crazy Dangerous And Blue” I thought it was a feminist song — not in any explicit way, but in the story that it chooses to tell. I continue to believe that, but concede that it’s takes a little bit more work to make that argument. It’s a song about temptation which, arguably buries anything which would be challenging under a certain seductiveness. But I listen to that song and have a hard time thinking of any other songs which are that directly about female desire. There must be other examples, but notice how the desire is not displaced in any way. It’s not a song which builds up an image of the ideal object of desire. In this case the person who is the cause of the temptation is barely described at all. It’s just about her mix of feeling elated and excited and knowing that it’s all going to come crashing down at some point.
There should be example of non-country songs that are that direct, but I’m not thinking of them at the moment. So I’d be curious to know, what’s the closest match to a song like that, or the previous songs, in the pop genre?
Updates: I should add that I don’t disagree with the Kristin Rawls post. I think, ultimately, we’re both interested in people that are doing things outside of the mold of mainstream country. One video that she links to Single White Female lives up (down?) to all the negative stereotypes of country music, both musically and in the gender politics (though interestingly, Rawls notes that the woman who performed that, Chely Wright, has since come out, and believes that part of what that song may feel so cautious in it’s gender presentation is that she was trying to conform to a gender identity that she didn’t personally share).
Also the album version of “Queenie’s Song”, by Guy Clark, is very good, and I’ll post it later today. That was a song I wanted to share, as soon as I heard it and then I happened to realize that, from a certain perspective, “some kid got a gun for their birthday and ended up shooting my dog” sounded like it could be a cliche of a country music song.
* For the record, I had decided upon the thesis for this post before finding that post. Seeing that somebody else was making the same argument that I was, I was happy to steal a citation, but the overall thought was something that I already believed.