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A Little Bit Country…

“You can see why ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated. It’s basically a lyric in a country song.” – Kurt Bardella, creator of The Morning Hangover Tipsheet, a newsletter about country music.

Quite so. The music of rural America is “country music.” Go for a long drive in America and get away from the cities, and you’re struck by the number of country music stations filling up your FM dial. Listen closely, and you’ll notice that the lyrics of country songs are often explicitly political, perhaps moreso than most other genres.

The argument of this piece is as follows: if mainstream, modern country music has a political worldview, it is closer to “Trumpian” than to either movement conservatism or progressivism, and one can trace that worldview in the lyrics of many popular songs. Where Trump has differed from the line of the traditional Republicans of yore, country music has often been there ahead of the political curve, going back to when those voters were more likely to be Democrats (say, the 1980s). The culture and the politics aligned with the election of Trump and his overwhelming popularity in rural America.

Before diving into this argument, there are a few disclaimers worth publishing. First, just because one likes country music, it does not necessarily follow that one is a tacit Trump supporter; the type of music you prefer need not be a moral or political statement. (I know these songs not because I conducted serious anthropological research on an alien culture, but because I’ve heard them all either on Pandora or on the radio.) Second, that a work of art carries a political message does not necessarily mean that one must endorse the message to enjoy or appreciate the art. And third, not all country songs are as explicitly or implicitly political as the songs I have used for examples, or endorse the particular worldview of the songs selected below.

Below are some examples of “Trumpian” themes and places where they show up in country music.

Justice, Law, and Order

Trump emphasized law and order in his campaign, and how American cities had grown increasingly lawless. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he thundered,

America was shocked to its core when our police officers in Dallas were brutally executed. In the days after Dallas, we have seen continued threats and violence against our law enforcement officials. Law officers have been shot or killed in recent days in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan and Tennessee.

On Sunday, more police were gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three were killed, and four were badly injured. An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans. I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.

I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done. In this race for the White House, I am the Law And Order candidate. The irresponsible rhetoric of our President, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone.

One hears a bit of Hank Williams, Jr. in this speech. From his controversial “If the South Woulda Won” from 1988:

I’d make my Supreme Court down in Texas
And we wouldn’t have no killers getting off free
If they were proven guilty, then they would swing quickly
Instead of writin’ books and smilin’ on TV

Here we have a strong endorsement of the death penalty and “law and order.” More broadly, though, is the sort of layman’s frustration about the bad guy getting away with murder. There is a question of decorum here that is being utterly violated, according to Mr. Williams. Not only did you beat the law, but you have the temerity to try to exploit it for personal gain. A real man would retreat into exile, quietly living the rest of his days in obscurity and thanking God for the second chance. Williams is disgusted.

Toby Keith and Willie Nelson visit these same themes in 2003’s “Beer for My Horses.”

Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son
A man had to answer for the wicked that he done
Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree,
Round up all them bad boys hang them high in the street
For all the people to see

That justice is the one thing you should always find
You got to saddle up your boys, you got to draw a hard line
When the gun smoke settles we’ll sing a victory tune
And we’ll all meet back at the local saloon
We’ll raise up our glasses against evil forces singing
Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses

Much coverage of Trump’s opposition to immigration has focused on the nativism underlying it, but Trump often ties it explicitly to drug use. In his RNC speech, he declared:

We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities. I have been honored to receive the endorsement of America’s Border Patrol Agents, and will work directly with them to protect the integrity of our lawful immigration system.

Again, from “If the South Woulda Won,” Williams is disgusted by drugs:

We’d put Florida on the right track, ’cause we’d take Miami back
And throw all them pushers in the slammer

In this couplet, we have an endorsement of a hard-line position in the War on Drugs. It’s frankly the type of thing we hear from Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Country music has emphasized this approach to justice for decades.

One more, from Hank: his protagonist fantasizes about avenging his friend, who was mugged and killed on the mean streets of New York in 1982’s “A Country Boy Can Survive”:

… he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife
For 43 dollars my friend lost his life
I’d love to spit some beechnut in that dude’s eyes
And shoot him with my old 45
‘Cause a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

In the country music worldview, mercy is good, but the world is dangerous and full of bad people, and it’s the responsibility of society to bring those people to justice. And if the powers that be won’t, somebody must. God will sort it out afterwards.

Trumpian Economics

Alan Jackson’s “Little Man” is a lament from the nation’s economic peak in 1998 about the decline of small-town America. It’s a bit of an elegy, and somewhat out of place with the rah-rah patriotism that we see in some other more politically-charged country songs. (It’s also the best song on this list, with its unsettling use of C# major.)

We start with a distant memory of the past from the late 1950s or early 1960s:

I remember walking ‘round the court square sidewalk
Lookin’ in windows at things I couldn’t want
There’s Johnson’s Hardware and Morgan’s Jewelry
And the ol’ Lee King’s Apothecary
They were the little man
The little man

Thirty-five years later, Jackson revisits his hometown:

I go back now and the stores are all empty
Except for an old Coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts
There goes the little man
There goes the little man

It’s a snapshot in time: small-town America was full of small businesses, run by townsfolk. It was a certain way in the 1960s; you look back in the 1990s, and all of those stores were gone. What were they replaced by? Strip malls, and big box stores.

Now the stores are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the whole world with just one trip
You save a penny ’cause it’s jumbo size
They don’t even realize they’re killin the little man
Oh the little man

Jackson’s refrain summarizes it well: downtown has been hollowed out by the “big money” businesses from out of the area. Everything’s a little cheaper and a lot worse.

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
About the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut ’em down
And killed the little man
Oh the little man

The second verse is even sadder: it laments the decline of the personalized service that you’d get in the small town, as well as the death of businesses that refused to make money in vice.

He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf
Forget about the little man
Forget about that little man

He hung on there for a few more years
But he couldn’t sell slurpees
And he wouldn’t sell beer

The song is particularly remarkable because it came out at the peak of the dot com boom, and a time of broad economic prosperity. But Jackson picked up on the social dynamic that would come crashing through the American consciousness with the 2016 election: that rural America had been hollowed out. This feels like a portrait out of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and this sort of nostalgia ultimately lay at the heart of the appeal of “Make America Great Again.”

Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” from 1992 speaks less of small-town America than of neglected laborers, but the two themes are related. These are not “traditional” Republican priorities, but the themes resonate in Trump’s campaign:

Won’t you tell me if you can
‘Cause life’s so hard to understand
Why’s the rich man busy dancing
While the poor man pays the band
Oh, they’re billing me for killing me
Lord, have mercy on the working man.

The music video even starts with the sarcastic use of a clip of Ronald Reagan bemoaning negativity about the economy.

The song also offers a stellar example of how anti-big business and anti-tax protests can align:

Uncle Sam’s got his hands in my pockets
And he helps himself each time he needs a dime
Them politicians treat me like a mushroom
‘Cause they feed me bull and keep me in the blind.

One can imagine Trump saying these exact words. Indeed, he did say so, in remarks in Iowa in December 2015:

They know these politicians are all talk, no action, it is all bullshit, right?

All bullshit.

In addition to a focus on labor, country music has also veered more explicitly into economic nationalism. Hank Williams Jr.’s “If the South Woulda Won” is the prototype:

I’d have all the cars made in the Carolinas
And I’d ban all the ones made in China

The South voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush, an avowed free trader. But Williams is singing here about enthusiasm for trade restrictions. It’s the type of approach to economics you’re more likely to find on a bumper sticker than in a textbook, but certainly, there is a gut-level appeal–and a certain logic–to restrictionism: build our own products, buy our own products. Everyone works, everyone gets paid. What’s not to like? Trump, of course, is broadly in favor of this sort of economic nationalism, which he laid out most clearly in a blistering speech against free trade in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in June 2016:

The city of Pittsburgh, and the State of Pennsylvania, have lost one-third of their manufacturing jobs since the Clintons put China into the WTO. Fifty thousand factories across America have shut their doors in that time. Almost half of our entire manufacturing trade deficit in goods with the world is the result of trade with China.

It was also Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, who shoved us into a job-killing deal with South Korea in 2012. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute in May, this deal doubled our trade deficit with South Korea and destroyed nearly 100,000 American jobs. As Bernie Sanders said, Hillary Clinton “Voted for virtually every trade agreement that has cost the workers of this country millions of jobs.”

Trade reform, and the negotiation of great trade deals, is the quickest way to bring our jobs back.

In retrospect, a coalition between free-trading businessmen and the “Buy American” working class could never have a ton of staying power, particularly in the absence of a unifying existential threat and in an era of largely stagnant growth. Trump, of course, has made a second career out of criticizing trade deals as selling out the American worker and promoting high tariffs as a way to bring back jobs; it’s perhaps the only political area where he has a well-formed–if wrongheaded–ideology.

What Trump figured out–or what he lucked into–was that the economic decline of rural America had created a situation where they simply did not care about what urban and suburban America cared about. They just wanted someone who paid attention to their interests and concerns. Hillary Clinton was doubly bad: not only did she largely ignore those parts of the country in her campaign, she was an avatar of the decline, having been part of the institutional status quo throughout the down years. In contrast, Trump held his rallies in economically-struggling areas and spoke directly to those voters.

Cultural Pride and Disdain

One of the constant, recurring themes in country music is the divide between the cosmopolitan cities and small-town or rural America. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in Jason Aldean’s “Flyover States” from 2010. He first depicts a conversation between two elites on a cross-country flight:

A couple guys in first class on a flight
From New York to Los Angeles,
Kinda making small talk killing time,
Flirting with the flight attendants,
Thirty thousand feet above, could be Oklahoma,
Just a bunch of square cornfields and wheat farms,
Man it all looks the same,
Miles and miles of back roads and highways,
Connecting little towns with funny names,
Who’d want to live down there in the middle of nowhere

In response: Aldean defends the honor of middle America:

They’ve never drove through Indiana,
Met the men who plowed that earth,
Planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me,
Or caught a harvest moon in Kansas,
They’d understand why God made those flyover states,

I bet that mile long Santa Fe freight train engineer’s seen it all
Just like that flatbed cowboy stacking US steel on a 3-day haul
Roads and rails under their feet
Yeah that sounds like a first class seat

On the plains of Oklahoma
Where they windshield sunset in your eyes
Like a watercolor painted sky

You’d think heaven’s doors have opened
You’ll understand why God made
Those flyover states

In some ways, this is a rewrite of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Williams starts by celebrating the rugged self-sufficiency of country folk:

I live back in the woods, you see
A woman and the kids, and the dogs, and me
I got a shotgun, a rifle, and a 4-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk ’til dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too
Ain’t too many things these ol’ boys can’t do
We grow good ol’ tomatoes and homemade wine

But one feels that there is an idea that cosmopolitan America resents the small town Southern man. Williams, again:

I had a good friend in New York City
He never called me by my name, just hillbilly

Finally, defiance:

… we say grace and we say Ma’am
And if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn

Even the more celebratory country songs offer a similar line. Tim McGraw’s fun “Down on the Farm” from 1994 draws a contrast between leisure and celebration in the country and the city.

Well you can come as you are, there ain’t no dress code
Just some rural route rules that you need to know
Don’t mess with the bull he can get real mean
Don’t forget to shut the gate stay out of the green
If it starts to raining we’ll just head to the barn
Where country boys and girls are getting down on the farm

You can have a lot of fun in a New York minute
But there’s some things you can do outside those city limits
Ain’t no closing time, ain’t no cover charge
Just country boys and girls getting down on the farm

In short: you can have the bright lights of New York, we love it here.

Alan Jackson offers a more downbeat take on “country” in 2007’s “Small Town Southern Man,” where his protagonist is a laborer who sacrifices his health to provide for his family:

Calloused hands told the story for this small town Southern man
He gave it all to keep it all together and keep his family on his land
Like his daddy years wore out his body made it hard just to walk and stand
You can break the back but you can’t break the spirit of a small town Southern man

The underlying theme is a sort of intrinsic dignity to the laborer who sacrifices for his family. One might even extend it to suggest that this is a more noble way to provide for one’s family than the stereotypical white-collar path of cosmopolitan America. (Jackson isn’t explicit on this point, but it’s in the subtext.) He also speaks up for “country” priorities in general:

And he bowed his head to Jesus
And he stood for Uncle Sam
And he only loved one woman
He was always proud of what he had
He said his greatest contribution
Is the ones you leave behind
Raised on the ways and gentle kindness
Of a small town Southern man

So, how does Trump, a New Yorker himself, fit in with all of this? For one, Trump is an “outer-borough” guy, so he’s never been fully at home in the Manhattan-centric New York culture. But Trump saw the neglect, and brought it all together with a perfect encapsulation in his RNC speech:

My message is that things have to change – and they have to change right now. Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned.

I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.

I AM YOUR VOICE.

Superficially, this line in his speech is an economic appeal, but “forgotten man” is a more overarching argument: it’s about the promise of a return to prominence of a previously dominant worldview and culture. This was ultimately what Trump’s focus on “say[ing] Merry Christmas” was all about: we are going to bring back a “better” age. When Trump attracted elite scorn for his uncouth approach and his seemingly-ridiculous policy proposals, rural voters seemed to rally to him: if he’s taking that much flak, he must be over the target. Country music demonstrated the lines; Trump positioned himself, implicitly and explicitly, on the side against the cosmopolitan elites, moreso even than George W. Bush.

A Muscular Foreign Policy

The official justification for the Iraq War often changed between a couple of explanations. Sometimes, it was about preemptively preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; other times, it was about spreading democracy and bringing regional peace through an aggressive reorganization of Middle Eastern politics. But the subtext was clear: the US was never going to allow another surprise attack on its soil, and it was going to leverage its military might in an effort to get to that goal. Country music simply made the subtext into text. Here’s Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?”, released in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War in response to antiwar protesters:

They took all the footage off my TV
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger is what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it every day
Some say this country’s just out lookin’ for a fight
Well after 9-11 man I’d have to say that’s right

Have you forgotten how it felt that day
To see your homeland under fire
And her people blown away
Have you forgotten when those towers fell
We had neighbors still inside going through a living hell
And we vow to get the ones behind Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?

“Have You Forgotten” offers no sops to democracy or Wilsonian idealism. This is pure Jacksonianism: we will come at you with everything we have. Toby Keith’s response to 9/11 was the martial “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which was even more direct about the cause and effect:

Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the fourth of July

Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue

The US responded to the “sucker punch” with the war in Afghanistan. That’s how it works: hit us, we hit you 10 times harder. Trump’s rhetoric of strength resonates in this context:

Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint.

This was just prior to the signing of the Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing – it will go down in history as one of the worst deals ever made. Another humiliation came when president Obama drew a red line in Syria – and the whole world knew it meant nothing.

In Libya, our consulate – the symbol of American prestige around the globe – was brought down in flames. America is far less safe – and the world is far less stable – than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America’s foreign policy.

In the “country music” worldview, retaliation is the obvious, responsible course of action. But in response to these affronts, America did not hit back 10 times harder. It… barely hit back at all. The risk of “blowback” isn’t really a concern: if the US is in the conflict, it must hit back harder to deter anyone from trying anything again. Trump understood this instinct; most other candidates demand more subtlety in making their foreign policy pitch.

Concluding Thoughts

Modern country music did not anticipate Trump, per se, and doesn’t fully map onto his campaign, but the politics underlying many of those songs showed up very explicitly in his campaign. That Trumpism would appeal broadly in rural America might have been easier to predict, if we’d thought about it: these songs are commercially successful, in part, because they reflect the values of a substantial number of their listeners. The variations on movement conservatism preached by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio had their appeal, but they were simply less potent among this particular demographic than Trumpism.

The staying power of these attitudes also implies that Trumpian nationalism is a force that will not go away. (The songs featured in this article cover three decades.) Movement conservatives, reform conservatives, Evangelicals, and labor Democrats can try to co-opt it, as they all have attempted to do at times, but we should expect it remain a force in American politics for the foreseeable future.

Image by Lunchbox LP


Staff Writer
Twitter 

Dan Scotto lives and works in Oregon. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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124 thoughts on “A Little Bit Country…

  1. This guy nails modern country music:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stVNdLmKGYw

    The best statement about country music I ever heard was made by shock jock Steve Dahl here in Chicago. He was ranting about white people and the blues, saying they can’t authentically sing the blues, but that’s why there’s country.

    The last thing I want to hear musically is a bunch of millionaires whining about how crappy there life is, and how put upon they are. The first thing they do after getting a little success is get their asses out of whatever rural hellhole that birthed them.

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  2. When I was in Navy boot our company commander liked to line us up and have us listen to Lee Greenwood sing “God Bless the USA.” The dude would stand there and get all misty eyed and I guess he was expecting us to feel the same. Frankly, I thought it was just a bit over the top but I couldn’t roll my eyes for fear of extra push-ups.

    Yeah, you’ve nailed the political aesthetic there.

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    • If a US president came out reflecting the hip hop view of the world, we’d similarly think they came out of nowhere. Trump comes closest, he manages the more modern material excesses of hip hop well, but falls well short on political hip hop.

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  3. Good post. And Bo Burnham’s observations (in Slade’s link above) I think apply perfectly to Trump – he’s pandering stadium country music.

    There’s also another dimension of Law & Order that’s not really the pro-forma Law and Order, but it is about Justice. It’s how you can square the circle between celebrating bootleggers in the hills and condemning the dude that will knife you for the couple of dozen dollars in your pocket.

    (and that’s putting aside the frequent tales of domestic abuse ()not just man on woman(), and *really* putting aside treating bootleggers in the hills differently than drug dealers in the cities, which has Unfortunate Implications)

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    • Here is the problem with saying that they care about Justice. They really don’t in my mind. Or they have a narrow and greedy version.

      The implication in Dan’s post is that the left does not care about justice and I find that offensive.

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        • I never get quite get the SSC thing on outgroups. Am I suddenly supposed to agree with reactionaries and defend their folk ways?

          It seems like in SSC world liberals are supposed to apologize for being liberal. I disagree with that.

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          • “Am I suddenly supposed to agree with reactionaries and defend their folk ways?”

            You’re supposed to recognize the difference between a philosophical disagreement and a Two Minutes Hate.

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        • Jaybird’s post has combined with the half-remember snatches of country songs flitting through my head after reading Dan’s post and now I’m imagining it as the lyric to an alternate-universe country song.

          “Now while it’s obvious that I don’t agree with their axioms, I find it offensive that they don’t agree with mine / We’ll go round ‘n round on Twitter, me drinkin’ beer an’ them sippin’ wine / Minds never to meet, ’til NP-complete, an’ that’ll never come ’round / in closed space-tiiiiiime…”

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            • Or a train. After getting outa prison.

              Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
              And I went to pick her up in the rain
              But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
              She got runned over by a damned old train

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            • (fast guitar noodling, I’m thinking something like Commander Cody’s Hot Rod Lincoln here)
              “So one hot morning in old At-lanta / big ‘ol truck doin’ ninety-five / brakes locked up at a fork in the road / time to choose, who lives ‘n who dies”
              (guitar riff)
              “One side kids all ridin’ their bikes / happy laughs from the little tykes / other side, my old dear Ma / I realized then, there ain’t no God”
              (chorus)

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      • Saul Degraw:
        Here is the problem with saying that they care about Justice. They really don’t in my mind. Or they have a narrow and greedy version.

        Who is ‘they’, specifically? Country music fans? Country music artists? Southerners?

        (one of the other things to consider in how MAGA is partly a skeuomorph of mid-20th century exurban artistic expression is that there was once a distinction between ‘country’ and ‘western’)

        The implication in Dan’s post is that the left does not care about justice and I find that offensive.

        well, if you want to believe that, I can’t help you.

        (eta – heck, if you want to believe that both ‘classical’ and modern country *only* exists on the right-left spectrum – and at that, only on the right part of it – then I *really* can’t help you)

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  4. I agree with what you are saying but am not sure if there is anything new here. Everything you have written on the South and country music seems like a long known truth. I also think they are very wrong.

    I don’t like the South very much. When I was 15 going on 16, my parents sent me to Spain for the summer. The program was run by an Episcopalian school out of Texas and a lot of the kids were from South Carolina for some reason. I generally like the kids from the North and the West more. We were all from well to do families but the kids from the North and West seemed more down to earth. We went to public school.

    The Southern kids went to private school and were wild. Yet they were largely very conservative at the same time. I found this odd even back then.

    My opinions on the South have not changed that much. I don’t disagree with your analysis of country music but I just find the politics and culture of country music to be wrong and filled with Southern chauvinism.

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    • I don’t like the South very much… I just find the politics and culture of country music to be wrong and filled with Southern chauvinism.

      I’ve long been convinced that notme is not a sentient human being, but an algorithm constructed to say the most ridiculous partisan thing possible in any given conversation. I’m starting to suspect the same thing about you.

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    • Yeah, Saul, I’m sure that these particular private school kids you met once told you everything you needed to know about the South. Well that and maybe My Cousin Vinny, with a dash of Deliverance thrown in? Are there influences I’m leaving out?

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      • What I said was a bit harsh and there are plenty of liberals in the South. Asheville was a charming town.

        But there is a large strain of South Uber Allies and our ways should rule above all. Notice how many Republican politicians feel free to say urban (read: black) culture is what is keeping blacks behind but none dare blame rural poverty on the ways of white residents.

        The South seems to think that their way of life should continue forever and above the rest of the nation and to this I say no.

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        • Saul,
          Cavaliers? or Scotch Irish?
          You’re talking about two fucking different cultures, and lumping them into one big ‘un.
          It makes you look awful ignorant.

          To be fair to the Republican politicians, Obama also said that urban culture is what is keeping blacks behind (See field negro, he’s always good for quoting what Obama’s talking about to black folks).

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        • Notice how many Republican politicians feel free to say urban (read: black) culture is what is keeping blacks behind but none dare blame rural poverty on the ways of white residents.

          Arguably, the reverse of this applies to the Democrats. That the rural jobs are never coming back, so the answer is for the folks there to pack up, move out, get educated, etc. But inner city problems, particularly in the Rust Belt, are all due to outside influences, not the people who live there today.

          And me, feeling malicious today, say to both sides that it’s obvious the suburbs have had the right answer for 50 years, and there’s what they should be trying for :^)

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          • “And me, feeling malicious today, say to both sides that it’s obvious the suburbs have had the right answer for 50 years, and there’s what they should be trying for.”

            100% agree with this. The urban folks point the fingers at the rural folks and meanwhile the suburbs are quietly getting things done.

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            • What is transforming the basic Republican and Democratic political coalitions that have existed since circa 1970 is that the suburbs aren’t hacking it anymore.

              They’re bifurcating into super wealthy enclaves a la Hoboken, or are becoming no different (and in some cases worst than) what used to be called ‘inner cities’ a la Ferguson.

              The new ‘suburbs’ that had the middle ground from the 60s to the 90s are now being built way out there, with transit times that are increasingly onerous and one oil price spike away from being unaffordable.

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                • How much telecommuting is really acceptable?

                  Even in tech, there seems to be a strong split between companies that allow telecommuting and those that don’t and as Kolohe said, a lot of people don’t have jobs where telecommuting is possible and this includes lower to mid level admin who might live in Solano or Sonoma but need to commute to SF or further.

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                    • The office has the heavy duty scanner and printer which is still necessary in law especially because a lot of courts don’t do e-filing yet. San Francisco is very good with e-filing, not so much other counties in California.

                      I am pretty good at working from home but there is something nice about having somewhere else to go. I like the work/home divide. Just like I did all my studying in the law school library. Home was my space.

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              • I don’t know if I would quite call Hoboken a suburb but it has absolutely gentrified as people have been priced out of NYC. Hoboken was always considered a city though along with Newark and Jersey City, Hoboken used to be very rough.

                When I think of suburbs, I tend to divide between rings. You have inner-ring suburbs like the North Shore of Long Island and Westchester which tend to swing blue and then the further out, the more conservative it seems to get, both socially and economically.

                I wonder how this changes between regions. The whole Bay Area is very blue until you get to around Solano county but even then it is blue. IIRC there are only a handful of towns in the Bay Area where Republicans achieve a plurality and those are Danville, Black Hawk, Atherton, Bellevue and maybe Novato.

                But debating what is and is not a city in the US is hard. IIRC last year there were a bunch of articles showing how many (maybe most) American cities are a collection of suburbs (single-family homes on detached lots frequently) under one government except a handful of older cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest.

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            • Unfortunately, the suburbs are financially unsustainable – they only “get things done” on other folks’ dime.

              At least where I live, the property tax revenue from the denser urban areas are what subsidizes the suburbs’ public infrastructure – without tax revenue from the centre of town, the suburbs wouldn’t have things like paved roads, running water, or sewers.

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          • Is that really hypocrisy? No one is saying that the jobs going away is the fault of the people who used to do them. The world changes, and there’s no holding it back. While I have some sympathy for people who suffer from that, I don’t see that pretending it’s going to change back is in any way productive.

            As I’ve said before, get an education that gives you a shot at a good job and then go wherever that takes you is the deal my kids got, and it never occurred to them (or me) to call it unfair. Not to mention my brother, who lives in a place that often makes the new for its problems, but that’s where he got the opportunity to make full professor. That’s different, of course. For some reason.

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        • Look, it’s not like you’re the only Northern Liberal to act like the South is synonymous with everything about American culture and politics that you don’t like, but it ain’t so and it never has been. We’ve absolutely got our problems, but North = Liberal and tolerant, South = Racist and backward and Conservative is a dumb reductive way to look at the world.

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    • Saul,
      You can’t paint the south without painting black and white. How many black southerners you met? How many folks from ScotchIrish territory, not the deep South?

      I don’t think you ever heard nothing from those South Carolinians about what’s the best dirt for cookin’ — and that’s part of their culture down there.

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    • “…but the kids from the North and West seemed more down to earth.”

      Says the guy that posts about how he doesn’t understand mainstream movies, bemoans why more people don’t listen to classical music and every Christmas suggests they buy $200 shirts. Yep, salt of the earth that Saul is.

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    • “Tell about the South,” said Shreve McCannon. “What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?…Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”

      “Because it sucks” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “it sucks” he said. “It sucks” he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: “It sucks! It sucks! It sucks!”

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      • There is a lot of country music that I find rather charming. Mainly older stuff like Loving You is Happy State of Mind by Bill Anderson, or Poor Folks by Bill Anderson, Hey Good Lookin by Hank Williams, The Carter Family. Mama Tried by Merle Haggard is a great song.

        But the Stadium Country stuff grates on me really badly.

        I concede your point that it does well in place like Ohio, PA, and Wisconsin but it is also not uncommon to see Confederate Flags flying in the rural sections of those states even though they were Union. From what I hear, you can see the Confederate Flag is rural sections of Canada at times. But I’ve long had a theory that the Confederate Flag has become an Epartier Le Bourgeois among white, rural, right-wingers.

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        • I’m not particularly a fan of country music, maybe Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch, but I think the piece shouldn’t be particularized to the South. I’m a bigger fan of traditional blues music, which also have a focus on the importance of work, and stories of crime and punishment. But not very many people listen to the blues anymore.

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    • Country music is deeply artificial. That’s what makes it charming. And out of that artifice comes some genuinely moving stuff. Not all that time. It’s like, you know, all art.

      WSM stands for “We Shield Millions”, the motto of the insurance company that started The Grand Ole Opry. Colin Wescott’s book on Hank Williams is a good read. I’d at least recommend “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”. It assembles all these tropes from that book. from Johnny Cash’s book, from Brian Wilson’s book, presumably from Glen Campbell’s book…

      As to the Southern kids, I recommend James McMurtry’s “Lobo Town”. Fairly brutal song. The world is hard on wild kids these days.

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  5. Dan,

    While I appreciate the thoroughness of this piece, I don’t know if I exactly agree with your conclusions.

    “Modern country music did not anticipate Trump, per se, and doesn’t fully map onto his campaign, but the politics underlying many of those songs showed up very explicitly in his campaign.”

    What I would suggest is that popular country music (ie the stuff they play on the radio) is rarely political. It’s a commentary on small-town life and an idealistic comparison between rural and urban America. If it could be considered political at all, I would call it populist. Populism and an affection for the little man also exists in rock. Springsteen, Mellencamp and Billy Joel all accessed those ideals regularly. But that was in the Rust Belt, and Indiana and New Jersey. So maybe we could further refine our definition of pop country politics and call it folk populism which would explain the Southern/Heartland connection.

    So we have folk populist music which is popular with people in the same areas where Trump did really well. Did he access some of those feelings? Sure. But obviously it’s not a one-for-one because we can find lots of examples of contradictions too. Willie loves weed. Farmers mostly like immigration. It gets complicated.

    I wrote more on this topic way back in 2013.

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  6. Another thing I have noticed and mentioned before is that a lot of people have out dated versions of NYC in their heads. They still think of the 1970s NYC as being real.

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    • It was amusing to see the reactions we got when we moved from suburban Orange County to downtown LA.
      “You don’t have a yard??” “You are getting rid of your car??” “Aren’t you afraid?”

      Yeah, they imagine we are living in Scorsese New York circa 1975, with Snake Plisskin.

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      • Having spent a fair amount of time in DTLA myself, I would have given you reactions of fear, too, although different ones.
        “Holy shit, how on God’s green earth will you afford the rent?” “Won’t the traffic be effing loud? Like, all the time?” “What are you going to do for a car, garage it out in the warehouse district?”

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        • It’s funny how one adapts to the city environment, from a quiet culture de sac.
          The street noise is just that white noise in the background. And not having a car drops the effective rent appreciably.

          The biggest change is living in close proximity to people; wherever you go you are surrounded by people, living your life in the public view.
          There isn’t that alone time in the car, instead there is that invisible personal space that surrounds us on the subway, the bus or elevator.

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          • Our first apartment was down the block from a firehall. My mom in law came to visit after we’d lived there for six months or so, and remarked on how many sirens she was hearing. We had to think for a minute before concluding that yes, there were sirens weren’t there.

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    • I remember explaining to you that the Toronto of the 1960s you knew from fiction radically transformed into something much different a couple decades later. I’ve had similar conversations about how people’s impressions of Alberta are 20-30 years out of date.

      People’s impressions of places they have no first hand familarity with are usually dated. The same probably applies to many places you only know by reputation.

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  7. They’ve never drove through Indiana,
    Met the men who plowed that earth,
    Planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me,

    I’ve met a few of those guys. And many of them are the men and women that many country music fans, at least the ones who luxuriate in this particular ethos, want to deport and build a wall to keep out.

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    • Heh, ain’t that the truth.

      Part of why “Country Culture” evokes such emotional resonance, is because their vision of it is receding in the rear view mirror.

      Who plants those seeds? Who butchers the hogs? Who fixes the tractors, ropes the horses, processes the grain, does all the hard dirty work that country singers fantasize about?
      Increasingly, it’s Hispanic immigrants.

      But even more telling- the country myth was always a myth. Because it never represented more than a part of the people who lived there.

      The salt of the earth, common sense country people with dark skin were always conspicuously missing from the picture.

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      • Country music has always been equally black music. The first performer at the Grand Ole Opry was black (DeFord Bailey). The first million-selling country record was by Charlie Pride, and who can forget Ray Charles? Now there’s Darius Rucker, Percy Jenkins, Milton Palton, Mickey Guyton, and many others.

        Interestingly, the cowboy thing was in large part imported to Texas from Nigeria, Niger, and Gambia, and ranchers sought out the slaves from the African herding cultures who knew how to drive large herds of cattle over long distances from either horses or camels. Europeans didn’t do that, but many Africans did, and still do. They taught the white ranchers how to do it.

        And it goes both ways. There are now parts of Africa where by people’s songs, culture, and dress you couldn’t tell they weren’t from Tennessee or Texas.

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  8. Living it in color, Hank Jr. “A Country Boy Can Survive” was pretty much the rural anthem. I would say there is an alternate frame work for: “his protagonist fantasizes about avenging his friend,” in that what Hank is saying was deal with the strong man by opposition, and in his case it is a 45 that does the opposing.

    It is important to note that “Country Boy Can Survive” was in ’81, and the “If the South Woulda Won” was in ’88. At the time city violence was being splashed on the big screens in the Death Wish 1-4 and the Dirty Harry movies depicting rampant violence. It appeared America abandoned much of it’s inner cities and cocaine and heroine gained momentum. It was a constant drum in the news. A lot of people don’t see that history that was spritzed over by modern renewal.

    The other problem with framing country music as all ‘law and orderish’ is the song “Copperhead Road” which depicts moonshine running as heritage, then bumping up against the law for growing seeds of Colombia and Mexico.

    J.P. Richardson singing “White Lightning” in ’59, ‘nough said.

    As far as country music getting political, Aaron Lewis did a quasi repackage of “Country Boy” in 2011.

    A lot of these songs are talking how the big lights of the city aren’t what they appear to be and there is a return to the country, The LACS unpack this in their “Country Road”. They mention Georgia, but it could be nearly any state that isn’t a complete population center.

    Anyway this yammering over ‘Rural America’ is some funny statistical gymnastics, as the quantum of rural america makes up less than 20% of the population. Which shows there is a glossing over of…….80% of the population that isn’t rural.

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    • Anyway this yammering over ‘Rural America’ is some funny statistical gymnastics, as the quantum of rural america makes up less than 20% of the population. Which shows there is a glossing over of…….80% of the population that isn’t rural.

      That suggests to me that a large number of suburban people culturally identify with the pseudo-Kincadian vision of an idealized America portrayed in country music: the soccer mom with the country station on the preset of her minivan. Which, now that I think about it, describes one of my colleagues exactly. She actually lives in a true suburb of Los Angeles, where I live in one of L.A.’s exurbs. I’ll note for the record that she’s a Democrat, and as horrified at the Trump Presidency as I am. Although this is a single data point, it demonstrates that identification with the themes and sounds of this genre of music does not necessarily result in conservative political behavior or attitudes.

      But it does suggest that my colleague has some degree of cultural affinity for what (particularly modern) country music describes. If those are the values of simple justice, the comforts of a stable home, hard work, patriotism, and the love of a good spouse, that’s not so hard to understand, is it?

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      • Which genres have the longest-lived artists?

        Pop strikes me as exceptionally disposable. It’s rare when a pop artist from 10 years ago is still popular today, practically unicornish for someone from 20 years ago does so, and unheard of for a pop star 30 years ago to be putting out a new album.

        Rock? This kinda happens. Whitesnake is still putting out stuff, for example. I’m not sure how well it does, but it happens.

        Rap? There are a couple… Too $hort, De La Soul… Um… it’s mostly producers who are still around, not the artists.

        Country? Dolly Parton is the first to come to mind. George Strait another, there are probably a handful of artists I’d be able to name if I were familiar with the genre.

        Of all those, it seems to me that Country has the most artists that you could have spent the last 30 years with. Could share with your baby, with your tween, with your grown child, listen to as you hold your new grandbaby.

        Who am I not thinking of?

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        • Punk. Green Day has been putting stuff out for 25+ years (unfortunately) But also Social D, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, etc.

          But if you look into many of the smaller genre’s such as reggae or rockabilly, you will find artists who have been pumping stuff out for decades.

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        • I’m still listening to U2 and Fleetwood Mac and Michael Jackson and Boston as the 2020’s loom and yes I feel old at the silver anniversary of The Joshua Tree but there it is. I conclude that the vast bulks of artists in all genres don’t ever make much of a splash or last all that long; in pretty much any genre there are a handful of artists who make it big and endure. I don’t think country is any different.

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          • I’m not really talking about Really Awesome Albums That Hold Up.

            I’m talking about putting out new stuff. Dolly Parton put out a 43rd(!) album last year (it went to #1). George Strait put out one in 2015 (his 28th(!)) and that one hit #1 as well.

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            • Some of that just goes to country music being the most economically successful genre, perhaps because being more traditional means of making money from music (radio, concerts, CD sales) have remained stronger with a more traditional audience.

              Remember when Bon Jovi beat out David Bowie a few years ago for number one release?

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            • Now, the question is, did those albums hit #1 because they were incredibly popular or did these albums sell the same amount that previous albums did fifteen years ago to the same core fanbase, but with the death of album sales, that’s enough to hit #1 now?

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        • I think that 30 year rock/pop veterans on the nostalgia circuit are an order of magnitude more common than that. I drive by a tribal casino that’s a huge booker of these guys. Air Supply is still touring. So is Foreigner. And Rick Springfield. It sems that only death can stop any act that got play from Casey Kasem from an endless supply of tiny paychecks playing to people whose musical tastes never really left that era either.

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            • Not really. All the good old pop stars keep on putting out albums (even if Tori Amos’ really, really suck).

              You just don’t hear about them.

              Now, a friend of mine who can’t be bothered to keep the same name for more than five minutes… well, he’s had a twenty year musical career, and keeps on coming up with new bands, or other new places to write.

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              • Make a note of the date and time, everyone – I’m right with Kim on this one.
                Just of the three acts I mentioned, they all had new original work until the end of last decade, one has two in the last three years, and one is currently touring to support a record.
                We aren’t the target audience, but to that audience, these guys are in no way museum pieces.

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        • Eh. This really only applies to people who like country.

          My parents listened to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Dead, Paul Simon (and Simon and Garfunkel), Jazz, and Classical when I was growing up. I am pretty sure you can find plenty of people with boomer parents who remember listening to 1960s rock and soul when they were kids.

          When I saw New Order a few years ago, the crowd ranged from people in their 50s making out like they were in college again to 18 year olds with their first tattoos. New Order is playing the Greek Theatre at the end of April. Belle and Sebastian, the Magnetic Fields, Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo have all been around since the 1980s or 90s. You can see wide age ranges at their shows.

          Radiohead has been around since the 1990s. Pearl Jam still tours. Wilco has been around for decades.

          Plenty of Gen Xers like putting their kids in Ramones and Blondie t-shirts.

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          • Back ’76 or ’77 maybe, i was a Simon & Garfunkel/ John Denver fan, then this friend of mine in high school who went to underground Hollywood clubs gave me a listen to a bootleg 45 of some weird band playing a song called “Beat On The Brat (With A Baseball Bat)” and it was the most mind blowing wonderful thing I had ever heard, and I spent the next few years hanging out at those clubs*.

            Last July when we moved I found my old Ramones and Blondie 8 tracks and tossed them.

            If you had told me in 1976 that 40 years later kids would be wearing Ramones tee shirts, well…

            *and I wore an onion on my belt, which was the fashion at the time.

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        • I think a lot of it depends on your definition of “long lived.” Because the truth is, somebody like Alabama or Dolly Parton or even Alan Jackson rarely gets airplay on country radio, but they still get shoutouts in newer country stars songs and might show up to duet with them at the CMA’s or something.

          OTOH, older rock, R&B, metal, and even punk groups still tour quite successfully, they put out albums that at least make their money back, but it’s just that they simply don’t have a place to get props anywhere. Stations like BET are focused on the New and the now and there’s not really a rock TV station, like there is for both rap and country. I mean, if he hadn’t died, would David Bowie putting out a great album made any kind of traction at all?

          But, on the pop end, a NKOTB/Backstreet Boys reunion tour sold while wherever it went and seemingly half the women on my FB page between the ages of 25 and 45 got all dolled up to go to them. Britney Spears is making millions to Vegas. Etcetera.

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          • I guess my only definition of “Long Lived” is “put out albums with new material and those albums get props from both the critics and from the audience”.

            It’s not just “still capable of packing an auditorium in Vegas six nights out of seven for two months” (as impressive as that is!).

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        • As part of a similar debate, I’ve been paying attention to what music is getting played at the grocery and fast food joints when I’m there. The rotations are heavy on the 70s, with occasional selective dips into the 80s (power ballads) and the late 60s (Beatles but not Stones). Most of it falls into the category I label “sing along pop”. I am surprised by the number of teenaged girls I see/hear singing or humming along softly.

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          • Sing along Pop was pure 60’s. That’s Cat Stevens and other ridiculously simple stuff.

            You probably mean “the chorus is memorable” stuff, which is great — but there’s only a few songs that I can pull out of my head that are honestly all that difficult to sing (granted, i watch anime a lot, so, when Maya makes songs for her chords, well, they’re good songs).

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            • Cat Stevens’ period of greatest success was of course the early 70s, Tea for the Tillerman through Buddha and the Chocolate Box. His songs aren’t just singable, they’re easy to write new lyrics for:

              If I go wrong between the ears
              Slip my trolley, strip my gears
              If I go wrong between the ears
              O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o
              I won’t make sense no more

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          • I see that at the rec center at the school too.
            More 80’s than 70’s there though.

            What you’re referring to is Muzak.
            They’ve always had several channels, and some of them are pretty cool.

            I played this for the President of Alpha Kappa Alpha a couple of semesters ago, and he liked it a lot. Sounds pretty modern to my ears.

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        • I remember an odd stretch in the mid-1980’s, after new wave and punk kind of burned out, when a bunch of dinosaurs made it back onto the pop charts. Genesis, CCR, The Who, Jefferson Starship, Cream, The Eagles, David Bowie – the bands, some members, or successor bands all had a strong showing. That’s the last time that I know of that we’ve seen a resurgence of a past era’s artists.

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          • And this is why folks don’t want to keep their names for more than five minutes, if they’re any good at all.

            When you’re on top, ain’t nobody can tell you that you suck, and how are you going to do anything better if that’s the case?

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          • Part of the eternal problem is that many of the artists I immediately thought of were dead.

            I suppose that that was something that Rap had more in common with Country than with Rock. Artists who got shot by someone who weren’t themselves.

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  9. I think is on target in his last paragraph. You aren’t going to hear the music discussed in this piece at trendy upscale bars (except maybe ironically) but it’s plenty popular in places where commuting into a large or medium sized city is normal. The appeal isn’t geographic (or even necessarily genre specific) so much as cultural, as noted above by . Historical context is also important.

    Bernhard Goetz would probably agree with a lot of the sentiments in the law and order section despite not being from a rural background in the sense most people would envision.

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