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God is Great, Beer is Good…

April 11, 2011

… and people are crazy.

Ever since I discovered that my girlfriend listens to country music, I’ve been on a journey to find the words to describe why I do not.  Granted, country-infused folk/rock – Wilco, DeYarmond Edison, The Jayhawks, etc. – are another matter entirely.  And this is by no means an attempt to persuade one not to listen to the music of their choice, nor a statement about all of country music, a genre which has encompassed such wizards as Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, among others.  Rather, I’d like to focus on a more narrow slice of contemporary country music which, by promoting a blatantly WASP-centric mode of thinking, thereby implicitly denounces any oppositional minority perspectives.

In the song presented above, courtesy of youtube.com, Billy Currington sings the line “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.”  This is a song I’ve heard many times before; I work as a coordinator and deli personality at a certain on-campus retail store, there’s no getting away from the country.  But these are words that have always bothered me, and if my own eloquence cannot avail in describing why, perhaps the words of J.S. Mill will have to suffice.

In On Liberty, Mill highlights the dangers of denouncing other viewpoints:

“Those who desire to suppress [an opinion], of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible… All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”     -J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2.

I think I can safely assume that no one person reading this blog can claim, as Mill calls it, “absolute certainty”.  We all make mistakes, are exposed to differing perspectives, and have at the disposal of our decision-making brains only the perspective of our own unique circumstances.

 

Zac Brown and his band posing for a photo

The song "Chicken Fried" begins a seemingly simple, nostalgic portrait of simple American life, before devolving into a politically-charged, ethnocentric pitch for "American" military policy: "I thank god for my life/And for the stars and stripes/May freedom forever fly, let it ring/Salute the ones who died/And the ones that gave their lives/so we don`t have to sacrifice/All the things we love" (Zac Brown Band, Chicken Fried).

So applied directly to much of contemporary country music, which parades this sort of “canned American imagery” about pointedly, to manufacture feelings of nostalgia and pride in those who adhere to a typical WASP system of practices and beliefs, the philosophy of J.S. Mill might maintain that while entitled to their free speech, the work of such musicians claims infallibility (“God is great, beer is good, and [other] people are crazy”) and thereby leaves no room for more minority beliefs in the stirring pot of diverse ideologies.

I, for instance, am a pacifist; I believe in very minimal military intervention where absolutely necessary.  I’m also anti-colonialism.  So what space does ideology like this leave for my viewpoints?  I don’t feel empowered when I hear Zac Brown sing “let freedom forever fly”, I feel the alienating effects of exclusion.  And I’d like to reinforce that these are ideas not necessarily inherent within the conventions of the genre, but rather the sort of “implicitly ethnocentric” sentiments of many of today’s top country artists, sentiments likely rooted in the genre’s southern, western origins.

When one discusses Edmund Burke, however, the topic of such ethnocentric Conservative ideology becomes quite complicated.  On the one (larger) hand, Burke tells us to embrace our prejudices and our irrational gut feelings, because they are (in his view) practical, and not abstract, means of computation, and therefore at the heart of the human decision-making engine.  Our sense of justice and social order, he would maintain, comes from our respective positions within a social hierarchy; there is no more practical a place from which to derive our sense of rights and entitlement.  Therefore, he might fall in with a Social Darwinist crowd and support such ethnocentric tendencies.

“Believe me, sir, those who attempt to level, never equalize. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground.”     -Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

 

Country band Gloriana

Gloriana's song "Wild at Heart" contains the lines: "That rebel moon is shinin'/Those stars burn like diamonds/Hell bent on chasin' down that crazy slide" In the context of country music, the word "rebel" is tricky, as it commonly might refer back to the American 19th century meaning of the term.

But American “WASP-centrism” is by no means something particular to contemporary southern country music; the Tea Party uses a lot of exclusive rhetoric to instill feelings of inferiority within any other party of ideological thought.  Constantly the far-right separates policies into those that are American, and those that are not, implying that only those who fall in with the former have a true claim to the American “high life”.  What’s worse is how many far-right pundits lump “other” ideologies into one single category nonsensically; now we have “socialist Muslim Nazis”, and “liberal fascists” etc.

So, given the revolutionary nature of this group of extreme conservatives – disrupting congressional hearings, using inherently violent rhetoric to rally support – even Edmund Burke’s support might wain substantially.  Remember, it was with Reflections on the Revolution in France that Burke both outlined classical Conservatism and condemned the revolution with one broad stroke.  Perhaps, he might have to contend, policies enacted by this in power have brought American society to its current state, and perhaps therefore, a violent revolution to reclaim such abstract “rights” as an unrestricted business sector and the bearing of arms in public places no longer have any practical use or raison d’etre.

Conclusion: Associating such ideology with the contemporary country music scene is a bit of a stereotype, but there yet exist plenty of lyrical examples of country musicians exhibiting very WASP-centric modes of thinking about “the good life”, morality, etc.  The landscape of the music is certainly changing, however (think Hootie and the Blowfish) – whether exclusive rhetoric ever truly becomes a thing of the past is still yet to be seen.  For the time being, we can take solace in the fact that the social world, and especially in America, is a dynamic and rapidly-changing landscape which sees further integration and amalgamation on a daily basis.  Perhaps one day, we can drop the WASP moniker altogether and engage socially as a single diverse American people.

6 Comments
  1. chelseahoedl permalink
    April 11, 2011 12:37 PM

    I find your post to be very interesting, however, I feel that there is something lacking in your argument regarding how Mill would feel about country music. While I agree with your assessment of country music as often portraying WASP viewpoints, I feel that Mill would have no problem with this at all. In his discussion on truth and the need to prove truth with various opinions, Mill does not state that opinions stated as truth are bad. While he suggests that there is no certainty he does not claim that opinions be presented as theory. If one views something as a truth, it should be presented as such and from there differing opinions may or may not break it down.

    So when country singers claim “God is great, beer is good…” they are merely stating their opinion on the matter. They are in no way overstepping the right to present opinion and they are not overwhelming or discouraging counter opinions. I think that Mill would approve of not only country music, but the music forum in general because it allows people to freely express their opinions.

    • aaronbrozoar permalink
      April 11, 2011 1:23 PM

      Well spotted, that was my failure to specify. I didn’t mean to imply, as I accidentally did, that Mill would move to suppress the right of country musicians to express their own individual viewpoints in an orderly, non-harmful manner, but rather I was attempting to guess at how Mill might personally feel about the music. So I guess I was making a somewhat less substantive argument.

      One point I’d like to expand upon is something I touched on in relation to the Zac Brown Band song “Chicken Fried”, and especially with my discussion of pro-military rhetoric. Rhetoricians who use such language seem to miss the point that the rights we have in America are, by birth, ours; therefore, manufacturing this concept that we owe our freedoms to the American military completely misses the point of the “unalienable right” as Locke would have it. Our guns don’t manufacture these rights we indulge in, rather we’re supposedly guaranteed them at birth. This isn’t to say that I’m thankless toward countless individuals who have served, and continue to do so, but I think that mis-attributing our rights to the U.S. military is a falsehood that shouldn’t have a place in pro-military rhetoric.

  2. willscheffer permalink
    April 11, 2011 4:13 PM

    I have to admit i’m sort of scratching my head at this one. This first and foremost has to do with the fact that you keep contributing the source of this music style to “WASP” thinking but fail to define at any point what exactly that is. Whatever your definition of WASP may be, i certainly agree with you when you say, “Associating such ideology with the contemporary country music scene is a bit of a stereotype..” It seems like you’re trying to make an argument for increased examination of ideas and issues based on a very artificial stereotype, which inherantly discourages such examination. I think that if you examine Mill further you would find that country music as you see it does in fact have its place is society. Its there to offer an “extreme” view and to act as a point of comparison and discussion to other views. Without these more extremist views as you classify them, we would be a country full of centrists who agree on everything, exactly what Mill does not want to happen. I would be interested to know how you feel about that interpretation of Mill’s viewpoints.

    • aaronbrozoar permalink
      April 13, 2011 10:22 AM

      WASP is an acronym standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, as I’m sure you know. What I was driving at, which I may have done a less than perfect job of expressing, is essentially that a lot of contemporary country only speaks to, well, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, by using (to recycle a term) sort of “canned imagery” and promoting what the American life “should be” solely from the perspective of an old-fashioned white Anglo Christian. Perhaps a lot of my inadequacy at defining how contemporary country reaches out explicitly to WASPs stems from the fact that I don’t know country music, so I was wracking my brain just to think of the few examples I had. =)

  3. Micah Friedman permalink
    April 12, 2011 12:47 AM

    The one reason that I feel Mill would have no problem with country music and its lyrics is because it does not create harm to anyone. If you do not agree with the lyrics of a song or the viewpoints of the artist, you are free to change the channel. The musician is not forcefully, in my opinion, making you listen to any of his/her propaganda. Country music is simply for the purpose of entertainment. Your argument makes some sense, except it is kind of like buying a ticket to Lil Wayne concert and then being offended by his liberal use of the n-word. Don’t buy the ticket, change the station.

    • aaronbrozoar permalink
      April 13, 2011 10:16 AM

      I kind of already addressed that in my response to the first comment there; it’s not a very definitive, substantive argument; I’m not saying that if one were in power who held Mill’s writings dear, he would ban country music, that’s rather absurd. If you look, right toward the beginning of the article I say “I’ve been trying to find the words to describe why I don’t listen to country music,” not, “why Mill would ban country music, or, “why country music is harmful.” I was intrigued by his views on infallibility and the assumption thereof, and how it creates an effect of exclusivity, so I wrote on it from a purely philosophical standpoint. Of course Mill wouldn’t ban country music.

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