Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Eighty-year-old Argument

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 12:08 PM

If you get a chance to talk country music with Jocelyn Neal, a professor in the Music
click to enlarge Them Fancy Boots Don't Tell You What's Inside
  • Them Fancy Boots Don't Tell You What's Inside
Department over at the University of North Carolina, I recommend you take it.  She's the kind of person who, when you have about twelve strands of thought on a subject, enjoys giving each strand a yank to see if it can hold your weight.  I ran into her this weekend at Belmont University at the International Country Music Conference where they were arguing about what exactly constitutes country music.

This is the kind of ongoing argument that leads people to get together once a year to stand up in front of each other and say "But listen to this" and "pay attention to that."

And, as Neal pointed out, it's an argument that folks have been having pretty much since the first country music was recorded. Neal posits this thought experiment, "Imagine with me a blind listening test in which we are played a recording with no other information provided.  We don't know who the artists are, or where or when it was recorded.  We don't know its commercial status.  We don't know who wrote it, or when.  We don't know who listens to it, or where or how they listen to it. In this blind listening test, we can apply various descriptive adjectives--we might talk about its shuffle groove, or boogie bass pattern, or melismatic ballad vocal delivery, or post-WWII Cajun fiddling, the syncopated three-finger roll banjo picking, the Grady Martin guitar line, etc.  But we can't answer the question of whether or not it's part of country music."

Of course, this leads a girl to ask, why not?  Why can't we just tell what country music is when we hear it?  And this is the part of what Neal said that so blew my mind that I had to bring it back here and see what y'all thought.  

She said, "The answer lies, I believe, in a complex and interdependent system where the players include the fans, the music-creators, the institutions of cultural authority, and the institutions of music-distribution.  These four participants collectively negotiate what the genre is within a social network, and their results are principally dependent on fans' sense of identity within popular culture at large.  Musical style is only one of many factors involved in that negotiation process."

You see what she's getting at here?  That what constitutes country music is an ongoing, deliberately unsettled, argument among the fans, the artists, places like the Hall of Fame, and the record labels.

I love this idea.  I've been trying it on for myself ever since I heard her explain it.  I mean, if you consider Jessica Simpson, can't you see how that negotiation works to keep her out?  Here's a girl from Texas who seems to genuinely like country music and who seems to know as much about it as the next blonde poppy country singer (the artist), who has the support of folks like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton (I think, in this case we can see them as "institutions of cultural authority"), and who found a record label willing to let her record a country album and go on tour as a country artist.  

And what happened?

The fans' "No" was big enough that it outweighed the other three.

Not that the fans always know what's best.  I mean, please, if we're looking at who from the first decade of the twenty-first century might go in the Hall of Fame, you and I are going to live to see god damn Rascal Flatts go in.  Mark my words.

And that really will be the death of country music.

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