Monday, November 22, 2010

I was going for a run in my suburban neighborhood a couple of days ago, with the iPod set on shuffle and a forgotten country song from a couple of years ago came on right after 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama”. That song, “Where I’m From”, extols the virtues of small town America where “the quarterback dates the homecoming queen” but it’s the line about the wooden white church and where children are given their grandmothers’ maiden names that I think got to me. I’m running along the street suddenly choking back tears longing for a place that I couldn’t wait to get out of when I was seventeen.

There are a handful of songs that do that to me and they are almost always country songs – although John Cougar Mellencamp can get to me sometimes. I actually did grow up in a town where the quarterback dated the homecoming queen, attended a small white (albeit Catholic) church and, I’m not making this up – my oldest son’s name is my grandmother’s maiden name. Listening to the songs, small town America sounds like a really great place. But let’s be honest, if it were so wonderful why would so many of us try to leave? And that includes the country stars that are singing these songs. I can tell you why I left – because if you’re not the homecoming queen or quarterback or at least trying your hardest to live up to that standard, then there’s really no use for you in those towns. I wasn’t even gay or not white, just uninterested in those things and that by itself is unforgivable. I can only imagine what it was like for folks who weren’t white and heterosexual …

What is it that makes those songs resonate so much? I can understand why a faded homecoming queen in her mid-40’s might start bawling during her morning run listening to that song – but why does it have such a grip on me? And what about other people who never even lived in one of those towns? The image of the yeoman farmer is so ingrained in our national psyche that we are trained to long for it and whether we’ve lived it or not, embrace it as our own history.

Country music is past tense with deep nostalgia for that imagined history. Country music norms that experience so we, as a nation, connect to our idealized shared history. Urban music norms a different experience. Rap and hip/hop, like jazz and blues before it, tells the story of poverty and “making it”. Many of these artists grew up in poverty or at least want to appear that they did so they have “cred” (Not unlike Country artists who’ve never ridden a horse) and now have access to things they didn’t before. They are excluded figuratively and often literally from the idealized American Dream that Country music portrays. Where Country music is nostalgic and past tense, Urban music is aspirational and future tense – portraying a time and place where the singer is not excluded, but in control, where he has a great car, drinks the best champagne – even the best looking woman. Rap and Hip Hop tell the story of a man who has made it and has access to the good life, as Nelly says, “runnin’credit checks with no shame…”

Consider, please, these two differing versions of the United States and the American Dream. There are many who long for the idealized version where just like in the country songs, everyone is either a Homecoming Queen or a Quarterback and all of their needs are met. Then there are those that were never part of that vision, either because they are poor, immigrant, black, brown or gay – maybe even all of those things. Their American Dream is the narrative woven through the urban tracks of rap and hip hop: making it, being a full respected member of our American Society. The tension arises when the Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens begin to feel like the reason that their lives aren’t the way they think they should be is because of the poor, immigrants of color or gay people. Meanwhile, the poor immigrants of color and gay people are pretty sure the Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens are running things and shutting them out. The Tea Partiers are country music’s Quarterbacks and Homecoming Queens and the anger in their actions and words is the response to the urban beat of Barack Obama and his supporters who are demanding to speak and be heard.

Tea Partiers want to live in a country song where everyone in the United States plays by their rules and aspires to be a football hero or a pretty girl. Tea Partiers would like to take our country back from those who don’t fit in to their image of what is a “real American”. Fake Americans, such as Barack Obama, Lt. Daniel Choi, and Lilly Ledbetter are trying to break down those barriers that are useful in keeping people cemented into their assigned roles. The Tea Partying “Real Americans” are worried that their government no longer only functions to maintain their status in American life. Health Care reform, the stimulus package, the Dream Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Fair Pay Act are seen as an open invitation to the American Dream, and according to the Tea Partiers, the American Dream belongs only to the people in country songs.