"Everything Except Country and Rap:" What You Really Mean

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"Everything Except Country and Rap:"
What You Really Mean

As a music fan, most of my friends are music fans. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve met a lot of people passionate about music, and one thing seems to be certain: more often than not, when asking someone what they like, they’ll say “a little of everything.” Everything, that’s awesome! Me, too. “Well, yeah, everything but country and rap.”

This isn’t a phenomenon I have just discovered. In fact, I used to say this very thing. It was an all-encompassing explanation for the type of music I listened to. Then I got more into hip hop, and it didn’t make sense to announce myself as against rap. As hip hop has become more mainstream, this happened with most of my friends, as well. The distaste for country, however, stayed strong. My peers were still proudly fans of everything except country.

When I accepted a job working in country music in Nashville, I certainly had an open mind but was not a country music fan. I knew I wanted to work in music, and fresh out of an internship at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I wondered if it could ever get better than that. My world was rock and roll and rock history. Elated to continue working in music, though, I found myself looking at used CDs, picking out what I thought could get me up to speed on whatever was happening in country.

For the first couple of months, it felt a bit like foreign language immersion school. I was a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t know the canon-- as in, had never heard of George Jones before-- and made a lot of mistakes, like the time I called Skeeter Davis a “he.”

 Pictured: Skeeter Davis. Oops.

Pictured: Skeeter Davis. Oops.

I wouldn’t say I came in cocky, but I ate my humble pie anyway. And doing so was transformational, as I gained an enormous respect for country music, country music fans and the history of the music. Getting an inside ticket to the world of country certainly helped, but it was less about the star power aspect than it was about seeing a whole new side of American culture I did not have a clue about before.

That’s when the “everything but country” comment started to bug me. I figured people just weren’t trying, heard Toby Keith on the radio, and changed the station. Still, I couldn’t understand how some of the people I knew who were deeply interested in music like I was couldn’t see the light and recognize the worth of country music.

Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music

Earlier this year, I read a book that was the missing piece of the puzzle for me. University of Michigan Women’s Studies and Music professor Nadine Hubbs wrote a book called Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music in 2014. I bought it on a whim, and it put words and reasons to my discomfort with so many of my peers writing off country music.

“Everything but country and rap” at its core is a class issue. I just needed someone else to say it, and it confirmed why it had been bugging me.

“Is the declaration ‘Anything but country’ really about the music?” Hubbs asked in her book. No, it is most certainly not. And anyone who knows me knows that using pop culture as a window to our bigger world and bigger issues is my favorite thing ever, so you know I was hooked after reading that.

Where there’s class issues, there are race issues. This is no surprise. But that’s where the story of “everything but country and rap” starts: a formal racial division.

Race & Hillbilly Records

When popular recorded music was first able to be distributed and marketed in the 1920s, a decision had to be made. This is the South-- do we keep all of the blues-based music together? That would mean white and black in one category. It was an easy answer at the time: no. This created two, in Hubbs’ words, “racially distinct marketing categories:” hillbilly and race.

The disbelief over Billboard actually publishing a chart called “Race Records” through the 1940s was a big part of rock history, which has its own racial separation issues, although less formal. I never knew, however, that the “Hillbilly” chart was its direct counterpart.

To listeners today, country music is the sound of whiteness as much as hip hop is the sound of blackness. The music industry deciders of the 1920s would be very impressed by this, that their legacy has lived this long. The inequality inherent in our society has fostered these two genres to be sounds of two different groups who have distinct cultures all their own, music included: black Americans and working class white Americans.

“By now, the arbitrary marketing scheme devised by early record industry executives has been institutionalized,” Hubbs writes, “and the two categories of music, known today under the labels of ‘R&B’ and ‘country’ are reified not only in imaginings of country's (true, deep) whiteness, but in ways that are woven throughout American cultural and social life.”

Where Two Extremes Converge

While they seem completely separate, hip hop and country sit on the extremes of the spectrum of popular musical genres, and find themselves subject to many of the same criticisms. This, to me, threw open the door on why “everything but country and rap” is a bigger deal than it seems.

Authenticity is important in both musical communities, both policed inwardly and from outside listeners. Can you be a country singer if you didn’t grow up on a farm? Can you be a rapper if you didn’t grow up on the streets of a big city?

I remember first encountering this argument in Johnny Cash’s Cash: The Autobiography, which I read a few years ago because Johnny Cash epitomizes country to rock fans, so I should probably read that book, right? He said country isn’t truly country anymore, because the singers didn’t grow up picking cotton in the fields like he did. Fair for someone who grew up picking cotton to say, I suppose, but turns out authenticity policing is a form of classism.

Rappers do this, too. Remember the scene in 8 Mile where Eminem is in a rap battle and he saves himself by dissing the other rapper for going to a bougie private school, Cranbrook? It goes over great with the crowd. How can this rapper be real if he studied where Mitt Romney went to school?

(Editor’s note from Casey: Laura attended Cranbrook in the summers and is not unbiased on the subject.)

All of this are you real or not controversy in both genres points to a main critique of both country and rap: why do they talk about being country so much? Why do they have to keep reminding you of what their life was like in the hood? Because that’s what they are pressured to do as artists in the genre to hold their place in their respective subcultures.

This authenticity issue has caused backfire in country music, and in many ways created the alt-country genre, a version of country that many rock fans are comfortable with. It fetishizes the idea of a barefooted, primitive life where music just flowed out of banjos and guitars, a pureness that doesn’t exist in what is played on country radio.

“Authenticity seekers today reject modern commercial country and its market-driven anything-goes stylistic idiom, idealizing past artists and purist notions of a genuine folk idiom,” Hubbs explains. In embracing this fantasy, listeners forget that “country has always been a commercial music.”

Country Music as a Social Flashpoint

The other day in a salon, my stylist asked where I worked. I told her, and she said, “well, I listen to everything but country.” Oh, okay. There’s a lot of good country music out there, though, I said. “Yeah, sure, I love Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton,” she continued. She told me she had just seen a few of these artists at the Ryman, the Mother Church of Country Music. I have bad news for you, friend. You’re a country music fan.

Why is that so bad? Because it represents something that anyone looking to maintain or elevate their class status doesn’t want to associate themselves with. To admit you like country music is admitting you like something inherently and purely working class, which jeopardizes your status as middle class. There’s a real anxiety in this, and country music is an immediate “flashpoint,” in Hubbs’ words, for this internal struggle of outward presentation.

“Country music’s potency as a creator of classed taste and identity is evident in the derision and anxiety it arouses in the dominant culture,” Hubbs explained.

The middle class white actively avoid identifying with country music and hip hop because it represents something they’re afraid of being perceived as: something other than white, and something lower than middle class.

I struggled with my admiration of country music, as I was raised solidly upper middle class, and was privileged enough to go to school to get a degree in a field of cultural studies. It felt voyeuristic for a bit, the same way being white and appreciating the culture of hip hop does. I was an outsider, and I believed this music was not for me, and maybe I liked it just because it represented something intellectually interesting to me.

There is a time to stop intellectualizing, though. The excitement I felt at an Ashley Monroe album release show where she brought out Miranda Lambert to sing a song they collaborated on was a buzz I had not felt since I first discovered the empowerment of rock and roll. Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” when it first came out arose a feeling of true joy realizing the creative power popular artists still have. To think I wrote off these genres because I compartmentalized the perceived experience of the artists in opposition to mine, even if it was a socially taught, unintentional thing, was a waste of time. Good music is good music, and moves you all the same if you let it.

Country and hip hop are seen as extremes: one very conservative, religious, and traditional, and the other vulgar and violent. Are some country musicians conservative? Absolutely. Religious? No doubt. But what about all of the songs about smoking pot? Are some hip hop songs vulgar? You can’t argue against that. But what about “Jesus Walks?” Spirituality in hip hop isn’t a popular topic when you can talk about the glorification of violence or how guns are heralded.

These blanket statement topics are how the cultural majority is taught to interpret these genres. There’s no discussion that these are very rich groupings of music, with many vibrant subgenres of their own. That bluegrass even falls under the same umbrella as country pop is an abomination to anyone who pays attention. The lack of consistency in naming of a black music genre shows the widespread confusion about all that it envelopes: is it R&B? Rap? Hip hop? All very separate things, with subgenres of their own.

The anxiety that causes people to avoid being fans of these genres, however, prevents understanding this. It all sounds the same because it all sounds different than what you listen to.

Hubbs cites how Shania Twain, country crossover superstar, notoriously released different versions of her hit album Up! in 2002: a green version, which featured fiddle tracks and steel guitar for country radio; a red version, which traded the country elements for pop synth tracks; and a lesser known blue version, for international release with Bollywood influence. Up! went 11x platinum because it catered to what each market found listenable. Different strata of culture have a different idea of what sounds good or right to them, which isn’t a surprise, but the fact that they completely write off the same lyrics of the same song in a different setting is.

Not being able to appreciate a song because you refuse to listen to it means you miss the subtleties, the humor, the craft and tradition of an entire genre. Do you really like everything, or do you just like everything you’re told to?