(Pictured: country star Toby Keith, early in 2002. The flag-themed guitar and FDNY hat were no accidents.)
Time to piece together some leftovers from my draft file. I started and never finished a couple of country-themed posts, so here goes.
On the drunken, violent, disorderly crowds at large country music shows:
It’s been widely reported how the subject matter of mainstream country music has changed in recent years. Where country was once highly personal and grounded in universal experience, a significant percentage of its most popular songs trade on a handful of the same tropes, repeated over and over. Songs of love and loss are outnumbered by party anthems drenched in moonlight and moonshine. Cornfields, bonfires, trucks with tailgates down, and everywhere people drinking, dancing, and hooking up without conscience or consequences.
It’s hard not to draw a line from these songs to the behavior of some of the people who like them. After all, since the invention of the movies a century ago, Americans have learned how to behave from various forms of pop culture—but most of us also recognize that the world in which we actually live has different rules from the world pop culture portrays.
The best discussion of these two interlinked subjects—the behavior of crowds and the transformation of mainstream music—comes from Saving Country Music, a site that is harshly critical of mainstream country. But even accounting for that editorial viewpoint, “From Checklist to Bro-Country: the Subversion of Country Music” is an excellent analysis of how the changes in country over the last several years have been accomplished, and how those changes fuel the mayhem visited upon many country shows: the abuse of alcohol, disrespect for women and for property, and outright violence.
Another excerpt from a country music post that fell apart, about an artist who’s capable of better, in a couple of different ways:
Toby Keith came right out of the chute in 1993 with a #1 single, “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” and hit the country Top 10 with his next six singles. His best stretch started in 2000 when “How Do You Like Me Now?” hit #1. Twelve of his next 13 singles would reach #1. One of those was “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Subtitled “The Angry American,” it was written in the wake of the September 11 attacks, went to #1 in 2002, and stands as one of the most awful artifacts of that terrible time. It’s a flag-waving, chest-beating, patriotic anthem that basically says “mess with America and we’ll kill you for sport.” (Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks famously called it “ignorant.”) In the post-9/11 climate, such sentiments didn’t hurt Keith’s career one bit, as he continued to rack up #1 hits. Another patriotic record, “American Soldier,” was one of them, in 2003. Keith was one of the most notable celebrity supporters of the Iraq War when it began, although by 2004 he was claiming to be a John Kerry supporter.
“American Soldier” was the followup single to “I Love This Bar,” another #1 hit that Keith uses as the name for a chain of restaurants he owns—a chain that makes him one of the highest paid musicians in America year after year. And the drinking songs have continued apace: “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Get My Drink On,” and beginning in 2011, six out of his seven chart singles were drinking songs of one sort or another. In 2013 and again in 2014, he appeared on stage visibly drunk, causing fans to ask for their money back.
We get trapped in what we allow ourselves to become. Toby Keith became a right-wing patriotic totem and had to remain one even after his personal politics changed. And now it’s as if he’s become the official performer of the over-served.
There is nothing about “How Do You Like Me Now?” that isn’t insanely great: the setup and the story; the video; and one of the best fist-in-the-air singalong choruses you’ll ever hear, any genre, any artist, any decade, capped off by a taunting little guitar lick that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like country, you’ll like this.
I couldn’t make you love me
But I always dreamed about
Livin’ in your radio
How do you like me now?