(Pictured: a Van Halen cover band guitarist. Hang on, I’m being told this is actually country star Jake Owen.)
It is time again for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, in which I plunder my Drafts file for bits that never added up to full posts. First, some radio shop talk:
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got as a young jock was from a program director who told me that when you’re reading a commercial script for a paying client, it shouldn’t sound the same as the weather forecast. Your job is to sell, he told me, to make the product or service sound good or useful or fun or important so that listeners will want to buy it. To do that, you have to engage with the script. Getting the selling words and phrases across is only part of it. It’s also a matter of infusing the words with an intention that the words be heard and acted upon. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a soft sell for a jewelry store or a yelling spot for a car dealer—your goal is to connect with your listener in such a way that at the very least they’ll think, “Yeah, I’ll definitely consider that,” if not “Hot damn, I need to go buy that right now.”
After a while, how you make this connection becomes kinda automatic. “OK, this is an ad for a bank, I gotta do it this way.” “Next one is plugging the county fair, OK, that’s going to go like this.” It’s a natural consequence of experience. You get so you can do it pretty quickly. There’s an old wisecrack that says, “Once you learn how to fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” Ideally, however, you don’t want the listeners to feel like you’re faking it. You want to sound like you’re communicating directly with them, one real human being to another, instead of just reading words off the page.
On the subject of faking it, one of the top songs in country music right now is “Best Thing Since Backroads,” yet another lifestyle-signifier-checklist record, recorded by Jake Owen, who grew up on the beach and whose first aspiration in life was to play professional golf. So he’s not exactly a shitkicker, but he did get into the right career at the right time in history.
Country music was born quite literally on front porches and in roadside bars in Appalachia and the rural South, created by people who spent most of their days picking cotton or mining coal or whatever the hell, doing their best to win something in a society stacked against them. Even after Nashville turned into a slick hitmaking machine, the most popular country music was grounded in real places and real experiences. There are still country artists working that ground today, but they aren’t getting played on the radio much. To me, the greatest sin mainstream radio country commits today isn’t trend-chasing, or even marginalizing female artists—it’s the cynical way it treats authenticity. It continues to pay lip service to it, with songs about dirt roads and small towns, but they’re written and recorded (and listened to and bought) by people who grew up in the suburbs and went to state universities. Hand them a fishing pole and they couldn’t tell you where the worm goes.
In 21st century America, consumerism is everything, and it doesn’t matter how you sell the product as long as it’s bought. As consumers, we don’t care about how stuff is sold to us. So if mainstream country music has nothing to do anymore with the places it came from, there’s practically nobody left to object.
It also grinds my gears that “backroads” is one word when it should be two.
And finally, something new, written today:
Sometimes you come across a creative endeavor so wildly unique that you wonder how somebody could even conceive it, let alone turn that wild-ass idea into something real. Take for example Hamilton, which The Mrs. and I saw the other night. But being gobsmacked by the creativity of something doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to like it. My feeling had nothing to do with my general dislike of hip-hop; that part was fine. Hamilton felt overstuffed with characters and plotlines; I found it difficult to follow, and it was at least 45 minutes too long. All credit to Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing his wild-ass idea to life, and all respect to the millions of people who have enjoyed it, but it was a long night for me.