The newly-announced Republican nominee, Ted Cruz, recently declared that he had disavowed rock music following the September 11th attacks. Cruz, presumably in a bid to cement his legitimacy, recalled that he had been unhappy with the stance of musicians and recording artists associated with the aforementioned and apparently seditious genre of rock after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Instead, he said, he would listen to American music. Or rather, American music that was proud to call itself American. Since 9/11, Ted Cruz has listened to country music, rather than rock. Liking country music isn’t in itself interesting, but assigning right-wing values to it is.
The association of country music with Conservatism isn’t particularly new. Still, one must always wonder how reliable an association it is. When you break music down into its constituent parts, all you are left with is vibrations. Music has no political creed. Music neither supported the war in Iraq nor did it demand the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Music did not claim that climate change was a hoax, nor did it seek to make healthcare universal. Music is like a sheaf of paper or a reel of film. It’s only a medium. The message is up to us.
While there have been (and continue to be) plenty of country musicians who sing about God, guts, guns and small government, there are plenty who do not. Does Ted Cruz count the Dixie Chicks as country music? And if so, what does Cruz make of their disavowal of then-president George W. Bush? Conversely, the idea that rock musicians should all be draft-dodging peace freaks seems more than a little stuck in reactionary sixties paranoia. Danzig, lead singer of Goth-punk heroes, The Misfits, would probably be well-received at a Republican convention, particularly given his comparison of Democrats to fascists. He might have to go without the deadlock, though.
Calling a style of art political is a tricky business. The artist may actively choose to support one cause or another and try to express this in their work, but ultimately it is up to the consumer to correctly interpret these intentions. I need not go into any great detail here about the history of misinterpreting art and its message, nor embark on any meaningful discussion about whether such a thing is possible. Suffice to say, the analysis of art is not always clean-cut and often leads to grave misunderstandings.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans have appropriated music regardless of genre and regardless of what the musicians think. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ is a good place to start, firstly because it is a rock song but secondly (and more importantly) because it has a history of being used by the Republican Party as an anthem of Patriotism. However, anyone studying the lyrics of this song will realise that Springsteen’s hit is in fact about being short-changed by the American government into fighting a meaningless war overseas. Thirty years later, Springsteen would do something similar on ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ although by this point I imagine the Right have wised up to the Boss and his habit of penning ambiguous song titles.
Like ‘Born to Run’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ is another example of a song that, by virtue of its title and content, is misleading about its message. If you listen with a certain set of ears (as Republicans have in the past) you might interpret the song as being a proud assertion of American pride, which it demonstrably is. American worker’s pride. ‘This Land is Your Land’ was written as a critique to Irving Berlin’s famous patriotic tune, ‘God Bless America’, and replaces pledges of national allegiance for a celebration of Communist values. Still, ‘This Land is Your Land’ is a folk song, not a country song. The difference between these two genres is another interesting matter of discussion, for it is possible that we could interpret the two styles of music as one and the same, only with opposing sets of values. After all, folk music is by definition ‘of the people’ and, since Guthrie, has long had an association with the Left, with counterculture, and even with revolution. I don’t know if Ted Cruz jams out to Bruce Springsteen or to Woody Guthrie. He might have done in the past of course, but not now. Ted Cruz listens to country music now, and country music is of the Right.
Except it isn’t. Not always. The truth is that country music is diverse, much like its practitioners. While writing this I have been tempted to make claims about the ‘true’ nature of country music by stating that the best way to characterise the genre is by saying that country, like blues, gives a voice for a frustrated and poor working class. Unrequited love, struggling to make ends meet, and sometimes just being in need of a drink. My bucket’s got a hole in it, as Hank Williams says. However, country music has also been a booming commercial industry in the United States and looks set to continue to be for some time. Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and Taylor Swift are (or in that last instance were) considered country artists. Is their music representative of an oppressed underclass? Does it speak for the issues of the disenfranchised?
I suppose when Ted Cruz talked about country music and its reaction to 9/11 he was referring to songs about vengeance, pain, and loss. Songs like Toby Keith’s ‘The Angry American’, a delightful number which features such choice lines as ‘soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye, man we lit up your world like the 4th of July.’ These kinds of songs are jingoistic anthems and are powerful to a nation in crisis, but are so ridiculous and overblown that they are ripe for parody. See also ‘Freedom Isn’t Free’ from Team America, a satire on post-9/11 America that has yet to be topped for its acerbic appraisals of both the Left and Right. One would imagine that, in 2015, the Right-wing would have ceased to trot out this nonsense, but with the rise of extremist groups like Daesh and Boko Haram, as well as recent attacks in Sydney, Paris, and now Tunisia, perhaps these politicians and presidential hopefuls see a way of capitalising off freshly-renewed fears.
Music, like those who listen to it, is easy to exploit for political gain. And this goes for any kind of music and any kind of position. Obama’s presidential campaign motto declared ‘Yes We Can’ – a rather bold premise that was itself accompanied by a hideously maudlin song of the same title. Country music has also been used for political purpose, and has been used to rally against the enemies of America, whether those enemies are in foreign lands or right at home. Take Steve Earle’s ‘Burnin’ it Down’, a deliberately provocative song about destroying commercial property, which has at its heart a serious message about the destructive nature of free enterprise. Steve Earle plays country music, but it’s probably safe to say that the music he produces isn’t the kind that Ted Cruz is likely to endorse.
Politicians have always used music to win over voters. We would do well to remember that this kind of grandstanding is immaterial, and that music, like any art form, has no agenda. Until we’re done with it, that is.