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Country Music Grapples With Race


Just the tip of the iceberg

Cowboy Troy is such a weirdly obvious anomaly, a black dude in a cowboy hat rapping badly over country music and somehow making a career out of it, that it overshadows country music’s huge and perplexing race problem. Here’s the thing: pop music, as it exists in 2005, is basically black music, and it has been for some time. Country music is enormously popular. But country music is hugely, overwhelmingly white enough that it becomes an obvious target for the people who don’t buy it, almost a punchline in itself. No matter how many millions of albums Nashville’s country industry sells every year, it still has a massive jones to sell to the people who don’t buy it, who treat it like a joke. And so they do stuff like holding the CMAs in New York and bringing in Elton John. But Nashville executives know that country won’t stop being such a huge target until it stops being so goddam white. And there’s the problem.

As far as I know (and I am by no means an expert), country has always been way white, despite obvious exceptions like Charley Pride and sometimes Ray Charles. But country has roots in the same primordial soup as the blues, as music historians always point out, and plenty of current country stars are basically soul singers. Still, so much of current Nashville country is basically MOR pop with steel guitars and obstinate lyrics that it really couldn’t be much whiter if it tried. And country videos, the main way country stars represent themselves visually, have this unctuous, squirmy relationship with their own whiteness, and we end up getting stuff like the kid going to learn from the wise old black man on the porch in Brooks and Dunn’s “Believe” video or unbelievably mild basketball-court trash-talk (“I love you like a brother, but you can’t handle this!”) in Kenny Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today” video (before one of the basketball guys dies in Iraq or something). And then, on the other side of the coin, there’s Trace Adkins’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” a horrible bit of quasi-racial pantomime so lame and embarrassing that it probably deserves its own blog entry.

Now, CMT probably knows how weak all this stuff is, and so the network does stuff like using a black blues guy in one of its station-ID bumpers and bringing in Lionel Richie to do a Crossroads special with Kenny Rogers and highlighting the black cast members in its reality shows about beauty queens and prospective Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and “city slickers” trying to do cowboy stuff. When it gets a genuinely fluid cross-racial video like Nelly and Tim McGraw’s “Over and Over” or Sawyer Brown and Robert Randolph’s “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” or maybe-sort-of-country nonwhite group like Los Lonely Boys, the network plays it into the ground. But in the two hours of CMT I watched this morning, I only saw one non-clumsy use of race in a video: Bon Jovi’s big crossover attempt with Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland, where the band and Nettles walk around a Habitat for Humanity building site while black and white volunteers lip-sync the words to the song.

The rest was either forehead-slapping stereotypical or just inexplicable. Stereotypical: Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosine” video appears set in some Mexican town where nobody lives and Lambert walks past an old Latino dude with an eyepatch to find her boyfriend in bed (in the middle of a road) with a Latino girl who makes a bunch of sultry facial expressions. Inexplicable: Tim McGraw’s “She’s My Kind of Rain” video is mostly just shots of McGraw singing alone in a bar or walking around deserted London streets, but the one time you see a black face, a bus behind McGraw has a huge picture of Michael Jackson and the words “How Did It Come to This?” on the side. Maybe they were just filming in London and that bus happened to roll by, but the camera seems to focus on it a half-second longer than necessary. If that’s intended to mean something, I don’t have the faintest idea what it could be.

Now, the only thing country does better than love songs and breakup songs and down-and-out story-songs is the provincial pride anthem. Songs like Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” and Faith Hill’s “Mississippi Girl” never talk shit about cities, but they do define themselves in opposition to city life. The videos for these songs almost never have any black people in them, and that’s weird; it’s not like only white people live out in the country, and you know David Banner would be down to make a cameo in the “Mississippi Girl” video. Even on BET, where most of the white people in videos are cops, you still get Paul Wall’s ugly ass on screen at least once an hour. Cowboy Troy is never going to be country’s Paul Wall or Eminem or anything else, but it would be truly fascinating if one ever emerged. Until then, CMT is going to have to keep on showing that Shania Twain video with the dudes breakdancing, and it’s going to be fun to watch country awkwardly fumble with its own whiteness.

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