And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy

When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.

As part of his notorious race-based “southern strategy,” Nixon led the efforts of conservative elites to co-opt American country-western music. He got the idea from George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, which Wallace had filled with country stars like Hank Snow and Hank Williams Jr.

At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”

Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.

The right-wing colonization of country music is still very much in play. Continue reading “And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy”

Waiting for a Train

rodgersIf I said that country music holds a key to progressive political success, would it sound so out of tune that you’d stand up and walk out on me?

Hit the door then, or lend me your ears, because I believe that’s the case. I prefer Americana or alternative country over mainstream, country pop. But I embrace the latter, too. There are important values and a profound combination of hope, community spirit, and wariness of authority in much of the music.

Despite the conservative, lily-white image of contemporary country, it’s multicultural to the core. The steel guitar, a staple of the music, was imported from Hawaii. The banjo is from Africa. The guitar is of multi-ethnic origins. Barack Obama and country music are cut from the same tree.

“One of the lessons of the last several presidential elections is that he who has the most country music on his side has the electorate on his side,” writes Chet Flippo. Lineage alone ought give Obama a leg up.

Progressives recognize the need to better communicate their values, especially values born of empathy and shared responsibility. But it’s not enough to just describe them. They have to be performed, in two senses: demonstrated in thought and action and embodied in art and culture. American folk and country artists have been doing so for many moons. It’s time to listen, and time to sing and dance the values, too.

Continue reading “Waiting for a Train”

How ‘Genre Politics’ Hurts Progressives

Voters don’t make decisions based upon cold calculation of self-interest. They don’t rationally and objectively weigh the facts. Rather, political preferences are determined by habits of thought and emotion, and by social, cultural, and geographical context. New work in cognitive science, economics, sociology and political science has shown us that we humans are not the critters we thought we were.

It turns out that political leanings have more in common with genre preferences than they do with traditional concepts of ideology or self-interest. Genres, in popular music, fiction, etc., attract a self-reinforcing fandom. Mystery readers very seldom abandon the genre. Same with science fiction, country music, and, we see now, politics. In fact, socially, politically and geographically, genre boundaries seem to be hardening. Continue reading “How ‘Genre Politics’ Hurts Progressives”

Waiting for a Train: Progressives and Country Music

If I said that country music holds a key to progressive political success, would it sound so out of tune that you’d stand up and walk out on me?

Hit the door then, or lend me your ears, because I believe that’s the case. I prefer Americana or alternative country over mainstream, country pop. But I embrace the latter, too. There are important values and a profound combination of hope, community spirit, and wariness of authority in much of the music.

Despite the conservative, lily-white image of contemporary country, it’s multicultural to the core. Continue reading “Waiting for a Train: Progressives and Country Music”