June 27, 2007
Rap & Country: More Alike Than I'm Willing To Admit...
Kelefa Sanneh’s article ‘It Takes a Tough Man to Tell a Bad Joke’ contrasts the serious attitudes of most rock stars with country singers who are more than willing to joke around: “While rock stars often try their best to make audiences forget they are professional entertainers, country singers have often been happy to celebrate the fact.” (23). Sanneh invokes Brad Paisley’s love-song ‘Ticks’ (“I’d like to check you for ticks”) and Toby Keith’s ‘High Maintenance Woman’ containing the chorus “A high-maintenance woman don’t want no high-maintenance man” (1). I know, I know… this isn’t www.war-mongeringcrackermusic.com, it’s www.hiphopmusic.com but bear with me…
First, the article is relevant to rap in that continues Sanneh’s assault against rockism. Second, although Sanneh never “goes there”, the attitudes and description of country music’s “freedom to mix the sublime and the ridiculous, in the interests of putting on a good show” could easily be said of hip-hop (23). Although hardly the article’s intention, it moved me to arrive at an ugly truth I’m not totally sure I can confront: rap and country music have a lot in common.
I’ll begin with Sanneh’s focus: humor. Rap, like country music, has a tendency to never take itself entirely seriously. Be it “the chicken tastes like wood”, Slick Rick, the serious-goofiness of the Native Tongues, or Wu Tang’s “torture skits”; even the over-the-top conspicuous consumption of the Bad Boy era contains an ironic, knowing quality. To outsiders and even many insiders as of late, ‘Party Like a Rock Star,’ hyphy, or whatever, is evidence to stop (or never begin) taking hip-hop seriously, however, it is the lifeblood of the genre to never get too serious; to always work within contradiction and conflict. Rock music from its “inception”, was indeed, fun and rowdy but it was rarely as out-there as rap or country music's origins. Again, Sanneh:
"...Johnny Cash carefully cultivated his man-in-black image, but he was also an incorrigible ham; the famous ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ album includes not only ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘I Still Miss Someone’ but also novelty songs like ‘Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart’ and ‘Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.’ In an odd way singing a funny song can be a way of projecting both confidence (because you’re not afraid to sound like a lightweight) and humility (because you’re not too proud to do it)." (23)
So, the guy who sang “I shot a man just to watch him die” about as rap-nihilistic as you can get, the guy who wore black to be in-constant memoriam for the incarcerated, also made poop jokes! This kind of persona, always in-flux, never stable, could be applied to a rapper like Ghostface or Devin the Dude and even, to the MTV-popular personas of Kanye West and Ludacris.
Country and rap music occupy a similarly odd place in popular culture. They are the two most digested forms of popular music, yet they have not entirely (entirely!) lost their edge or impenetrability. A few months ago, Rich Boy had one of the biggest singles in the country, but outside of certain demographics, he probably could not be named or identified. I’ve heard the names Brad Paisley and Keith Urban but I certainly couldn't pick them out of a line-up. I only know Toby Keith because his pro-war anthems are so egregious and his persona of “white-trash with money” is so bizarre, but if you think about it, not that much more bizarre than a hit song, based on a Switch sample, about the minor-victory of getting rims, containing the line “every freak should have a picture of my dick on their wall”! Both genres have found a way to enter the mainstream without being entirely watered-down and compromised. I know ‘Throw Some Ds’ isn’t ‘Fight the Power’ but still, isn’t it a little odd to think of this stuff as being incredibly popular?
Both genres are still, despite their insane popularity, oddly ostracized. It still isn’t exactly “cool” to be a big fan of country or rap music. If you’re a huge country music fan, you get the same looks as if you’re really into pro-wrestling. Occasionally, I still fall into a situation where someone I don’t know well, gets into my car, and rap is playing and I get that scrunched-up face that cuntily conveys “I didn’t know YOU listen to RAP”… When its party time, many choose to “get crunk” to 50 Cent and they might sip a Corona and listen to Alan Jackson but when they need music that speaks to their hearts they will reach for ever-dependable rock n’roll. Rap and country are novelty to most.
The two genres most associated with disenfranchised groups are also the genres that have not been fully embraced, almost in spite of their popularity. Rap and country continue to be the butt of jokes just about everywhere. The semi-marginalization of rap and country gives them a strange connection to corporate interests, as they are both encouraged and damaged by the relationship.
The major labels use and abuse the genres for profit, never allowing the genre its proper respectability. At the same time, this precarious balance keeps the music alive because it is constantly occupying some weird middle-ground between above-ground respectability and underground appeal, never sure where it truly lies. Only in the world of country music could such radically conservative views be espoused and only in rap music would an artist as big as Young Jeezy talk explicitly about drug-dealing (for better or worse...).
Despite my utopian ideas of the disparate genres being so closely connected, there are some significant differences. Perhaps you’ve seen the video for Toby Keith’s ‘A Little Too Late’? I bring this up because it highlights the differences between the humor and attitudes of rap and country music. In the video, as he sings to an old flame, Toby builds a brick wall around the flame, vindictively trapping her in a dark basement. Toby Keith has a certain, ‘Rap-A-Lot’-esque stance towards misogyny, throwing in a healthy dose of humor, honesty, and irony when it comes to well, mistreating women, but in the end, he cops-out in a way that Scarface rarely will. Tobes covers his ass by pulling the ol’ switcheroo, making the joke on him: he accidentally built the brick wall around himself! Hilarious?
In numerous rap songs, the joke is “I’m saying some outrageous but honest shit”. Keith chooses to make that joke (“I’m trapping a woman in my basement!”) and then go-back on it, ostensibly getting-away with the joke without accepting its full implications. Country music, even when it is radical, ultimately goes back to maintaining the status-quo. Although the music tries to maintain the status quo on one’s own terms (if that’s even possible) it is maintained nonetheless. Rap, even at its most mainstream, instills a sense of anger or pride or righteous indignation in its listeners; country music ultimately brews complacency and mediocrity. My rap-bias may be getting in the way here. Many would rightfully argue that rap, significantly more than country, breeds complacency in its ever-constant quest for riches and bitches. That other ever-present critique of rap, the half-true cliché that most rappers’ “street cred” is questionable, also applies to recent country singers further bounding the genres together.
When Brad Paisley invokes the action of lovingly removing ticks from his significant other, he’s invoking a hillbilly gesture I doubt he’s ever directly experienced. Paisley’s uh, farm cred (?) seems equally questionable as rappers street cred. Furthermore, it seems like even more of a manipulation of his audience. Yeah, you have wealthy kids of all races acting hard and glamorizing the life of the streets but you have 40-year olds that define themselves by the attitudes of country music. Professionals drive S.U.Vs with “white trash” bumper-stickers; the comedians of the ‘Blue Collar Comedy Tour’ are not blue-collar. Most people relating to Gretchen Wilson’s ‘Redneck Woman’ are not redneck women but they are damn sure to invoke or attempt to invoke their redneck-ness when convenient. Very few people laugh these people off or mock them the way the “inauthentic” rap fan or musician is mocked.
The primary reason for the lack of criticism towards country music relates to this advertising of complacency. Even the dumbest of rap songs invoke or attempt to invoke ideas of expression and personal freedom. Country music is not a threat because it ultimately, despite its rebel-yell theatrics, tells its audience to attain to mediocrity. As I type this, I immediately think of crack-rap which too asserts complacency but that still feels rooted in, however questionable, a dissatisfaction with the normal, ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’? Not so much…
-Sanneh, Kelefa. “It Takes a Tough Man To Tell a Bad Joke.” ‘New York Times’ 24 Jun. 2007: AR 1+.