Counterpoint: Let Music Be

So what if the genres bleed together? Who says they have to represent history?

Because I like to hear musicians play their instruments, I’ve never been a big fan of country or rap. I’ll always have a soft spot for some country music because of my family, and plenty of hip hop beat doctors (especially drummers) show sparks of real creativity. Both genres are also easy to underestimate, hiding long, dramatic histories behind usually simple three-minute tracks. But while both genres have gems of genius lyrics, they also have a bad knack for hiding real playing skill behind music machines and a thick foreground of words–but that opinion is just my own.

I should also make it clear that “Old Town Road” is my least favorite song of all time. There’s absolutely no competition. I first heard it when I was living in Isabel and the baseball team had it playing during the warmup before a game. I was reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on my balcony for some class, which was already torment enough, when “Old Town Road” wafted over from the field like some kind of terrible musical fart. A jazz fusion rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” would have been like a sweet kiss compared to the ear-piercing strains of “Old Town Road.”

That said, I’m glad that America was the birthplace of this Frankenstein’s monster, and I don’t think it’s a severe departure from country music. The song is garish, boastful, and hard to categorize–naturally, it belongs to us Americans. On top of that, country music has been taking a steady spin down the toilet for decades as the genre tries ever harder to become a parody of itself. Every track takes a studio packed with trained musicians and a writing credit line longer than a sports team roster. Singers scrape the bottom of the same shared barrel for unoriginal bumper-sticker lyrics to be sung in outlandish accents. Even the subgenres of so-called red dirt or outlaw country too often rely on copying a flat portrait of rural life.

This process is much, much older than “Old Town Road” or “The Git Up.” Tractor rap infected the genre years ago, and the pop influence crept in with the rhinestones. Waylon Jennings noticed back in the 1970s that old Hank Williams didn’t exactly do it this-a-way. Ever since Chet Atkins decided he needed to back up his guitar with a full orchestra, country music has fled slowly but steadily away from purity.

Rap is fresher than country because it’s newer, but like rock music before it, rap’s rebellious attitude will wane as its popularity grows. Between well-meaning activists trying to castrate the genre and suburban kids somehow making money off low-effort beats they manufacture in their spare time, it’s possible that process has already begun.

So what if the genres bleed together? Who says genres have to represent a flash-frozen portion of history? Besides, in some ways, “Old Town Road” represents a good chunk of our American world today. On my high school football team south of Dallas, almost every player, black and white, knew Busta Rhymes’ part from “Look At Me Now” word for word. A lot of those white guys also knew “All My Exes Live In Texas” front and back. If that doesn’t seem clean or cut-and-dry, that’s because people just aren’t. Only in college do we see people trying their hardest to abide by the racial lines others draw for them. I get that a lot of liberals who can’t get outside of their own politics are trying their damnedest to redefine Texas music, but they won’t succeed anymore than conservatives will because music–even bad music, but especially the best music–is a living, organic thing that we cannot pin down or contain. Because “Old Town Road” just plain sucks, the best of all genres, new and old, will grow and outlast it.

Point: Music Should Reflect History

I am left wondering what is so “country” about “Old Town Road” or “The Git Up,” and why the motivation to make them part of the country canon is so strong.

Just over a year ago, the song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X was released, and it took the world by storm. The song lived at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for a record-breaking seventeen weeks, and it was on its way to the number one spot of the Hot Country chart when it was removed for its lack of adherence to the country genre, spurring discussion about what defines country music, and even what defines any one musical genre. This discussion was furthered with the release of a dance song called “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown, which actually did make it to the top of Billboard’s country charts. Critics were quick to call “racism” when these songs, both performed by black men, were labeled as anything less than conclusively and absolutely country.

I am left wondering what is so “country” about these songs, and why the motivation to make them part of the country canon is so strong. “Old Town Road” features some slightly twangy vocals, a small banjo sample that spends most of its time behind a trap beat, and lyrics that mention horses. “The Git Up” features agregiously and almost mockingly twangy vocals, and a lap steel, again punctuated by a trap beat. Neither of these songs feature either the instruments, sounds, or the storytelling that live in the heart of country music. To me, they are clearly pop songs with some country-like elements, not country songs with a new beat, as many claim them to be. The popular opinion seems to be that country music and other “dated” genres must embrace the more up-and-coming sounds in order to stay relevant. Others claim that keeping musical genres distinct from one another and preventing crossover limits musical advancement by forcing it into a box. Either way, blurring the lines between genres is widely believed to be a virtuous pursuit.

However, I believe that such blurring can ultimately be harmful to American music and the role that different genres play in culture. Country music has held a solid position at the center of the American soul because of how it synthesizes sounds from far-reaching corners of our country’s culture and history. The banjo originated in West Africa, but became popular when used in slave music, and it became an important part of the African-American musical identity for many years. The dobro guitar was invented in Los Angeles in the 1930s and has been a key part of many American genres. The pedal steel guitar originated in Hawaii in the 19th century. Although Hawaii didn’t join the Union until 1959, the incorporation of its culture into the culture of the continental US is evidence of our acceptance of it as a state. As America has unified these different cultures together into one under a certain set of values, country music has united these characteristic sounds into a final distinctively American product, which tells stories of regular people in its lyrics. Country music is a metaphorical representation of our collective identity as a nation.

If country music is ultimately a blend of sounds from American culture, then what is the problem with incorporating elements like trap beats and rap? Shouldn’t that be a step in a similar direction? The problem is that musical genres evoke certain emotions and memories and they address different audiences. Country music plays a nostalgic role as it recalls our nation’s history and draws attention to honest and real lifestyles rather than lifestyles of glamor and glory. Pop music, on the other hand, is usually about the biggest lifestyles imaginable, and it seeks to break some fundamental cultural foundations. Pop sounds have been permanently melded to this message, making them incompatible with country.

Because society is always so desperate to move forward, as the world falls into a pattern of entropy the longer it is around, people will be inclined to pop music. Once it gets ahold of our cultural bedrock, it will not let go until that bedrock is shattered. Many of the sounds unique to country music will fade if the center of the musical format shifts further in the “pop” direction, and we will eventually lose these more traditional sounds entirely. It used to be such that the most pop-like sound tolerated on country radio came from the likes of Taylor Swift in her early years. However, since we have allowed intrusions into the genre in the name of “progress”, this is no longer the case. As the goalposts shift to accomodate more pop-like sounds due to artists who are more eager to please than anything, the traditional sounds, instruments, and songs will no longer be tolerated by the industry, and they will cease to exist.

I concede that there are (few) merits to this moving of the goalposts. It has introduced an appreciation for country music into the mainstream, however small or distorted this appreciation may be. However, those fans of trap music who find themselves enjoying the sound of a banjo aren’t likely to investigate that sound further and develop an appreciation for Hank Williams and George Jones. Meanwhile, fans of classic country are disappointed with what passes as “country” these days, as they are forced to listen to “Old Town Road” while Randy Travis is left forgotten. Country music is not expanding–it is shifting and vanishing.

In the current year, there is a perception that updating or even shattering cultural foundations that have been around for ages in favor of some single soft amalgamation is a virtuous pursuit in itself, because it pleases the most people. However, as conservatives, we hold tight to the principle that something that is new is not an inherent good by itself. We strive to remember our roots and preserve culture, and though this idea applies to much more than music, I feel that there’s no better avenue through which to track culture than through the progression of music. If something holds value, then we would be remiss to allow it to change only to improve its marketability. We don’t do that with faith (or, at least, we shouldn’t be doing that with faith). We don’t completely dismantle the foundations of our political principles to be more likeable. Why should we allow music, being the significant cultural element that it is, to get bent out-of-shape?

Grooves to Heal the Soul

As long as record stores and radio still live, strains of Motown will flow through the world’s airwaves.

As long as record stores and radio still live, strains of Motown will flow through the world’s airwaves. February is Black History Month, and upon its formal recognition in 1976, President Gerald Ford urged us to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” One important area of endeavor is the culturally formative music industry, and some of the greatest music of all time came out of Motown Records.

Mid 20th century America was a culturally turbulent time, but also a time full of turning points. In the same way that Civil Rights were advancing and ideas on race were modernizing, the music industry was rapidly expanding its horizons into new forms and styles. 1959 was the year Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy would turn an $800 loan from his parents into an era-defining record label that would serve as one of pop and soul music’s biggest champions. Some fabulous Motown hits that you might be familiar with include My Girl by the Temptations, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel and Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. 

But what’s so special about a few dated songs we occasionally hear on the radio or at some old friend’s wedding? Success in the music industry might seem like a popular and arguably bland trope at this point in time, considering the constant manufacturing line of rising star music documentaries and biopics. 

For starters, the sound of Motown is still just plain cool. Crafty pop lyrics phrased in a musical vocabulary of gospel and soul made for an unbroken line of instant classics that were more than just earworms. They defined a promising and exciting spirit of change and progression, and their cultural significance cannot be forgotten. Many young people may not grasp the complexity of the racial divides that permeated America throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and how integrating pop music sung by blacks into mainstream culture helped slowly chip away at the barriers that prevented whites from seeing blacks as their equals. 

Now obviously, a couple of good tunes did not magically solve racism, and this tribute to Motown by no means intends to dismiss the tireless efforts of those on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. I am only identifying the power of the music as a snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and beyond and recognizing that music is indeed capable of bringing people together. Multi-talented singer and producer Smokey Robinson had this to say about the magic of Motown: 

“Into the 1960s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated. Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.”

Music does indeed help in the battle to break down barriers. I’ll leave a study of multicultural globalism and its economic implications for some other article. For now, I can affirmatively say that any music shared across cultures makes a wonderful tool for enjoyment, education and integration. The Motown label served not only as one of America’s most legendary business endeavors but as an investment in artists who would do so much for the heart and soul of our nation’s airwaves.

As I reflect on the meaning behind why we celebrate Black History Month, I find myself thankful for the contributions of African Americans in a number of spheres, but also grateful for how they have salved our nation’s wounded soul with music. Anyone now can very easily enjoy the successful hits of Motown in the modern age, and I encourage everyone reading this to check them out. Enjoy the music, but also appreciate the significant cultural impact that accompanied these tunes.