Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics and Country Music

Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (American Crossroads)
by Peter La Chapelle
University of California Press;(April 3, 2007)

In 2003 the Dixie Chicks set off a firestorm by criticizing George W. Bush at the outset of the Iraq War. Playing in London at a time when a million anti-war protestors jammed the streets, singer Natalie Maines expressed “shame” that Bush was from her state of Texas. Later Maines argued, “We’ve never been a political band. It wasn’t a political statement. It was a joke to get laughs and entertain…and it did”. The comment did not entertain fans in America however. Sales slid. Country radio stations refused to play Dixie Chicks songs. Radio announcers denounced the “contempt” of the Dixie Chicks for the values of the country music listening audience. The entire Dixie Chicks episode highlights the question, “Can mass market performers express personal convictions that run counter to the expectations of the fans who buy their “brand”? The answer depends on whether you have a normative or pragmatic view of the world (things as they should be vs. things as they are). Artists should have the right of free speech, but as a practical matter, as one Republican Senator noted concerning the Dixie Chicks, “ Political statements have business consequences.”

These business consequences, in a time when the marketing and distribution system of the music industry is more important than the artist, can spell the difference between a product selling forty thousand copies and a product selling millions of copies. (La Chapelle, 206). Such was not always the case. In the 1930s radio was unevenly standardized allowing performers such as Woodie Guthrie and Maxine Crissman to sing about migrant abuses and engage in political and populist discourse. In this case, a liberal station owner, in a de-centralized distribution system, could allow what could be called niche marketing by Guthrie and Crissman .

As distribution became more centralized this flexibility vanished. Increasing use of the Top 40 playlist de-politicized country music. Restrictions were placed on what DJs could say on the air. Songs with controversial themes lost out as radio and television grew as hit makers (La Chappelle, 119-122). The career of Jean Shepard in the mid-1950s exemplifies the problem. Shepard wrote the song “Two Hoops and a Holler” railing against the gender double standard and concluding “Women ought to rule the world”. Disc jockeys, almost exclusively male during this period, did not give the song radio air time. Starved for public exposure, the song failed to place on the charts. Shepard correctly assessed the power realities and began featuring a more ambivalent assertiveness. Her career prospered. (La Chapelle, 175).

In 1965 Orange County’s Country Music Life advised aspiring musicians to think of themselves and their act as a commodity. In 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, Merle Haggard wrote “Okie from Muskogee”. Although Haggard had previously been praised by the Left, this song made him into a pro-war, anti-hippie conservative icon. The song sold millions of copies. Haggard remained relatively silent about his politics, only later admitting that the song, “Made me appear to be a person who was a lot more narrow-minded, possibly, than I really am.” (La Chapelle, 204).

As the internet offers the promise of a more decentralized system of distribution, it may be that performers will be able to more freely express personal views without facing devastating consequences. After all, fringe candidate Ron Paul raised four million dollars in one day on the internet. Until such time as distribution is decentralized, popular music idols, like constitutional monarchs, express their private convictions in public only at great peril.

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