So, a chance to talk about two of my favorite weird love/hate relationships has arisen and guys. I’m going to talk about it. Rolling Stone has launched a country music website. To start: Rolling Stone magazine is, as you can probably guess if you’ve read past posts about the matter, something of a frenemy. For most of my adult life, I have, in fact, subscribed to it1, and generally because I like some of their usually-impressive stable of writers. Besides, I don’t have a lot of sources for the publicity-funded puff piece in my life, so Rolling Stone, by dint of being the last non-literary print magazine that I read, gets to show me a window into the world of what’s being marketed. I’m legitimately interested in the highly-politicized set of reviews (the dozen or so records per issue that get reviewed get, on average, three and a half stars, which seems to relate to basically nothing, and the reviews themselves are written descriptions of either the circumstances of the recording itself, or of the genre/scene context of the band). One of the reasons for this sameness is their well-publicized need to stay on the good side of the artists that they’ve already established that they’ll champion. It’s a semi-open secret that if you’ve been on the cover recently, or you will be on the cover soon thereafter, that your album cannot get negative review. Furthermore, Rolling Stone made its bones2 on championing and, indeed, creating the flagpole for, a pretty specific sort off rock music. That sort of rock music is, presently, out of favor: there’s a pendulum that swings, in predominant popular music, from “small band, live instrumentation dominated music” and “production-based music”3. Since Rolling Stone also has a rich history of not precisely getting aboard trains that lead to production music stations (with well-noted token exceptions), they’re sort of stuck. Enter country music to give them a port to weather the current EDM storm. So they’ve started a new website. If that sounds more cynical than I mean it to, well, it’s a pretty cynical publication. And it’s not nearly as cynical as the country music establishment. So, country music then. I’ve said before that taken as a series of elements – small bands, live-instrument focus, a tendency to be very interested in things like sonic character and texture, an enormously-wide variety in emotional tenor and context4 – country is the genre with the most potential to be great. And it almost never is. Now, I don’t mean this in an “all country music is crap except for Johnny Cash” sort of way. There’s enough of that particular lie in the world, and I don’t think we need any more of it here. It’s more of a “ninety percent of anything sucks” argument. And it’s true of basically every genre, but in the case of country music, it seems to be something that people are comfortable wallowing in, rather than fighting. Part of the problem (and, seriously, I’ve said all of this before), is that country music is pretty vocally obsessed with a couple of warring ideas about authenticity5. The less important one to this piece is the one that tends to be a part of the country music that I listen to and talk about the most, which is the notion that country as a genre has frozen sometime around 1970 or so, and that the only “real” country music comes before that date, so you have to ape it as hard as you can. This is an infuriating attitude, but is also easy enough to ignore because it’s fundamentally silly: how is it more “authentic” to ape something old rather than work in that idiom, since that’s literally acting in a way that is untrue to your own approach. But the version of “authenticity” that Nashville (and, by extension, the country music establishment) is concerned has a great deal more to do with the superficial sound of a record6, and hats, than it does with sonic markers or evolution. It does, however, allowed for a weird double-reverse authenticity, however, that is largely opposed to the Nashville outlook – it was “outlaw country” in the seventies, and there’s a thread of it that sort of weaves in and out of country music’s mainstream, raising its head periodically after periods of dormancy (it’s roughly analogous, in mainstream-treatment terms, to punk rock in that sometimes it’s in favor, and sometimes it isn’t, but that it’s still just as authenticity-obsessed and is really an inside-out mirror to the mainstream). And that’s where it all comes full circle: in a way, it makes perfect sense that Rolling Stone would (almost certainly temporarily) switch their focus to country music, because, in a lot of ways, country music occupies the cultural space that rock music occupied in the past. But wait. There’s more. In the metatextual sense, nothing makes more sense than Rolling Stone covering country music, but, in a surprising move, it’s also perfectly sensible in the textual sense. By which I’m saying: there’s an enormous crop of country musicians who are essentially indistinguishable from rock music made somewhere around the turn of the century7. Of course, it’s telling that the physical copy of the magazine, and the initial website coverage, is a lot heavier on, say, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Kyp Moore and Eric Church than, say, Lady Antebellum, Nickel Creek, Jason Aldean and Kacey Musgraves: the extraordinarily tone-deaf coverage basically relies on you believing them when they say they’re suddenly experts in reporting a style of music that they started out ignoring, spent a couple of decades spurning, and now feel like they can talk about because a bunch of these people play guitar solos and, in the case of Eric Church, are essentially fronting rock bands that live in Nashville. (also, they have a whole sidebar article on hats. Hats. And how some country musicians don’t even wear cowboy hats anymore, which might actually be the most frustrating thing about this whole endeavor) The centerpiece of the new site (which, actually, is just a subsection of their existing site, despite their “grand opening” coverage) is a list of what they claim to be the 100 Greatest Country Songs. It’s over there. You can all go read it. It’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in a long-ass time, and it’s the reason that this whole endeavor is impossible to take seriously. You’ll see my own counterpoint in the next post (which is to say: I have my own list of the 25 greatest country songs ever written, because, quite frankly, I know a great deal more about country music than these people), but there is really nothing that’s more emblematic of the problem, here than this list. It’s largely the same, completely orthodox, absolutely country-phobic opinions that have been regurgitated by Rolling Stone and their readers for, oh, twenty years or so8. So why is this interesting? If Rolling Stone has had a disruptive and distorted view of what constituted the genre they were ostensibly covering for decades, and if their view of country music is, to be honest, no more disingenuous than their take on rock music9. I suppose, in this case, it’s because it’s so ourobouric: Rolling Stone constructed an editorial environment for itself that necessitated an increasingly-narrow idea of what was “good,” to the point where they risked running out of material. Country music, similarly, chased the most-mainstream end of itself so far away from the genre’s sonic origins (except in the most superficial sense) that they are left only with a smallish stable of people who, after a time, look, talk, sing and act exactly alike more than ever. Both of these took place over years when the record-selling industry (which was propping up both Rolling Stone and the Nashville heads) is unwilling to meet consumer demand, choosing instead to bully and vilify (or, at least, belittle) their remaining fanbase10. And so Rolling Stone adopting a contrahistorical pro-country stance isn’t problematic in and of itself, but more for what it represents, which is officially the point at which the most long-standing corporatized entities join their meager forces in an attempt to continue to be able to believe that they are still arbiters of what matters. Oh, but they do have, like, a four page story on Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, which means that at least one person on their staff does, in fact, know what country music should at least look like. I have nothing bad to say about that. Maybe the person that wrote it will get to take over editorship and it’ll be like when Rob Sheffield (remember when he was great?) used to run the reviews section. 1 – albeit almost never because I’ve chosen to – I read it in high school (which predates my adult life, but anyway) because I would read any music magazine in high school. For a couple of years I had a subscription that I didn’t let lapse (this was early in the “provide us you financial information and we’ll use it to keep sending you magazines forever” business model). Eventually I started going to shows at the House of Blues often enough and not unchecking the box that I continued getting them. As you’ll see, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. 2 – well, its musical bones. It made its “good writing” bones on PJ O’Rourke and Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace and Matt Taibbi. Hard to argue with that particular group of people, and so this piece doesn’t really talk about it very much. 3 – which, for the last fifty or so years, can be simplified to “guitars and not guitars”, but which is actually older than the predominance of the guitar in popular music. 4 – as well as smaller things like “I really like banjos” and “there tend to be a lot of story songs” 5 – actually, the “authenticity” thing is something that tends to happen to maligned subgenres: it more-or-less killed punk rock, it makes a lot of hip hop unbearable, and it has pretty thoroughly derailed dubstep, as it did Detroit techno and grime before it. It has the biggest effect, then, on microgenres, but country music is almost as old as recorded music and is still having these insane growing pains. 6 – boring technical droning-on to follow: it’s always been funny to me that country radio stations play what seems to be an astounding chunk of music throughout the history of the genre: songs don’t fall all the way off of playlists for decades sometimes, and new songs aren’t added at near the rapid rate of, say, the local hip-hop station*. Part of the reason that this is the case is that country records made until, oh, 2002 or so actually still sound the same as country music made after 1972ish. Oh, there are changes in recording techniques that mean that you notice them when they’re side-by-side, but Alabama has a great deal more in common with Tim McGraw in terms of production effects (that is to say nothing more than “the set of things that make the record sound a specific way,” it’s not an actual commentary on the actual effects used during the actual production) than, say, Free does with The Strokes, despite the latter pairing being more similar in a strictly generic fashion. For more on this topic, well, if you really want to hear more about this, I’ll tell you myself instead of taking up your time by continuing this footnote. * – admittedly, at the time of this observation, the stations I was noticing had a faster period of replacement were rock stations, but as more “modern” rock stations become basically classic-rock stations moved forward in time by a few years, this has sort of also become the case for rock music, about which more in one second. 7 – meaning the period where “alt-country” was its closest to mainstream (think the first Kings of Leon record, the worst Ryan Adams solo record, the rise to prominence of the mighty Drive-By Truckers, and a smattering of other twangy, Lynyrd-Skynyrd-esque bands that wore hats), and when there was a resurgence+ of non-country musicians crossing over to play songs that go played on country radio. + – this isn’t a history lesson, but it’s one of those things that happens periodically. Just believe me, I know what I’m taking about. 8 – a hint to you people who think that it somehow makes you seem inclusive when you “allow” that Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are “ok” examples of country music: of course they fucking are. That’s because they’re fucking great. But knowing the same three Johnny Cash songs and being able to slobber over the Patsy Cline version of “Crazy” just makes you a human being with ears, and is like saying “all rock music is terrible because it doesn’t all sound like ‘Satisfaction’” – holding up the worst of something and insisting that it invalidates the genre by not being the best is so unbelievably dumb that I can’t believe I found this many words to say about it. 9 – and is, frankly, significantly less so than their coverage of hip-hop, which continues to be some of the most tone-deaf and dismissive coverage on the planet. 10 – this isn’t really the piece for it, but it’s worth pointing out that while the rock- and country-oriented wings of the record-selling industry have worried mostly about how terrible “piracy”** is to the detriment of their sales, the hip-hop and dance music (i.e. the genres that actually sell the most across the board) wings have long since accepted it as fact, and have maneuvered their targets accordingly. ** – still the most ridiculous euphemism for “sharing things you like with like-minded individuals” I’ve ever heard
Some time ago, an enterprising young gentleman who had grown tired of the existing flavors of ramen noodles decided that “bikini butt” was the flavor he was after, and that he was willing to pay handsomely for the experience. Obviously this is irregular, but in the search for gustatory delights, who is to say who is right and who is wrong1?
2 look. there are a hundred of these things. Get off my back.