Whose Country Is This?
The battle lines have been increasingly drawn over the past several months--in politics, culture, art, and in music. The economic crisis has provoked a palpable outrage among ordinary people that can't be denied. Unemployment continues to climb, schools and hospitals are being shut down, all the while bankers take their bailouts and laugh all the way to... well... wherever the hell bankers laugh all the way to.
None of this means, however, that it is always easy to recognize what side everyone is on. Case in point: Country artist John Rich's latest single "Shuttin' Detroit Down." Rich, one half of the Country duo Big & Rich, has made "Detroit" the lodestone of his second solo effort Son of a Preacher Man. The song is old-school, shedding the stadium-oriented sound that country has taken on in recent decades in favor of pared down acoustic and steel guitar.
When in late March, "Shuttin' Detroit Down" shot to number 12 on the Country music charts. Listening to the lyrics, it's painfully obvious why:
"Now I see these big shots whinin' on my evening news
About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you
To come running to the rescue
Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear
'Cause they're selling make believe
And we don't buy that here
'Cause in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down
While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town
And DC's bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground"
No working person in their right mind can disagree with any of this. But as the saying goes, context counts. And the context that Rich has couched himself in is very ugly indeed. A quick search for "Shuttin' Detroit Down" will reveal where this song got one of its first televised appearances: Fox News.
On the day Son of a Preacher Man was released, Rich performed the song on the nightly "news" show of verbal diarrhea master Glenn Beck. Beck, who John Stewart rightly described as "a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking," made a name for himself by masquerading as a regular guy and spouting off some of the most foul right-wing bigotry one can hear. When Rich appeared on his show, he was over the moon. For his part, Rich dedicated the song to "all the hard working men and women out there watching Glenn Beck today."
The timing was prescient, as March was also when CNBC editor Rick Santelli's "Tea Party" rallies began to sweep the country. Santelli's rallies have tapped into the anger of disaffected middle class Americans against the bailouts and directed it not just at the bankers, but at welfare programs, affirmative action, immigrants and the very people being evicted from their homes, who Santelli refers to as "losers." Beck's interview with Rich was juxtaposed with footage of people carrying signs that read "Say No to Socialism!" On tax day, he performed the song at the Tea Party held in Atlanta.
Rich's sincerity can't be doubted. The sentiments expressed in his song are shared by millions of people facing the loss of their jobs or homes. He doesn't, however, see a contradiction in expressing those same sentiments on Fox. Neither does he see how his own support for such politicians as Fred Thompson and John McCain undercuts his supposed sympathy with workers.
Fox News, after all, is steadfastly against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it infinitely easier for workers to organize a union. They are also, famously, against the right for undocumented workers to citizenship, seeing it easier to point the blame at them than the massive companies that exploit them. All of this is what makes Fox's attempt to wrap itself in concern for working people all the more devious and horrifying.
What's truly disturbing about all this isn't just that Rich is wittingly allowing his song to be exploited by the most stomach-turning elements in this country. It's that in doing so, he's enabling the ongoing strangle-hold of conservatism on Country music. Contrary to popular belief, Country hasn't always been a cesspool of jingoism and bigotry. From Johnny Cash to Steve Earle, Country's affinity for the down-and-out has lent it to progressive or even radical causes.
But the past several decades have seen a fictional "Middle America" intertwined with NASCAR and Confederate flags to the point where they may seem indistinguishable. Right-wing politicians have been able to paint liberals and progressives as big city elitists ready to gut the livelihoods of hard-working Americans for the sake of some kind of soft communism.
The past couple years have proven what a sham this Red State/Blue State dichotomy is, though. For the first time in thirty years, most Americans support more government spending on schools, hospitals and jobs. They want a universal healthcare plan. They want a racial and sexual equality that simply hasn't been forthcoming. And yes, they want the damn bankers to give them their money back!
The faux-populism of Santelli, Beck and Rich doesn't turn the outrage of ordinary people into something productive. On the contrary, it exploits that anger and uses it to keep people divided. Ordinary Country fans gain nothing from buying into these politics. Here's to hoping that a new breed of artist can take the stage back from Rich and his ilk.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and The Society of Cinema and Arts, and a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.