Friday, February 20, 2015

Women and Country Songs

Losing is a central theme of classic country and western music—losing your love, losing yourself in vice, or just losing at life in general. New country seems much more anxious about what is being lost; hence the nostalgia about how things were that reappears often in the genre. But while the loss seems to be mostly of a personal and experiential nature, it signals a deeper anxiety that while submerged nonetheless comes across quite clearly. Mom’s house, the old town, dad’s ways, agrarian or industrial labor, these are the explicit objects that are mourned in new country, but below them are fears about the loss of stable social categories. What is also being lamented here is the seeming disappearance of a society that makes sense in the eyes of many of the genre’s constituency. If things were coherent and true in the past, then the passing of time is felt as degeneration and as a welter of confusion.

Not everyone feels the same way about the past, of course. Groups that had been violently excluded from participating in society because of their race, sexuality, or gender generally tend to not have a particularly sentimental view of the past. It is impossible to be nostalgic about the past if you associate it with naked oppression. This is why country music appears as reactionary to many people: if you want things to return to the way they were, then you must have a strong investment in how things were. But new country, like all of culture, is not monolithic.

Somebody’s gotta wear a pretty skirt/Somebody’s gotta be the one to flirt/Somebody’s gotta wanna hold his hand/So God made girls,” sings RaeLynn in an incredibly catchy version of the desire for social order. This song rejects the transformations in gender and sexual relations over the last half century by simply refusing to acknowledge that they happened. Gender roles in this song are clearly defined and comfortably stable. One is tempted to point out the obvious, that men can wear skirts and hold each other’s hands, but that would seem churlish in this context. For alongside the song’s blissful indifference to the changes in gender norms, so too does it not consider possibility of the lack of rigidly determined sexual identities. In the world of the song, boys fuck girls because girls wear skirts and hold their hands. And the certainty of this belief comes from the investment in a transcendental order that creates these roles and confers meaning onto them. God, rather than history, made these relations, insists this song, and therefore they are immutable.

But an equally catchy contemporary country song illustrates the artificiality of the gender norms that “God Made Girls” represents as given. Maddie and Tae sing: “Being the girl in a country song/How in the world did it go so wrong […] We used to get a little respect/Now we’re lucky if we even get/To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut, and ride along/And be the girl in a country song.” Country music is depicted by Maddie and Tae as detrimental to women because it depicts them as compliant and subservient to men’s wishes. The complexity of gender and sexual roles are obfuscated by country music, according to Maddie and Tae, in order to reproduce a social order in which women are expected to live up to expectations that belittle them and in which they have no say. Women and their needs are of no concern to the merchants of the figure of “a girl in a country song.” And Maddie and Tae make this critique of country music in a popular and commercially successful country song.

About thirty years ago Teresa de Lauretis proposed that we think of cultural objects as “technologies of gender.” By this she meant that we should think of gender not as something which culture depicts but rather as something which is the product and the process of depiction. We learn our gender by observing its representation and its representation, while not real as such, functions to create our real sense of what our gender is. But as these two country songs illustrate, we are often confronted with representations of gender that don’t quite agree with each other. How do we calm the tremors occasioned by the inconsistencies of culture? The answer to this question must relate to our own moral and political inconsistencies. We don’t change our minds about our political and moral values so much as we don’t have a very firm or consistent grasp on those values. Our political and moral compasses have no true north. Our needle wobbles here and there. Culture produces the technologies of gender, of course, but those technologies can sometimes be as inconsistent and contradictory as the people they turn into men and women.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fashion and Style

Men popularized the sexy little skirt. A chronicler around 1350 observed that “men, in particular noblemen and their squires, and a few bourgeois and their servants, took to wearing tunics so short and tight that they revealed what modesty bids us to hide.” Even then haters were hating! This shift to immodest, junk-flattering wear marked a significant moment in history. After this, clothing became a matter of constant change in European society. The rhythms have always been slow. Black gowns or lace collars or short colorful breeches remained in vogue for decades at a time. But even these slow shifts were radical when compared to how little clothing had changed in Europe before then or how stable traditional clothes remained outside of Europe. In these contexts, the garments people wore varied very little. Centuries went by without any fundamental alterations to clothing. And still centuries after men started strutting their stuff in revealing skirts, most of the peasantry in Europe continued to wear what they always had. Only aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie took to wearing new and unusual garments.

These sartorial transformations illustrate something at the core of European society: It was far more willing to turn away from its traditions than other societies and this explains Europe’s later embrace of modernity and the radical transformations that it entailed. We could see the beginning of Europe’s evolving sense of fashion as an indicator of its dynamism or we could also see it as a prelude to the ravenous consumerism that would later define capitalist society. And these two observations are of course related and complementary.

While fashion did indeed change in Europe and that change reflects something about European culture, fashion does not change radically that often. For example, instead of booty skirts, robes, dresses, smocks, frocks, pantaloons, or tunics—garments historically worn by men—men have preferred either trousers or short pants almost exclusively for the last 100 years or so. In fact, when I see men in pedal pushers I feel an involuntary revulsion that speaks volumes about the norms regarding appropriate clothing that society has instilled in me.

We can say then that fashion may be slow to change but style in the modern era is not. Skirts, pants, and shirts may stay more or less the same but patterns, cuts, colors, and materials change season to season, year to year. The dynamism of capitalist society that was revealed in Europe’s move away from traditional clothing in the fourteenth century has been powerfully felt in the last two centuries as the consumerist impulse that the fashion industry creates and satisfies through novelty. Style is the visual language through which subtle changes in clothing are meant to signify truths about who we are and what we believe. And just as we imagine ourselves as ever-changing so too do we want our style to reflect those internal shifts.

A few short years ago, Taylor Swift sang to her imaginary love interest “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts” to demonstrate how down to earth she was. Here, Swift presents herself as everywoman, the salt of the earth that gets ignored by the fashionable and the flashy. These days she sings to another imaginary lover “You got that long hair, slicked back, and white T-shirt/and I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” How things have changed! In this song, she is no longer the ignored, unwashed masses. Instead, she has become a kind of timeless signifier of fashion. So much so that she associates her love with the image on an unchanging style: “Cause we never go out of style/We never go out of style.” But style is exactly that part of fashion that changes often. We recognize it because things go in and out of style. While it is hard to imagine that short skirts will once again become something that fashionable men wear, it is best for all of us to not place too much stock in the permanence of style.