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.