A Country Conundrum

This video is very interesting to me. A year or two ago, I would have said that this shows country artists are just lazy musicians, leaning on the same old tropes and the same old riffs. Indeed, a lot of my musician friends seem to see it that way, and hold up this video as a laughingstock and a way to feel smugly superior. But after learning how important middlemen like producers, promoters, and the like are to the music industry, I am revising my own ideas about this phenomenon. Some of these songs may be the product of genuine laziness on the part of the artists, but if any of them really are, we may never know which.

The music industry is enormous. With bands and acts being put together daily, a global market, and different sounds and scenes emerging constantly, anyone who wants to make money has to keep their ears open. ‘Twas ever thus, but the music industry seems to be getting ever more complex, diverse, and entangled. Genres are mating and budding subgenres like nobody’s business, and people are using the Internet to become stars without reliance on typical music-industry pathways to breakout success. In a world like that, with so much sound and so little time, industry middle-entities gain power to push certain songs through to radio stations, movies, TV, and even playlists for retail stores and other spaces.

That flies in the face of what many of us like to think about pop music. We give pop music a pass to be mediocre because that is how we think of the rest of the music-consuming public, who must have requested or purchased or upvoted or retweeted or liked whatever silly, inane, but irresistibly catchy song is on in the mall enough for it to get some airtime. We think that pop music is a democracy, but in fact, it is much more complicated than that. Companies invest in not only capturing what is actually trendy at the moment, but also in anticipating and in many cases creating the stuff that will be trendy tomorrow. PBS Idea Channel explains it better than I:

This is clearly not just a pop-country problem. Often times, a really innovative rock band will put out a very bland single just to get airplay – think of the Raconteurs’ hit Steady As She Goes – it’s a solid song in its way, but nothing anywhere near as psychedelic, wild, or even as musically interesting as the rest of the album it comes from.

Fans of independent music of many genres have long been aware of the seeming disparity in creativity between small, local outfits who do it for the fans/ for the art/ etc. and the national or international faces of the genre in question, who (we assume) are only in it for the money.

So… where does that leave us? As a folk musician & songwriter, it would be easy enough to ignore this, or to hold it up in comparison with my own work and feel smugly superior myself. But something stops me. It seems to me that the folk processes that created the songs I hold dear, the songs that I curate as much as perform, are a rough opposite to the top-down market forces that shove pop songs in our faces until we learn to like them. In days long forgotten, folk music and popular music were two terms describing basically the same thing. Its subject matter, instrumentation, languages, keys, modes, and rhythms were different not only country to country but region to region, community to community. People preserved songs from the old days, rewrote lyrics reflecting their specific life experiences, adapted to new instruments, appropriating and sharing other traditions, stole songs from church and made them bawdy, or took bawdy songs and made them holy — and all as they saw fit, with only the opinion of their peers to make a song sink or float. The divorce of folk music and popular music came only recently in the long dance of humanity. I suspect that recorded music had a lot to do with it, as well as the rise of tin pan alley, though the professional composers and songwriters have also made a great deal of both art and money mining traditional music, like Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, and traditional music has appropriated some commercial popular music — many beloved ‘Irish ballads’ I might name are actually English music-hall numbers meant to satirize and dehumanize the plight of the Irish. Irish and Irish-diaspora singers took some of these songs and made them their own, and over the years, their origin has mostly been quietly ignored.

These days, it’s also heartening for me to see so many people willing to cover, remix, rewrite, and re-imagine pop songs. People feel empowered to do so, and sometimes the parodies or covers or remixes get almost as big as the original. Does this mean that pop music is becoming subject to the folk process? Maybe. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here, curating, re-working, and creating songs that reflect my own life experiences – putting my shoulder to the wheel of the folk process, whatever instrument I use or style I embody. I know that I am not an island, not a rugged individualist writing songs ex nihilo for my own enrichment and aggrandizement – I have a tradition, several in fact, that I feel called to participate in. I enjoy it, and other people seem to as well. I have musical ancestors that I choose to honor in my way, and I hope that one day I get to be somebody else’s musical ancestor. I find myself delightfully stuck: I can’t divorce myself from rock and pop covers and rock and pop-influenced originals enough to go full-time folk music curator, and I can’t break away from history and tradition enough to go full pop. It seems to me that many country artists may feel the same as I do. Folk and country scenes often seem to look at one another across an abyss, but I trust those on the other side enough to know that there is genuine creativity there – beyond what the CEOs decide to sell us. All that the seeming monotony in pop music means is that we have to look a little deeper to find that creativity.

At the end of the day, I love making music. The rest is nonsense.

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