By Joe Bageant
Russell and Brooks belt one out for the Grand Ole Opry fans, great temple of redneck muddled consciousness, but also maudlin hope about a reality that doesn’t exist.
IT NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE how American capitalism can sell even our own identities back to us in such tantalizing fashion as to make a profit. Nobody is exempt. As in “Liberal ladies, buy your wardrobe at Target and you too will be a slim sexy humanitarian like Susan Sarandon.” My eyeballs are in my lap every time that woman twists her stuff against that orange backdrop. My wife glowers from her armchair: “Buy me a quarter million dollar eye job, chin and butt tuck, and I’ll shake all the damned booty you want, Buster.” I’m seriously tempted by her offer.
Or we can gas up the car, drive to the suburban Cineplex and pay ten bucks to see Al Gore tell us to save energy by hanging your clothes outside on lines in An Inconvenient Truth, thereby striking a blow as an environmentalist. Never mind ole Al’s 10,000-square-foot, 20-room, eight-bathroom Nashville mansion and its $20,000 annual energy bill. Or his 4,000-square-foot home in Arlington, Virginia, or that rolls rural estate in Carthage, Tennessee. Al and Tipper remind us that, because it was the despicable (which it is) Hoover Institute which plastered that inconvenient truth across the pages of USA Today, the houses do not count. They may not count, but their images seem to have been yanked off the Internet.
Meanwhile the Dub and Laura have gone green too, and are unashamedly shopping for a gasoline powered windmill for the Crawford Ranch. “We’re doin’ our part,” the president waves from his custom Silverado HD 3500 long box truck with the matching green 6,700 pound hauling capacity and the matching air conditioned gooseneck trailer. It’s a “green” ranch, green being the official color of the Crawford spread. They say even the pistol shooting range in the basement has green carpet (no shit!)
But country music has got to be the supreme example. People work like dogs, have few or no educational opportunities, live surly lives of struggle just trying to get by, get their cods shot off for the amusement of Cheney and Condi, yet, the country music industry sells even that identity back to the very people who are being screwed and should be pissed as hell about it but aren’t because of the cultural ghetto we poor whites are raised in. As the old Johnny Russell song says, “There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, with my red neck and white socks and blue ribbon beer.” And so the nine-buck-an-hour skidder operator with the double hernia and no health insurance listens to the song and says to himself: “Hey! That’s my life! And he’s a star and he’s singing a hit about it, so other people must be satisfied with it. I reckon there’s no place I rather be than right here! That was true in 1973 when Johnny Russell won a Grammy for the song and it’s still true. It’s a damned good song. I’m still playing it.
The Great Singing Bear with Dolly Parton, another icon in the pantheon of country dreams.
The country music industry helped sell the heartland working mook on the virtues of dying in Iraq. The skidder operator’s wife sits inputting billing data at the local hospital for $6.00 an hour, listening to a song about dead soldier’s cherried out car sitting in the garage, waiting for his son to become old enough to drive it with reverence under a heroic sky. In country music everybody is made hero. Truck drivers are bigger than life figures, hemorrhoids, stress and all. It’s much the same as some rap music mythologizing pointless street violence. Take a truly fucked situation and sell it back as bigger than life. And so the production people at dreary workplaces listen to country music all day, and the truck driver is hearing the same songs 3,000 miles away, and the house painter has it playing on his paint spattered portable radio, and identity is further hardened among millions of Americans: “I might be dumb, uneducated, and worked to death — but I am a hero. I AM America. More American than anyone who is not the same as me.” So anyone who listens to classical music is less American by inference. ” . . . and besides, I am willing to die in Iraq, just like the hometown boys in the songs. There is no better proof than that!”
Still, one increasingly hears more hopeful strains in country music. Singer Chely Wright, who has performed for US troops in Al Asad, Iraq, and whose background is poor enough and white enough to be one of my own family, and whose ancestors and kinfolk, like mine, have also fought in every American war, sings in “Bumper of my SUV”:
So I hope that lady in her mini-van
Turns on her radio and hears this from me
As she picks up her kids from their private school
And drives home safely on our city streets
Or to the building where her church group meets
Only the deadest political ear could fail to hear class resentment in those lyrics. Growing up in the poor white working class leaves you angry for life, even after you’ve become successful. But the time is growing very ripe for liberals to wise up and come explain to my people just who it was that made them a growing permanent underclass. If we speak honestly, they will listen. But first we must unsell ourselves that our moral high ground and political awareness makes us superior.