Sha la la, la la la, la la la

Sha la la, la la la, la la la October 27, 2023

The new closing manager at the Big Box is a Country music fan, so I’ve been hearing a lot more of that channel on the store’s music service. There are some terrific songs on that channel, but when it’s bad it’s really bad.

A few years ago I wrote about my pet peeve with a subset of songs on Country radio — see “‘Where I come from’ we claim universal generalities as our peculiar virtues“:

This has become a sub-genre of Country & Southern music in recent years, and the whole category is based on the same dynamic … a celebration of universal human values that winds up denying the humanity of others by claiming those values as the unique and peculiar property of a single community.

… This is why these songs come across less as celebrations of local pride than as expressions of suspicion and hostility to anyone who isn’t from “Where I Come From.”

New York City is a "water tower town." (Wikimedia photo by Roy Googin)

The station has added more such songs to that country playlist since I wrote that post six years ago, so let me add a couple of those to the list. The verses to Craig Morgan’s “More Trucks Than Cars” are a charming, affectionate, and clever celebration of small-town life in rural America. Morgan’s chorus, though, slides into jingoism and speculative slander about those ‘murka-hatin’ city folk. Ugh.

But that song is nowhere near as aggressively off-putting as the execrable Aaron Tippin schlockfest “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly.” Good Lord this song is terrible.

I mean, it’s amusing when Tippin sings about loving his wife “the way my daddy did” (?) and it can be fun to try to parse the various contradictory antecedents for the “you” he keeps referring to. But mostly this metrically and grammatically awkward song is like unironic version of one of those screaming-eagle promos that used to run on The Colbert Report. The only reason this dreck should be played, anywhere, is as an artifact of the kind of embarrassing, hostile, defensively performative faux-patriotism that flowered after 9/11.

Tippin re-recorded this song and released it late September of 2001, but he’d written it long before then, and in his rush to cash in honor the victims he didn’t have time to filter out all of the reflexively anti-urban posturing that defines this genre of song. This also makes it an example of that strange category of post-9/11 cultural output produced by people who still clearly despise New York City.

Those songs by Tippin and Morgan join all the other songs on that Country channel that I discussed in that earlier post. This means that at least one of these ignorantly chauvinist songs comes on every hour or so on that country channel at the Big Box.

It still seems odd to me for a store in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to be playing songs that repeatedly inform the residents of Chester County, Pennsylvania, that their status as Americans is illegitimate, inferior, and inauthentic because no real, true American could possibly come from or choose to live in a place like Chester County (at least not here in eastern Chester County).

I suppose the idea — the business rationale for playing such songs in a place of business — is that these songs flatter and fawn over the kind of customer who walks around needing to be flattered and fawned over. These songs tell the kind of people desperate to hear that they’re extra-special, extra-virtuous, real, true patriots compared to everyone else exactly what they want to be told. These songs may insult every other customer by accusing them of being incapable of honest work, honesty, or love for God, country, or neighbor, but that’s not a big deal for the majority of customers who have long since become inured to this steady stream of distrust, disrespect, and dismissal.

This is a familiar notion in the retail biz, where a disproportionate amount of time and attention is taken up dealing with a small segment of customers who arrive preemptively aggrieved. If you work in retail, you’ve learned how to flatter and placate these folks to try to avoid getting them riled up even though getting riled up is what they’re pretty much constantly looking to do. And even though this means giving less time and attention to most of your other, easier going customers, you’e also learned that those customers, too, recognize those perpetually aggrieved types and will understand your predicament in having to deal with them. (They’ll often communicate this to you via eye contact, or even eye rolling — silently expressing, “Oh boy, you go ahead and deal with this jerk. I’ll wait here.”)

But I think one of the things America has been struggling to learn here in the 21st century is that maybe it’s not a great idea to let a willfully unhappy and perpetually ungrateful minority run the show. Trying to placate them by ceding them cultural or political hegemony doesn’t end well. That’s not just because it’s unfair to everyone else whose lives and rights and dignity have to be sublimated to appease this whiny, unpleasant minority, but also because it’s never actually possible to make people happy if their entire identity is based on choosing to be unhappy. You can’t placate people who refuse to be placated. That just makes them even angrier because if they ever could be placated and made to realize that they have no cause to be so unhappy, then they’d have no idea who they were.

Again, the two things we all should have learned from Mister Rogers are that: 1) You are infinitely valuable and uniquely special, and 2) So is every other person you will ever meet. People who learned No. 1 but never learned No. 2 need to be corrected, not catered to. Trying to cater to them or to appease them just won’t ever work.

And so I think playing bad songs to please such people isn’t just rude to everyone else, it’s also bad business.

Anyway, happily, those aren’t the only songs that have been added to our Country channel. They’ve also loaded in a bunch of Chris Stapleton and I like me some Chris Stapleton.

Getting to hear “Broken Halos” a couple of times every shift is a nice little fringe benefit of my job. That’s a lovely song that makes me think of Springsteen’s “Darlington County” reimagined as a Gospel song.

“Darlington County” is a Country song. Somebody, some day, is going to realize that and make a fortune by recording a more explicitly Country arrangement of it. (Yeah, I realize somebody already tried that, back in the ’80s, and only got to No. 69 on the Country charts. But that version somehow sounded far less country than the Born in the USA original.)

The story told in “Darlington County” revisits many of the same City Mouse vs. Country Mouse themes of all of those “Where I Come From” Country songs, good or bad. Think of Billy Currington’s charming “Good Directions,” which tells the story of an innocent young country boy and his happy encounter with a girl from the big city. “Darlington County” is almost the complete opposite of that — the tale of two not-so-innocent-minded New York City boys who head to Carolina with $200 and vague dreams of making money and meeting women. It doesn’t work out quite as well for them as it did for the characters in Currington’s tune (especially not for Wayne — fraudulently inflating your worth as a New York real estate mogul in order to take advantage of others never ends well).

The main thing that Springsteen’s and Currington’s songs have in common is a good-humored, expansive affection for their characters. This is something they also share with all the best small-town Country songs that succeed in celebrating “Where I Come From” without denigrating everywhere and everyone else.

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