Redneck Women and American Gangsters
It's been a long time... trill shit to go left to... etc.
I've actually had a quite good chopped and screwed remix ready to go for a long while, and there's really been no good reason for me not to have posted it. Come by tomorrow and I might have it up. Maybe.
For now, here's a piece of writing I finished last year, and thought you folks might enjoy. See, when I told y'all last August that I was moving to Sydney, it's because I was taking myself back to school. I'm not saying I did this because of Vampire Weekend and Animal House, but I'm not not saying that was the reason either. "Campus" and being on Double Secret Probation present a rather attractive portrait of college life. (Fortunately, I enrolled before Asher Roth's "I Love College" came out, because if i thought there were dudes like Roth involved in higher education, I would have had nothing to do with the venture.)
Anyways, I've been a grad student for a good six months or so now, and last semester I wrote this essay about America, hip-hop, and country music. You know, the stuff I write about on this blog anyway. I prefer journalism and blogging to academic writing for the most part — I feel the scholarly detachment required too often creates an inflated sense of objectivity but similtaneously requires too rigorous a standard to really have fun with some ideas — but I reckon this essay is pretty straightforward, easy to read and may even be enjoyable. So, enough prefacing:
Redneck Women and American Gangsters
The Outlaw Everyman in American Hip-hop and Country Music
by Jonathan Bradley
“I just came off the road driving from state to state out west, and in some towns you can’t even get radio driving through the mountains. You not getting anything but country, which is good. I listen to country music ... I write, man, so I appreciate all kinds of music. I’m not crazy about the instrumental parts of country, but lyrically there’s a lot of good shit out there.”
-GZA of Wu-Tang Clan (Quoted at HalftimeOnline.com 2006)
In 2004, while a deeply divided United States of America was in the depths of a fiercely fought Presidential campaign that saw the Republican President George W. Bush scrape into a second term, a video putting aside the turmoil of the culture wars crept on to cable broadcasts across the nation; it received airplay not only on the African American-targeted channel Black Entertainment Television (BET) but also Country Music Television (Sanneh 2005).
The video opened with a split screen diptych featuring two men from very different parts of the nation. The black man, clad in a stocking-cap and an oversized jacket branded with an American Football team, sing-rapped against an inner-urban backdrop, while the white man, dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, crooned away in an upper-middle-class suburban house. Despite their differences, though, each man’s actions were identical. In perfect synchronisation, they buckled their belts — the rapper’s jewel-encrusted, the country singer’s big and brassy — they stepped into their vehicles of choice — either hotted-up hooptie or luxury SUV — and drove to an airport where they boarded a private plane — one man travelling through city streets, the other journeying along an empty highway. A country-tinged guitar wound its way over the track, and an airy hip hop beat ticked beneath. Throughout the clip, neither man met, but they had one thing in common: They each had lost a lover and both wanted her back.
The song, a wistful balled called “Over and Over,” was a collaboration between Nelly, a popular rapper from the Democrat-dominated city of St. Louis, and the highly successful country star Tim McGraw, from heavily Republican rural Louisiana. The track appeared on Nelly’s 2004 album Suit, as well as a McGraw greatest hits collection. For the rapper, it was a diversion from his usual, club-friendly sound, but McGraw by no means considered the collaboration to be a country song (Reid 2004). Fittingly, for a tune that split the difference between two distinct musical cultures, its greatest success was on the popular music charts; it reached Number Three on Billboard’s Hot 100 list (Billboard.com, n.d.).
The video’s treatment of the song made clear the differences between the genres caught up in this musical equivalent of a shotgun marriage, but it also highlighted the similarities. The performers, both highly successful and decidedly commercially-friendly stars within their field, perform the same actions and express the same emotions in the video; it is the presence of signifying elements such as McGraw’s cowboy hat or Nelly’s ostentatious jewellery that demarcate one man as a rapper and the other a country star. Disregarding these superficialities, the generic structures co-exist fairly comfortably. But equally apparent are the vast cultural differences revealed to separate the men; not just the respective accessories accompanying them or the environment in which each is filmed, but also the overt racial segregation. In one scene, for instance, both men interact with a young fan; an African-American boy in Nelly’s case and a white girl in McGraw’s. Indeed, there seems to be no racial intermingling whatsoever across the split screen’s barrier. In this video’s conception of the two musical genres, race is a crucial distinguishing factor. And yet the video’s treatment clearly recognises the shared experiences inherent to each genre, as does the popularity of the track. There are very few successful instances of country and hip hop music intermingling, and for that reason the naturalness alone of this collaboration is noteworthy (see, for instance, Breihan 2008 for an overview of the awkward and limited interaction between hip hop and country; or Sanneh 2005).
This essay will examine the commonalities shared by the genres of hip hop and country music, looking specifically at the ways in which they relate to the communities which they popularly represent. It will look specifically at the archetypes of the everyman and the outlaw within each genre, and compare the similarities in the way each is used to tell stories about the respective artists’ communities. In this way, it will demonstrate the shared concerns of the two genres and the means by which each speaks to vastly different audiences using similar methods.
“Ain’t about the races, the crying shame/To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same”
-The Drive-By Truckers, “Southern Thing”
“The comment Kanye made was damn near right/But Bush hate poor people be them black or white”
-Killer Mike, “That’s Life”
Both country and hip hop are genres with mainstream popularity that arose from distinct and, to some degree marginalised, American subcultures associated with the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Although their audience has expanded and diversified, both genres remain closely connected to their original cultural context, whether in the popular consciousness, or by the artists and fans actually invested in the music. Despite acknowledging the original and continuing multiracial influence and involvement on hip hop, Perry asserts definitively that it “is black American music” (2004: 10), and that:
“The manner in which the music became integrated into the fabric of American culture was as a black American cultural product, through an overwhelmingly black American audience (no longer the case) and using black American aesthetics as signature features of the music.”
Further, Morrison identifies hip hop as “a conversation among and between black youth from one part of the country to another” (in Dyson 2001: 115), and Forman says “[r]ap music takes the city and its multiple spaces as the foundation for its cultural production” (2000: 203). Hip hop, despite all manner of exceptions, remains identifiable as a cultural form that is African American, young, and urban.
Malone identifies a similar relationship between country music and white, working class Southerners: “Although commercial country music addresses longings that are universal, while speaking to an audience whose scope is international, the music was born in the rural South” (2002: 14). He notes that African Americans and poor whites created the music out of “a common crucible of poverty and pain” (2002: 14), but he also refers to country as, for instance, “the music of the white South” (2002:16). The genre’s Southern identity remains apparent today; its performers and their dialects, speech patterns, values and thematic concerns are predominantly Southern (Malone 2002:16).
Malone and Perry note that country and hip hop attracted mainstream audiences because of their distinct cultural origins. Malone says that even in its early days, country music attracted non-Southern fans “because of its presumed Southern traits, whether romantically or negatively expressed” (emphasis original; 2002: ix). Perry, meanwhile, notes that “[p]art of the seduction of rap for mainstream America, particularly white young people, lies in its iconoclasm in relation to white norms. It is Other, it is hard, and it is deviant” (2004: 136). In comparison, genres of popular music like rock or pop, or even subgenres such as metal or punk, cannot claim such cultural distinctiveness, and those that they do have (for instance, a connection to youth), is diluted and secondary in importance.
Since both hip hop and country are so strongly associated with specific, and specifically marginalised, sections of American society, the character of the everyman takes on a powerful role in speaking to, for and about the members of that particular section of society.
In hip-hop, according to Perry, the everyman is expressed through personal narrative and historical reflection (Perry 2004: 137-139). The shared African American experience, such as suffering racism regardless of economic success, or common cultural touchstones (for instance the funk samples used in West Coast gangsta rap, lyrics reminiscing about older rap icons, or mundane but distinct community experiences such as the workings of the underground economy or a family barbecue) ensure that even as a rapper uses his celebrity status to broadcast his message, he remains able to credibly depict the experiences of his community. “The duality of the black everyman/rap star is, of course, in large part born of the reality that many MCs morph from being regular brothers in the hood into celebrities” (Perry 2004: 137). Symbolic images also help to position the rapper as the everyman, and Perry lists such common hip-hop touchstones as cars, the penitentiary, blunts, or the struggle, as metonyms that “stand in for the experiences of black men” (Perry 2004: 130).
Dyson identifies rapper Tupac Shakur specifically as “the ghetto’s everyman, embodying in his art the horrors and pleasures that came to millions of others who were in many ways just like him — except they lacked his protean genius and a microphone to amplify tragedy and triumph” (2001: 107) The rapper Mos Def echoes this argument, saying of Shakur, “I’ll tell you why people loved him: because you knew him” (Dyson 2001: 107). Shakur’s influence on hip hop was extensive — Dyson describes him as perhaps the most influential rapper ever and his approach and style — and the large number of subgenres from which he drew (political, party, gangsta, and ghettocentric raps, for example) (2001: 107, 138) help propagate the notion of the rapper as the everyman. If Shakur is indeed the ghetto’s everyman, his descendants continue that tradition by re-using his narratives and themes.
“I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined”
Perry argues that historical American discourse positions materially successful African Americans as criminals or undeserving, and the poor as lazy, hypersexual and manipulative (2004: 137-138). By this reasoning, even successful rap stars living lifestyles far from the ghetto are made into outlaws and required to continue as hip-hop everymen. “Outlaw is being black and minority. Period,” argues West Coast rapper Big Syke (quoted in Dyson, 2001: 13). It would be deeply incorrect, of course, to assume all African Americans, or all poor African Americans have criminal tendencies, but the societal marginalisation involved in being black and poor often automatically renders rappers to being outside the American mainstream. Embracing that identity, “can undermine the stigma of poverty and social marginality” (Rose 1994: 12). See, for instance, how the Alabaman rapper Rich Boy, in the outro for his track “Let’s Get this Paper” begins with a personal narrative, and widens its scope into a political statement casting every black man in America as a potential outlaw:
“They gave my brother ten years, nigga/What the fuck are you supposed to with that, nigga? They gave my uncle twenty years, nigga. Matter of fact, they gave my cousin life, nigga. I can tell you how it feels, nigga, to be on that motherfucking stand, looking the motherfucking judge in their face, nigga, and he gon’ tell you some stupid shit like life, nigga. They’re sending niggas on vacation across the nation ... you guaranteed to go to motherfucking prison being black where I’m from.”
This helps to explain why the outlaw and the everyman easily conflate in hip-hop, when they could reasonably have been assumed to be antagonists (the outlaw, by definition, is exceptional, where the everyman is not), but the hip-hop outlaw also relates to wider cultural appreciation of the anti-hero. “The violent outlaw, living his life outside of dominant cultural constraints, through brute power and domination is a character-type with deep roots in American lore,” says Dimitriadis (1996: 430). The common hip-hop outlaw figure of the gangster embodies mainstream American values like rugged individualism, materialism, strength and masculinity, even while rejecting the legal structures that create that cultural mainstream (Dimitriadis 1996: 430). Perry identifies the gangster, as well as the hustler, the pimp and the scholar/intellectual as hip-hop archetypes (2004: 131-133); all four have the potential to be positioned as outlaws. And even disregarding lyrical themes, there nonetheless remains an element of the outlaw to the hip-hop everymen. The genre’s common production technique of sampling fits in awkwardly with traditional notions of legality and artistic achievement, meaning the aural product of rap music itself has transgressive qualities (Schumacher 1995).
“I live back in the woods, you see/ A woman and the kids, and the dogs and me/ I got a shotgun rifle and a 4-wheel drive/And a country boy can survive”
-Hank Williams Jr “A Country Boy Can Survive”
The outlaw has a similarly long history in country music; According to Malone, as early as the 1930s, Depression-era blues-influenced country singers “ventured into the rowdy underworld of sex, sin and bawdiness that was absent from much of the standard hillbilly fair” (2002a: 105). The blues allowed and inspired country singers to incorporate themes of sex, drinking and drug-use and masculine boastfulness into their work (Malone 2002a: 105). Rockabilly expanded on this history of social deviancy: “the rockabillies actually gave vent to impulses that had long been imbedded, if often dormant, in southern culture — a hell-for-leather hedonism, a swaggering masculinity, or, in the case of women, an uncharacteristic aggressiveness, and, strangely, a visceral emotionalism among both men and women that seemed as reflective of the church as of the beer joint” (Malone 2002a: 250) The swagger and aggression of Hank Williams Jr, according to Malone “suggest[ed], among other things, that the old fundamentalist strain that had inhibited free expression while encouraging guilt was losing its force among rural southerners” (2002: 393), while Charlie Daniels “embodied southern good-old-boy traits almost to the point of caricature” (2002: 392). Though Malone describes the attempts of Williams Jr. to designate his father, Hank Williams Sr. as one of country’s original outlaws as “self-serving,” it is indicative of the consistent strain of rebellion coursing through country music’s history, even if it was implied rather than explicit at some times.
The cowboy image contributed more in the way of usable symbols to country than actual music (Malone 2002: 152), but these symbols created a powerful image of a man living outside of society. The standard ideology associated with the cowboy was a man who “loved roaming ... loved freedom; they were pioneers by instinct; an impulse set their faces from the east, put a tang for roaming in their veins and send them ever, ever westward” (Lomax in Peterson 1997: 82). These values are distinctly reminiscent of the resonant qualities of the gangster, although through the first half of the twentieth century, the cowboy remained a distinctly heroic figure (Peterson 1997). By the 1960s, however, the loose group of musicians known as the Outlaws had transformed the figure into an antihero.
While the Outlaws’ primary rebellion was against the country music industry rather than larger society, they found it commercially lucrative to promote a rebellious image. According to Malone, “[T]hey capitalised on the undying appeal of the cowboy (although in the guise of the desperado or badman) and of the rambler. They also profited, perhaps unconsciously, from a preoccupation with the antihero that has been manifested in American popular culture since World War II” (Malone 2002a: 250). Merle Haggard, for instance found that his criminal record could be commercially lucrative, and many of his hits were songs about outlaws and prison life (Malone 2002a: 250).
Malone suggests audiences sympathise with badmen as class heroes, recalling that “blue collar boys of all colo[u]rs get sent to prison more often than do white-collar criminals” (2002: 137), and relates this to a more universal empathy for the criminal:
“Country music tapped into ... the suggestion that we can see a little bit of ourselves in the sins and sufferings of convicts, and a hint of our own potential for evil in the actions of outlaws.”
This issue of class is important to understanding the relationship country has between its outlaws and its everymen. As with hip-hop, the rural, and particularly the Southern, culture at Country’s roots is marginalised from mainstream society, though their cultural disjuncture results not from race, but from class. Fox observes that “The rural and periurban working poor, in particular, are practically signified in the mass media by their talkative excessiveness as ‘rednecks’ and ‘trailer trash’ (2004: 42). Perry appears to concur with this, contrasting the notion of the black poor as criminals with the conception of the white poor as stupid (2004: 137-138).
Just as hip-hop adopts and renegotiates the stereotypes made about members of its culture, so too does country music. Merle Haggard’s songs of the white working class give voice to those on the wrong side of what Ching describes as “a painful class distinction” (2001: 34). Similarly, humour is used to skewer the “‘oppressive confidence’ of the professional, the intellectual and the technocrat,” finding pride in the simple everyman of songs like Cletus T. Judd’s “The First Redneck on the Internet” or George Jones’ “High-Tech Redneck” (Ching 2001: 34). Terms like “redneck” are redefined to neutralise their ability to denigrate, in an analogous but less radical way to the adoption of the word “nigger” by some African Americans. Gretchen Wilson’s signature tune “Redneck Woman” posits the country everywoman as a redneck by referring both to cultural signifiers and common musical history:
“Some people look down on me, but I don’t give a rip/I’ll stand bare-footed in my own front yard with a baby on my hip/ I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high-class broad/I’m just a product of my raisin’ I say ‘hey y’all’ and ‘yee-haw’/ ... I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song/So here’s to all my sisters out there keeping it country”
Being “trashy” and “hardcore” is synonymous with being the epitome of ordinariness, “the girl next door” in Wilson’s conception, and by replacing “Charlie Daniels” with “Tanya Tucker” and “Ol’ Bocephus” she makes clear her re-definition is not limited to new country, but extends throughout the genre’s history.
It is a similar technique to that used by David Allan Coe in “If That Ain’t Country,” a song which has as its subject “life in one of those houses with junk cars rusting in the yard,” and a, “hardworking man [who is] always ‘mean,’ always ‘tired,’ always ‘drunk.’ His offspring end up in prison or walking the streets” (Ching 2001: 24). This lifestyle, says Ching can be “summed up in a term that’s often synonymous with “country” — “white trash” (2001: 24-25). However, while Wilson claims no desire to be anything but a redneck, the family in Coe’s song seems demoralised and dysfunctional; they have tried to live the American dream, and failed. As with “Redneck Woman,” Coe generalises by referring to country music history. Ching argues, “Coe concludes his family saga by alluding to a series of old songs, in order to suggest that his country music is for, by, and about white trash” (2001: 24).
The country music everyman’s working class roots lend him authenticity, and so the expression of this ordinariness is an important theme. This is a point of difference between country and hip-hop; the rapper, due to his race and his background, is cast as the everyman by larger society. Conversely, country singers make a point of defying social pressures to maintain connections to working class culture. Of course, rappers are also eager to emphasise the continued relationship they have with their own community, but this is expressed in conjunction with the contradictory desire to escape their marginalised circumstances. Nonetheless, even in regard to their use of the everyman, hip-hop and country share notable commonalities.
This is not to suggest that there is some kind of closeness between hip hop and country culture; indeed there seems to be less creative and fan base intermingling between the two than is found between most popular music genres. Yet the common approaches and ideas shared by these essentially folk musics suggests that the white rural poor and the black urban poor have, regardless of their stylistic differences, found remarkably similar ways to negotiate living on the margins of American life. The common archetypes of the outlaw and the everyman allow these communities to redefine and take ownership of the stereotypes made about them.
In 2008, four years after the release of the Nelly and Tim McGraw collaboration, a less commercially successful and decidedly unusual take on the hip-hop/country hybrid hit radio. The song was a blues-folk rave up by the famed rapper Snoop Dogg. Over rustic guitar strumming, he introduced the tune with, in rap parlance, a shout out to an O.G.: “I’d like to dedicate this record right here to my main man Johnny Cash, a real American gangsta” Snoop drawled, before speak-singing a series of hip-hop and country signifiers revolving around substance abuse, pimping and cowboy culture. The Californian rapper’s concoction seemed to suggest rural whites and urban blacks have more in common than they might have thought. In the words of Snoop Dogg: “Grand Ole Opry, here we come.”
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