(To regular readers: This is about country music, specifically the Academy of Country Music’s awards show. Read at your own peril. If nothing else, it proves that my head isn’t always in the philosophical clouds. Or, on second thought, maybe not. But it’s for fun more than anything. I watched the awards show with my daughter last night. I’ll never get those three hours of my life back. Maybe this will mitigate the loss somewhat.)
I don’t usually watch country music award shows. (There’s so many, how can you keep up with the award tally?) I don’t watch the Grammy’s either, or the MTV awards, or whatever extravaganza is put on for an entertainment industry niche trying to sell advertising by patting itself on the back. So it was unusual that I found myself watching the Academy of Country Music awards last night (April 1, 2012). My daughter loves country music (see previous post). I don’t. Or at least, I don’t like the canned “Nashville Sound” that comprises most of what passes for country music these days. She loves it. Which is how I ended up watching the ACM awards show.
I do like what I’d call real country music. It is music that has close roots to my genetic and cultural heritage, and stirs my soul in ways I can’t quite pinpoint. It’s mainly called bluegrass these days. Mumford and Sons, ironically a British band is pretty good at it (the Brits always seem to anticipate our cultural impulses, even better than we). Allison Krauss and Union Station is too. It was derived from Scottish and Irish folk music that fused with a host of other influences in rural America, especially Appalachia, to deliver soulful ballads, heavy on the strings and light on the drums. If it ain’t got a fiddle or a banjo or a mandolin or a dulcimer or a slide guitar, or at least a whole bunch of acoustic guitar, to me it ain’t country music. And the lyrics are usually about pain of some sort or another.
Hank Williams (senior) is to country music what Elvis was to rock-n-roll, except better, because he wrote his own songs. Hank is perhaps the greatest American songwriter ever. And his was a tortured soul, to say the least. Willie and Waylon, and Hank Williams, Jr. are/were a couple of my more modern favorites. And of course, Johnny Cash, and even George Jones and Merle Haggard. I can’t think of anyone today that even approaches the stature of these legends. The best “country” music singers and musicians these days are to my lights playing bluegrass, which is far less lucrative than Nashville’s pop-country, which I’m sure has nothing to do with why none of them were invited to play for last night’s extravaganza.
Maybe I’m just getting old. But really, American country music sung by a guy from Australia (Keith Urban) that’s married to a Hollywood movie star (Nicole Kidman) whose ex-husband is Tom Cruise? Nashville must not think very much of the average country music fan’s intellect. Don’t get me wrong—Urban is probably (I don’t really know one way or the other) a very good musician and singer, he’s just not country, in the sense that he can’t have much first-hand knowledge of rural America, the wellspring of country music. But then, there is little left of rural America that hasn’t been commoditized and globalized, so perhaps there is no country music anymore because there is no particularized country culture about which to sing. Who wants to listen to a song about driving down the four-lane to Wal-Mart’s on Saturday?
When I first strolled into the den where the television was tuned to the show, L.L. Cool J was at the mic, explaining that, though he played one on TV, he wasn’t a Navy Seal, and so was indebted to them for their service, and wanted to express his appreciation for their sacrifices. Really, there was L.L. Cool J on a country music awards show, leading a bunch of crackers in showing their patriotic fervor.
Now I like L.L. Cool J. He sort of reminds me of Shrek, the ogre in the animated film of the same name. He looks a bit like Shrek, and his character in the popular television show, NCIS, has some of Shrek’s ogre qualities, good and bad. I didn’t know he was a rap star until I had seen a few episodes of the show. I’m not much in to rap music. It just doesn’t get into my bones like, for example, bluegrass does. I’ve got nothing against hip hop and rap, it’s just not my taste in music. But it quite surprised me to see L.L. Cool J. at a country music awards show. Country and rap have precious little in common. Or at least, real country and rap have little in common. One is a product of rural America, coalescing into a genre about the time of America’s Industrial Revolution. When rural whites were forced to urbanize to find work, country music offered consolation for their lost rural heritage. Rap was born in the city, arising from urban black populations that replaced the whites, who had migrated a second time to the suburbs. The corny Nashville sound is an attempt to make suburbia into something like the long-gone and increasingly forgotten rural heritage of white suburbanites. The two genres are pretty close to polar opposites in origination, and seem to be moving further apart. If rock-n-roll is a fusion of hillbilly string music and black rhythm and blues, today’s country is an attempted reversion amongst white people to hillbilly string music, but that still sounds a lot like rock-n-roll, and rap is an attempt to rediscover African tribal rhythms, but with a lyrical flourish.
But there he was, the rap star cum television actor, L.L. Cool J, at the Academy of Country Music (could it have any whiter a name?) awards, asking people to show their appreciation for the troops, in preparation for the Australian Keith Urban to sing them a special tribute. Whose troops, I wonder, was Keith Urban singing for? I mean, American troops aren’t really the same as Aussie’s, eh? The US and Australia, while both progeny of the British Empire, and thereby both separated by a common language, haven’t really got much else in common. I certainly didn’t think, when I was in the Army, that I was charged with protecting and defending the Aussie way of life. Perhaps it can be considered that America’s troops belong to all the world’s peoples, as America is now the world’s policeman. But I’m pretty sure there weren’t too many tribute songs for the troops played on the back porches and in the dance halls, where country music got its start.
Tribute songs are only meant for a mass audience afflicted with wanting to find something, anything, in common. It seems the only thing the whole of America, perhaps the whole of the world (except those parts where America’s troops happen to actually be deployed and involved in killing people and destroying things as they are trained to do) can agree upon is the gallantry, selflessness, courage, bravery, effectiveness, determination, blah, blah, blah…of the troops. This worshipful elevation of the troops to something approaching, in aggregate, a force of demigods, can’t be good. It will only take one enterprising Napoleonic general to arise from the ranks and leverage that reverence, turning it upon the society in which it is held. And then the Rubicon will be crossed. The republic will stand no more. Men aren’t fit to be worshiped. How much history does it take to convince a man of that?
Even if the troops actually were demigods, we’re praising and worshiping them as if they were Jovian, not Herculean. And it was to me more than a little creepy when the video screen before Urban’s tribute song showed what I suppose was a Navy Seal giving his testimony that he was jealous of his fallen comrades—that they achieved the ultimate glory by “dying with their boots on”. I knew even when I was in the lowly Army (relative to the Navy—we didn’t have Seals), that there were more than a few guys there that had suicidal tendencies, which I suspected might have been part of why they joined. But to glorify dying in combat as the goal of every serviceman? It seems quite barbaric, and frankly insane. Patton said the point of war isn’t to die for your country, it’s to make the other bastard die for his. And never mind that while we glorify Plato’s form of the serviceman, we disregard the actions of those that ruin the paradigm, like the guy that shot all those Afghans in cold blood, or the soldier that killed thirteen of his fellows in a murderous rampage in Texas. These too, were troops that had willingly volunteered to serve their country; to protect all those good country folks living the good life in the suburbs, pretending that they’re not yet citified, and that they’re still tough enough to carry the battle to the enemy themselves, yet thankfully not required to because of the brave souls that have volunteered to do it for them.
After the first homage was paid came what had to be the most surreal visual in popular culture in a good while—the aging members of the rock-n-roll band, KISS, fully costumed in their concert regalia—arriving on stage to present an award at a country music awards gala. I’m not quite sure what it is that KISS dresses up to be—are they gargoyles? Perhaps the evil foes of cartoon superheroes? It was great shtick back in the seventies. It was glam-rock with a dark side. I even attended a KISS concert when I was in junior high. But really, getting KISS all dolled up to present an award at an ACM show? To say they seemed out of place, as a band member of the awardee group, Lady Antebellum, tacitly acknowledged, hardly captures the awkwardness.
But KISS presenting an award did not top the inanity that would follow. The award for the most inane song, the worst duet, and the cheesiest setting had to be Martina McBride and Patrick Monahan’s duet, sung while in the background a man and woman, who had each lost their spouses to cancer, were actually exchanging nuptials. To be fair, I couldn’t much tell what the song’s lyrics were, sung as they were over the administration of marital vows taking place behind them. And Patrick Monahan, what were you thinking? Monahan is the lead singer of Train, a very popular contemporary pop rock band. He has won a Grammy. Fortunately for him, there is probably little overlap between his fan base and the viewership of the ACM awards show, because his fans would likely not be amused. It was utterly horrible. I think the connection with McBride and the couple getting married after losing their spouses to cancer was McBride’s song about a woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis—a song that is so bad until I refuse to listen to it in the car with my daughter. When it comes on, I make her change the radio, and she doesn’t object. Even she doesn’t like it. It’s not clear if the song was the impetus for the sketch. But it is clear that the sketch was singularly wretched.
Nashville operates much like Apple Computer, always coming out with new models to keep its enthralled and credulous fan base entertained. Which makes sense. Nashville and Apple are in the same business—entertainment, which has a steep diminishing marginal returns curve. People get quickly bored. They always need the latest sensation. So it was that the darling of the last couple of years, Taylor Swift, was mostly ignored this year, except that her massive popularity won her the Entertainer of the Year Award, which was proper. She is massively popular because she is actually quite talented, and works very hard to keep her fans entertained. She has taken on the mantle of providing new sensations for her fans. Nashville, quickly tiring of how irrelevant it is becoming to Swift’s popularity, introduced two new teenage acts, both boys, as their new iPads. One, Scott McCreery, sang a song about “Watertower Towns”, evoking the memory of some idyllic small town or rural past in the manner of so many country songs in the past. It seemed like a song trying to evoke nostalgia for better songs and better reasons to sing them. It was a bit odd to hear a kid sing a song about a past which he can’t possibly remember. The visual of his baby face seemed out of place with the aural of his deep baritone voice singing about stuff only old folks really appreciate. But such is the state of Nashville.
Brad Paisley, who the kid, McCreery, is touring with and who was referred to by the kid as his “good friend” though Paisley’s older by at least two decades, is one of the only of Nashville’s favorites that is tolerable. He has a terrific sense of humor, as he demonstrated last night with his song “Camouflage”, and by mocking the lead singer of the Zack Brown Band by wearing a matching beanie for his accompaniment on the best song of the night, “Whiskey’s Gone”, a country lamentation song in the greatest of Hank’s pain song tradition. Or at least I hope Paisley’s “Camouflage” is meant to be a joke, here’s some of the lyrics:
You can blend in in the country
You can stand out in the fashion world
Be invisible to a whitetail
Irresistible to a redneck girl
Oh, you’re my favorite color, camouflage
Well the stars and bars offend some folks
And I guess I see why
But nowadays there’s still a way
To show your Southern pride
The only thing as patriotic
As the old red, white and blue
It’s green and grey and black
And brown and tan all rolled into one
Designed by Mother Nature and by God
It’s camouflage, camouflage
You’re my favorite color, yeah.
It’s quite funny, as long as it’s only caricature, and not actually true. Then it would be sort of creepy. People don’t really think like this, do they?
But the funniest of the Nashville stars is Toby Keith, who has a smash hit that really anyone, country, pop, even rap, could appreciate, in “Red Solo Cup”, a song about the familiar cups used for parties, barbecues, church gatherings, etc. He sang it while traipsing through the audience with Carrot Top at his heel. I’m not really sure why Carrot Top was there, but Keith, who writes a lot of his own stuff, and can get as silly as any country singer (one of his songs has a line going something like this, “she holds tight to me and her bible on the back of my motorcycle”), always seems to be having fun, a sort of modern-day Hank Williams, Jr., who was a happy drunk it seemed, unlike his pappy.
But to illustrate again how utterly ridiculous the night was, Ashton Kutcher, ex-husband of cougar Demi Moore, and present replacement for Charlie Sheen on the sit-com “Two and a half men” presented an award. In a cowboy hat. After singing a few bars of a George Strait song. With accompaniment, sort of. He had two guys with him. One blew a pitch-pipe and the other hummed to help him get on key.
Then there was Bono’s introduction, via satellite link, of another homage to the troops, a song by Dierks Bentley called “Home”. I’m not sure what to make of someone who gets Bono to introduce them. Does that mean he’s really good (Mr. Bentley, I mean), or that he’s really not very good? It seems to me it could cut either way. But Bono is surely a bit out of touch with American country music fans. He claimed that they understood that America is more than just geography; that America is an idea. No Bono, country music fans are innately geography-oriented. The only idea of America they cherish is that it belongs to them and they’ll kick anybody’s ass that claims otherwise.
Tim McGraw (or Tug, I can never remember) and Kenney Chesney sang a song about how to be a rock-n-roll star, and I don’t think it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
Steve Martin played the banjo with Rascal Flatts (or is it Fatts?) after a short tribute to premier banjo artist Earl Scruggs, recently deceased. Martin looked either bored or nervous. Given it’s Steve Martin, I’d say bored is most likely. Why would he be nervous on stage?
But the next worst duet (after McBride/Monahan) had to be Blake Shelton and Lionel Ritchey’s cover of Ritchey’s old single, “You are”. Shelton must not have realized he was singing a duet with a man about a female love interest, because when it’d come time for him to sing the words of endearment contained in the song, he’d look at Ritchey as if Ritchey were the song’s love object. Shelton’s married to a woman, Miranda Lambert, who won two ACM awards herself (to add to his two) so I’m assuming he’s not gay. It wasn’t just a little bit awkward.
And awkward pretty much sums things up. I don’t know what the show says about American culture, or at least that portion of it that comprises country music fans. But it seems to me that Nashville is getting desperate. Its money machine must be sputtering for it to put on such a carnival of an awards show. Taylor Swift, Nashville’s biggest star two years running, didn’t even perform. And there were none of the old greats like Willie Nelson or George Strait or Randy Travis or the band Alabama. It was awkward and surreal. It made me think of the Republican party, trying to cobble together a coalition so it can hold onto a vision of America that is swiftly passing. Or maybe, like Apple will one day be, this latest round of country music craze that started along about W’s administration, is a fad that has finally about run its course.