That Devil Music

Country music star and Macon native Jason Aldean has been in the headlines this week. His latest single, “Try That In A Small Town”, was released in May, but the release of the music video last Friday brought fresh attention. In the video, shots of violent protests taken from news clips are interspersed with lyrics implying that anyone trying such activity in a small town would be dealt with harshly. Critics have accused Aldean of supporting vigilantism, and Country Music Television pulled the video from rotation as a result.

These criticisms do not suggest much of a familiarity with country music.

Suggestions of vigilante justice have been an incredibly common theme in country music for decades, from “A Country Boy Can Survive” to “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” to “The Thunder Rolls” to “Goodbye Earl” to “Wait In The Truck”, just for starters. The University of Tennessee’s unofficial fight song “Rocky Top” approvingly notes the murder of federal agents. There’s an entire subgenre of “outlaw country” music, popularized in the 1970s by stars like Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, and David Allan Coe. Aldean’s song is certainly no outlier in this long tradition, even if it’s been obscured of late by the “beer, babes, and lifted trucks” themes more prevalent in modern bro-country.

And, to be fair, country music is hardly the only genre with a deep tradition of less than full respect for the law. Rap music has also long been known for themes that include drug dealing, violence, and misogyny, often described using extremely graphic lyrics. This content has frequently made rap a target of the same sort of outrage now facing Aldean, from Tipper Gore’s crusades in the 1980s that led to the creation of the “Parental Advisory” stickers on explicit albums to the 2020 controversy over the Cardi B track “WAP”. (In fairness, that song’s lyrics are so explicit that I didn’t even want to link directly to it; instead, please enjoy the brilliant economics-based parody “Fed Asst’d Printing”.)

The hip-hop genre may have created a minor local scandal of its own this week also. Mark Gelhardt, the commander of the volunteer Georgia State Defense Force, resigned this week after being featured in a video for a rap song. While the video includes explicit lyrics and suggestive dancing, Gen. Gelhardt himself has no lines, and there’s no indication of who he is or any connection he has to military service. He only appears briefly as an old white man incongruously dining and dancing to a hip-hop beat with young female rappers. (At the time of this writing, it’s not known whether his sudden resignation is directly related to the release of the video.)

These scandals rarely hurt the performers themselves. “Parental Advisory” stickers quickly let kids know which albums had the good stuff and thereby drove sales. “Try That In A Small Town” hit #1 this week in Apple Music sales and is similarly trending on other charts. When Elvis Presley scandalously swung his hips on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, 82% of TV-owning households tuned in, a record that has to this day never been broken.

And yet, here we still all are, having survived decades of such musical controversy. In the interest of full disclosure, I went to high school in the north Atlanta suburbs in the 90s and to college in Nashville in the early 2000s, contexts in which I was exposed to the full oeuvres of both rap and country music. There are lyrics, from songs then and now, that I wouldn’t want my young children listening to just yet. But claims that adult listeners in particular or society in general are harmed by inappropriate lyrics or antisocial themes have never been supported by much if any evidence.

If Jason Aldean or Cardi B or Vicki Lawrence or Elvis aren’t your thing, great. There are lots of other musicians and genres to pick from. But turning every controversial lyric or music video into a weeks-long scandal is itself a fairly old and completely useless form of entertainment. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, there’s a war in Ukraine, an ascendant China, a presidential election cycle, record global temperatures, inflationary economic pressures, and any number of other critical issues for the state, nation, and world to address. 

Twenty years ago, Laura Ingraham popularized the phrase “Shut up and sing” in her eponymous book, referring to entertainers stepping into the world of politics. It’s time for a corollary for mainstream and social media influencers whose bread and butter is creating controversy instead of just changing the station: “Shut up and let them.”

Leave a Reply