There has always been an element of conservatism in major label country music. Often, it combines Protestant Christian ideology with with nationalistic rhetoric. Scholars and church leaders call this strange combination “American civil religion” (a term I will use because it’s a mindset that does not give much thought to other countries in the Americas). Even Johnny Cash, known for his populist politics and self-identification with the poor, sometimes indulged in these themes.
Of course, the attacks of September 11, 2011 led to American civil religion on steroids, and this was reflected nowhere more than in country music. Can anyone forget Lee Greenwood’s awful song, “God Bless the USA”? Well, just in case you have, you can listen to it here (video includes lyrics):
Or Toby Keith’s even more strident “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” (video includes lyrics):
Toby Keith is back with a brand new ode to God and country called “Made in America” (lyrics):
This song lays it on thick, right down to the images we see. It begins by juxtaposing Keith’s performance with shots of beautiful fields of grain. Then an elderly man appears who is identified as Keith’s father. He wears the standard heartland farming outfit (plaid shirt, jeans and baseball cap) and is shown posing with a tractor—and later with bales of hay. Then with his wife in a field.
The images convey several ways in which (mostly white) rural southerners tend to romanticize the South. Rural working-class people are celebrated as the heart and soul of the US. They have worked hard all their lives,* and we they continue working even as they reach ages at which many have retired. These are not pretentious city folks. Rather, they appreciate their small communities, where they can trust that people hold their values—and love both America and god.**
The nationalism of the farmer’s wife is stereotypically soft and female-coded. We are told that she “decorates on the fourth of July” but still “says everyday is independence day.” She is shown teaching at an ostensibly public school—that is to say, enthusiastically serving her local community. Apparently, “some folks say it isn’t cool,” but she still “says the Pledge of Allegiance anyway.”
This music often conceives of the military as an exclusively male domain, as when Greenwood sang, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free/And I can’t forget the men who died to give that right to me.” There is plenty of that here. Keith’s dad has a “semper fi” tattoo on his shoulder, and the singer himself gives a military salute. Elderly male veterans are honored at a parade.
White families with young children constitute the majority of parade attendees, and images shift to a focus on children carrying flags and celebrating the country. I think this is a nod to the familiar truism that “children are our future.” Again, those pictured are almost exclusively white. The only substantive clue that children of color are also “our future” is the moment in which children in the classroom solemnly rise to recite the Pledge.
God is ever-present in the song, conceived as the bulwark of American moral and military might. Keith lauds “King James and Uncle Sam” as joint symbols of US power. At the parade, signs read, “God bless America.” The implication is that god is part and parcel of American civic pride.
There is one relatively new element here: “Made in America” reflects an element of economic protectionism that I suspect has to do with the struggling US economy. Keith sings that “it breaks his [father’s] heart seeing foreign cars/Filled with fuel that isn’t ours/And wearing cotton we didn’t grow.” It continues, “Spend a little more in the store for a tag in the back that says USA.” Buying American is just one more way in which US citizens can serve their country.
Over the next couple of posts, I plan to continue exploring masculinity as celebrated and understood in country music. I’ll discuss the implications of women who contribute to these tropes. Then I will consider what is different (and yet still the same) about the sub-genre we call “alt country” (sometimes “outlaw country”). Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
*My mother was raised on a tobacco farm, and much of my extended family in North Carolina still farms. People with small family farms do work very hard, and for the record, I completely respect what they do. I am describing and critiquing a romanticized Southern ideal, not the working-class individuals and families I know.
**I know there are enclaves in the South where people fly the rebel flag and talk about how “the South will rise again!” I also know that there are very wealthy plantation families. I am not describing all white people in the rural south, but, again, an ideal that I have seen perpetuated.