Column: An anthem for the next GOP convention? Country music’s latest lyric controversy
Country music fans gave us a hint of their politics recently, or seemed to, by sending Aaron Lewis’ “Am I the Only One” to the top of the charts. It’s a lament about cancel culture, “statues coming down,” flag-burning and Americans who are not willing to “take a bullet” for freedom. The lyrics lit up right-wing message boards with happiness. Lefties, on the other hand, got their knickers in a twist.
“Am I the only one,” Lewis asks in the song, “who thinks they’re takin’ all the good we’ve got, and turnin’ it bad?”
To those who disagree with him he has these friendly words: “If you don’t like it, there’s the f—ing door.”
And the real sacrilege: “Am I the only one/who quits singin’ along/every time they play a Springsteen song?”
Now that’s going too far.
“What a mealy-mouthed excuse for his money-grubbing pandering,” said one commenter from the left on an online music site. A music critic dismissed the song as “heinous crap” by a “middle class, right-wing wanker.”
To which a Lewis supporter responded, “Aaron is saying what millions of we normals believe. We’ve had it with you lunatic leftist radicals. We’ve had it with your hate for America and your efforts to turn it into a socialist hell.”
Welcome to what passes for political discussion in America today.
Now personally, I find the song’s lyrics silly. They’re reductive and unthoughtful, like if you talked to a bunch of Proud Boys as they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and then put their comments to music.
But why get worked up over dumb pop lyrics? I mean, compared with most of what’s out there, “Am I the Only One” is reasonably intellectual stuff.
I’d rather listen to it than, say, this on the country charts by Walker Hayes: “My girl is bangin’/She’s so low maintenance/Don’t need no Champagne poppin’ entertainment/Take her to Wendy’s/Can’t keep her off me/She wanna dip me like them fries in her Frosty.”
By comparison, the Aaron Lewis song is like something by W.H. Auden.
The fact is, pop music is not written by professors or policymakers. Even the most classic of political protest songs includes one atrocious line by its Nobel Prize-winning author: “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” That conjures quite an image.
So I believe we should cut Aaron Lewis some slack on his writing. And as for his retrograde politics, well, he comes from a long tradition.
Of course, it’s true that not everyone who plays or listens to country music is a right-winger. Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace” at Joe Biden’s inauguration. The Dixie Chicks dropped the “Dixie” from their name after the death of George Floyd. Dolly Parton recently sang “Jolene” rewritten as “Vaccine,” in an effort to get people immunized. Willie Nelson backs LGBTQ rights (and of course laxer marijuana laws).
The Country Music Assn. says more than 129 million Americans listen to the genre. I count myself among them.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Country music was built largely on a narrative of white poverty and struggle, set in a hazy and often mythologized rural America facing hard times at best. When the lyrics are not about love, loss, betrayal, fighting, guns, whiskey and trucks, they have often over the years echoed the themes of the modern conservative movement: We’re poor, we’re proud, we’re real Americans, we fought your wars. And our traditional values and lifestyles are under attack.
That’s the audience Lewis is targeting.
In 1969, Merle Haggard made the connection explicit between country music and right-wing cultural politics when he released “Okie from Muskogee.” (“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.”)
Conservative politicians like Richard M. Nixon and the segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace saw the political value of country music when they were vying for the votes of white working class Southerners, as music historian Lester Feder has noted. Just listen to Lamar Morris singing his rousing version of “Let’s Put George Wallace/In the White House.”
And too often, country music fandom has been mixed with an ugly Southern Confederate pride, and sometimes with out-and-out racism.
In 1974, Nixon was the first president to go to the Grand Ole Opry, where he played “God Bless America” on the piano and praised country music for being about family, religion, faith in God and “love of this nation.”
Oklahoma-born Toby Keith, a country star since the 1990s, headlined at the Trump inauguration in 2016 when many other musicians said no. (“My daddy served in the army/where he lost his right eye/but he flew a flag out in our yard/’til the day that he died,” he sang.)
At the rate things are going, Aaron Lewis’ “Am I the Only One” may itself end up being blasted over the speakers at the next Republican national convention.
Lewis, like Toby Keith, comes out of a long conservative country music tradition. It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always nice. But it’s better than the branch of the genre in which people dip each other into their Frosties.
And I appreciate the window into a world outside of my own.
After all, if you want to get a glimpse into right-wing thinking, it’s a more pleasurable way to do it than watching Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene rant about election fraud or Tucker Carlson feed the baseless fears of anti-vaxxers.
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