Sometimes something beautiful happens in the world, and you’re driving down the freeway to go to somebody’s birthday potluck in July where a turkey is currently roasting in a backyard. The sky is blue and bright and builds an orb around your world; you’re stuck in traffic on a bridge but you can see the Willamette river meet the frontier of everything your eye beholds, and then, a miracle happens on pop country radio.
A song comes on, by two young women named Maddie and Tae, and it’s not egregiously terrible sounding. The DJ introduces it nervously, as if he’s about to break a moral ban imposed by a fascist-religious government, or perhaps a woman has placed her hand upon his waist whilst engaged in a swinging slow dance, and he is excitedly shocked. This song is gonna be a scandal, is the message we get. “Here comes the latest single out of Nashville, called . . . ‘Girl in a Country Song?’ Oh my . . .” Ho-ho-ho-holy shit! Please call in and tell us how gosh darn bonkers we’ve gone after you hear this ridic-dic-dic-ulous lil number by two lil gals who seem to be wearing some too-small britches, and not in the hot way.
And as they start to sing, I’m shocked again, because this song is not a stupidly grinning doe-eyed warble about how fucking swell it is to be treated like a teensy little fleshy sack of woman-meat by jaw-flapping idiots with jean-appliqué, cross necklaces and frosted tips drinking natty ice and talking about shooting dear with compound crossbows and grinding ATV ruts into old-growth ground cover. It is, in fact, a wry, catchy, bold critique of the whole state of current pop country music, in which women are treated like smiling, soulless props flung back and forth from tailgates to bench seats to beds, and whose minimal descriptors and actions are often indistinguishable not only from one another, but from those of a five year old child.
A wee taste from our new best pals:
Well, I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet
And it’s gettin’ kinda cold in these painted on cut-off jeans
I hate the way this bikini top chafes
Do I really have to wear it all day? (Yeah, baby)
Yeah baby! And the chorus:
Bein’ the girl in a country song
How in the world did it go so wrong?
Like all we’re good for
Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend
We used to get a little respect
Now we’re lucky if we even get
To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along
And be the girl in a country song
Yeah, BABY! I was ecstatic. I shrieked to myself in my truck and danced about. All was fine in the land. You can go watch the video if you like here and listen to the whole song (and you can hear me talk more about it in the Lewis & Clark gender symposium in March, because there’s a lot to say). But really, they kind of just lay it out there perfectly. They unabashedly lampoon every hot-shot, bedazzled button-up, wide stance lean-singing country bro-down blow-hard from the past five years, and they do it while laughing and singing funny smart shit. It’s grand as hell. It made me glad to be alive. It gave me hope.
Several months later, it was winter and I was going to a holiday party where there would be bizarre board games and forced antiquated caroling and hot bourbon in Beyonce themed mugs. (Sure, it’s not for everyone, but it was sure great for me). I was wearing a festive vest, and heavens, I was happy. I was driving across the Ross Island Bridge and fuck yes, what should appear on the radio, but Maddie and Tae, and their fabulous song, which just that day had risen to number one on the country charts. The people. Loved it. The people who loved country music fucking loved it. This was the second time in country radio history that a female duo had reached number one. I felt vindicated and powerful and happy – see, see, the people could jump up and say “YES, WE ALSO miss something that has gone out of our music! We miss it and we want it back, and we believe that women are people! Some of us are women! We will pay! For this! Please!” I cackled the laughing growl of a she-beast and I sang along theatrically and wondered when it would be apropo for Karaoke.
And the song ended, and alas, the DJ spoke.
“Sounds to me like the kind of girl who’d be screaming at your for keeping the toilet seat up in 20 years.”
Ah, indeed. I quite forgot. You can be the most popular woman in the world, but when you’re not around, all some dude with a mic has got to do is call you a cunt and say something violent about your boobs, and you’re nothing. I’m sure it’s happened a ton of times to me, and if you’ve ever said anything loudly in public, I’ll bet it’s happened to you, too. There’s really nothing to do but think about Elizabeth Moss trying to fire the bratty sexist illustrators in Mad Men and being sadly reminded by Joan that all they’ve got to do is make another drawing, and then remember Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake in a scene in a New Zealand backwoods dive, hearing her rapist from the past sneeringly joke about a missing twelve-year-old. She responds by throwing a dart into his shoulder, and walking away as he bleeds.
After those heartfelt comments, he played the worst song in the entire fucking world, just to ruin everything that might ever be ok.
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“God Made Girls” was a plastic summer torture hit that emits toxic fumes if it’s near a microwave or a hot tub. Don’t drink it if you’re pregnant or if you want to keep your fingernails out of your eyes. Dare I even link to this pile of fluffy garbage? It’s by a young artist who, in a rather distressing manner, goes simply by the name “RaeLynn” (capitalization, of course, quite necessary). The surface of popular country music is a landscape of exaggeration, bluntness for bluntness’ sake and fiercely reactive attitudes, crawling with the carcasses and banner flags of gender-performance, and I’ve been skating across its weary waters for years, learning how to guffaw with a brutal sardonic spirit at the most dehumanizing drivel around. But this song is so blatant, so painfully sung in the voice of a sexy baby, so deeply sad, that it makes me want to just kick in the radio and invite craigslist rideshares into my passenger seat with banjo tunes in exchange for gas fare. I’M DONE WITH YOU, COUNTRY MUSIC. YOU OBVIOUSLY DO NOT WANT ME ANYMORE. And obviously it was a big ol’ face slap to joshingly fling it out the airwaves right after Maddie and Tae’s sharp wit and self awareness.
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RaeLynn started out her music career by taking a joy ride around the circus-act stage set of the reality show “The Voice” in 2012, and now she has ushered a noxious cloud of flouncing pastel petticoats and darkly compliant lyrics over the present autumn.
While I question my true motives in looking at a “female” artist and instinctually heading straight to her appearance, manner of dress and manner of moving around, I feel that RaeLynn’s rather extreme (even for pop-country) affectation of children’s book country-feminine style is sort of disturbing. She wears can-can petticoats and a little necker-chief, or, in the video for “God Made Girls,” frilly, floaty, lacy, pink, sweet powdered precious little numbers.
Obviously this is a purposeful choice, and I believe the flatness and obviousness in images of association here is telling. And, it reminded me of Plato.
More specifically, it reminded me of how, in the first chapter of Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler pointed out some of that lame-wad Plato’s most jarring contradictions and discrepancies.
If you don’t know, Judith Butler is a theorist who writes about gender and built a lot on the ideas of post-structuralists. She’s tough to read but it’s tough on purpose and it’s really cool shit. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble was a big ol’ doozy in the “gender is something you do, not something that you are” department. After it came out, she got a lot of criticism regarding how she was saying things “weren’t real” but was therefore ignoring material (real, physical, tangible) lived realities and experience: you can say “gender’s not real” but you still have to live with the fear of being raped if you ride the bus at night, or you have to live with everyone in the world telling you to be afraid of being raped all the time because you aren’t fit to judge your own ability to move through the world safely. Or, because if you are perceived as woman, you have some relationship to reproduction. Anyway, she eventually responded to all those criticisms in the sequel, Bodies that Matter. Get it? Good joke, Butler!
Judith Butler traces the Platonic logic of the feminine as a concept defined by its exclusion and its lack. Plato is all: the feminine is a big vacuum where things that are supposed to be there, aren’t there! Lack! Lack! Lack!
From Plato, says Butler, we learn that
“any material object comes into being only through participating in a Form which is its necessary precondition”(14),
yet the feminine has no relationship to any Form. What’s a form? It’s this big ball of philosophy and god and ideas that floats around in the universe like a lovely, man-creating mist. Just go with it. The feminine, however, so sadly, is defined as a receptacle (like a garbage can!) that fails to even attempt to be an echo of the Forms. Therefore, the feminine nature is indefinable, and unnameable. Damn! Indefinable? Unnameable? How can something exist if it’s only being defined by . . . what it’s not? Does the feminine . . . not?
Butler continues to point out a potential fallacy in Plato’s reasoning:
. . . if man is at the top of an ontological hierarchy, and woman is a poor or debased copy of man, and beast is a poor or debased copy of both woman and of man, then there is still resemblance . . . the receptacle seems to be from the start an impossible word, a designation that cannot be designated. Paradoxically, Plato proceeds to tell us that this very receptacle must always be called the same.
There’s a lot going on here, and there’s a lot going on in between even what I’ve selected to try and sort out. But this seems to be important: Plato tries to work around a nonsensical notion that there are human males who exist as a sort of reflective response to ethereal, misty “Forms” floating around and comprising the universe, and that there is also a feminine, but it does not reflect the floating Form/Idea mists that make up the universe. However, there is still a hierarchy in the world that goes in order of
- Feminine/woman thing (maybe ghost/monster, unclear, v. scary)
- Plain old beasts.
How can the feminine have a resemblance of man, but not Forms? It doesn’t seem to make sense. If Man is like Forms, and “Woman” (ha, “woman”) is like man, then . . . you see what I mean? Remember 9th grade algebra? Or like, 6th grade algebra if you were on the smart-math track?
Thinking about that paradox along with the idea of the feminine as a receptacle (garbage can!) – the absence of being, escaping definition by identifying with the excluded – reminds me of the cultural trope of women acting as a part of a man, or flatly existing as helpful push toward action for the male protagonist to initiate. The maiden-as-plot-device trope is everywhere, of course, and has nice literal roots in the biblical tradition. But thinking about it in terms of this Platonic confusion brings more tension to the archetype, and perhaps complicates it.
It seems to me to reflect Plato’s trouble of ascribing meaning to something that evades meaning by definition, that is something specifically, but nothing, something that is manifold and simultaneously totally monotonous. The attempt to capture the natural feminine creature in a video for a song explaining why “god made girls” is comically vacant: girls are blonde ballerinas looking in a mirror. That’s seriously what the video is – RaeLynn in fluffy cloud skirts singing to herself in a mirror while a little ballerina girl twirls in the dusk and a quizzical little boy observes her from behind a tree. There’s also swinging on a big swing with flower pets and climbing a ladder to the moon. I actually don’t remember if there were rainbows.
The vacuous ornamentation with which they attempt to describe what “girls” “are” is so hilariously empty that it seems that the producers either :
- Don’t know what girls are
- Know that girls are basically black holes, but you can’t show a picture of a black hole in a music video, or
- Know that girls are basically black holes, but find it best to represent the paradox of a non-existent thing that exists in language and symbol with symbols that are so clichéd and layered with meaning that they have now lost that meaning, and become vacant again themselves.
The speaker in the song tries again and again to define themselves in relation to an opposing character, as the result of a divine imperative action, and as an actor that will help make that opposing character be able to accomplish something, all while playing with paradoxical phrasing and those same weirdly vacant clichés that are used visually in the video. CANDY CANE SUGAR FAIRY DUST MOON PRINCESS PONY HEARTS. I believe there is an added tension here as archetypes lose meaning and gain symbolic power, that ties into this paradoxical understanding of the exclusion-identified feminine. And I think it’s kinda fucked!
That said, I have more interesting news about that radio DJ. A week after my joy-basking in Maddie and Tae’s zesty zingy victory was ruined by those frightful sneers, I heard his voice again. And he said the same line.
“Sounds to me like the kind of girl who’d be screaming at your for keeping the toilet seat up in 20 years.”
Boo, said I. But hark! Hold on a second! He said it like, “This song here . . .” as if it were referring to the song he was about to play. And what was it? “God Made Girls,” of course.
Holy shit. That might have changed everything, except for the sad fact that Maddie and Tae have, in the past couple weeks, disappeared from the billboard countdown, and RaeLynn is slowly climbing her way up into playable rotations. The conspiracy continues. I don’t know if we’re gonna be ok on the radio, but I do know that there are still some rad young women making songs that aren’t garbage. So rally, tally ho, let’s not give up.
 Also, professional dream boat Liz got me in to see them play in person in tiny close quarters two days after my birthday in August and it was just the bees-best-knees-they’d-never-even-knew-could-bend-that-way even though I was so hungover I just refused to pay for parking downtown because how even.