I’ve Got a Girl Crush! Confronting the History of Feminine Desire in American Country Music

I am, for a short time, shelving this scholarly piece, which has been the subject of several conference presentations, but has yet to be published, here.  The pictures are not yet included, which is too bad, because they are hilarious.  Enjoy!

 

 

I’ve Got a Girl Crush, but It Matters Who Knows It:  Confronting Difference and Feminine Desire in the History of American Country Music

 

Kimberly Fanshier

 

 

 

 

            Last December, the increasingly popular, redneck-glam country quartet Little Big Town released a broiling, bluesy, 1950s dancehall throwback ballad from Pain Killer, their most recent album.

 

The song is a tortured lament in which a woman sings about the love she yearns for, but cannot have – a storyline and subject matter that are not, by any means, unheard of in American country music.   Compared to its contemporaneous Country Billboard bedfellows, however, Little Big Town’s hit is strikingly distinct.  By now, in the spring of 2015, even the most casual observers of the popular niche genre have noticed: something doesn’t sound like it used to.   The difference is not purely attestable to the fact that the boundaries of genre and style are always mutable, technology influences and radically re-structures sound and recording styles, or that “these days,” whatever year it is, all popular music is always (already) terrible and tasteless bubblegum garbage for beer-brained philistines and slathering teenaged girls.   While nothing looks perfectively representative of a century-spanning tradition from too close up, a dramatic shift occurred in the tenor of pop country songs deemed acceptable and profitable for radio play specifically after 2001.   Perusing the most often played rush hour and early morning numbers in the 1990s and those that dominate the airwaves today, a careful listener will notice that in part, that difference stems from a decided breach in the acceptability of singing about visible, visceral desire.

Yet despite this glaring, modern lack, the oblique mention of “country music” might still conjure images for both the lay listener and the loyal aficionado of a man with a broken truck and a bad beer pining desperately over a woman who done him wrong.  Conversely, a quick tour of our local country radio stations – 99.5 The Wolf (owwooo!) or 98.7 The Bull! (tune in at 5 for a ninety-minute BULL RIDE) – at any time of day, will most likely provide an assaulting, stultifying vision of stale, vacant, masculinist contentment, in which white douche-bros with frosted-tips, baseball caps, and I’m-a-cool-Christian emblematic rhinestone jewelry squint at hip-hop tropes and shout over rhythmless, electronic walls of sound about their satisfaction.  The stuff they are so eternally appeased and satisfied with, it turns out, are the hallmarks of cyclically impoverished, deadeningly immobile lives and their consolation prize of a cardboard, child-like female who gently coos as she smilingly sleeps at their side.

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Such rhetoric plays out both in the new brand of bacchanalian, 4WD muddin’ tail-gate party songs, and also in the (more disturbing) odes to an all-reaching automaton-ification of a newly inculcated blue-collar class.  Florida Georgia Line, an unfortunately constructed duo in shameless tank-tops and explosively-patterned cargo shorts, traffics in the former. In songs like “Sun Daze,” the speaker enjoys looking at girls in bikinis, betting exorbitantly on bean-bag bar games, postulating on his prospects of “getting laid,” getting stoned, and misunderstanding basic drug-related slang (“And all I wanna do is lace my J’s and lace some Jack in my Coke” – are you sure?).   They collectively scale their towering limits of word play with a remarkable mis-application of a half-hearted gesture toward a pun: “I’m gonna wear my flip-flops and I’m gonna play some flip-cup.” They proceed to demonstrate a bizarre disconnection from their supposedly poor, white fans by absentmindedly “throwing a 20 on the corn hole game,” pairing “hip-hop and Haggard,” and shout-rapping about smoking that terrible pot stuff on a Sunday, of all days, instead of going to church, eating chicken, and drinking Coors Light in your grandma’s barn like you’re supposed to[1].

 

The other side of the contented, moon-eyed, brainwashed rhetoric coin is songs like Jason Aldean’s “When She Says Baby.”  In that charming number, the dramatic thrust is simply that when you’re working class, Life Blows:

Some days it’s tough just gettin’ up
Throwin’ on these boots and makin’ that climb
Some days I’d rather be a no show
Lay low ‘fore I go out of my mind

But when she says baby
Oh don’t matter what comes
Ain’t goin’ nowhere
She runs her fingers through my hair
And saves me
Yeah that look in her eyes got me comin’ alive . . .

 

Since the “you” implied as the relatable narrator in the song is assumed to be a man, the listener learns that, struggling though you are, you simply can survive without changing anything in the current, miserable scenario.  Furthermore, you should shut up and enjoy life! Just get a hold of some kick-ass girl who looks at you with “her eyes.”  Aha!  Good thinking.   While you’re being ground down by the endless futility of working desperately hard in a system from which you cannot escape, and fruitlessly and constantly confronting the meaninglessness and pain of this human life, she then just “runs her fingers through [your] hair” and “says baby” and thus makes you forget – about being angry, wanting to run a “fist through the wall,” feeling “fighting mad” as you “pull on those boots and . . . mak[e] that climb” every day, with no hope of escalation or reprieve. Shh, baby, forget, coos your cardboard helpmeet.  Hush.

The apparent popularity and simultaneous haunting disjunctions of songs like “Sun Daze” or “When she Says Baby” illustrate how desperately impossible it is to wield a radio play-list that pleases and represents a homogenized, transnational “class” – or, considering the insistence on male subjectivity, style of dress and sexuality presentation factors as ultimately significant pieces of this categorical identity puzzle – a country gender[2].  And when those songs are written, produced, played, and distributed by just a few broad reaching, all-encompassing corporations, lyrics like these become not just bad, but actively nefarious.  They serve as endlessly echoing performative utterances that initiate, compel and repeat the existence of a region-less American country gender that is fundamentally white, heterosexual and misogynist: determinably pro-capitalist, and functionally economically helpless – all of which are simultaneously indicated and ignored by the countrified declarations of self on the radio.  This is who I am, this is who we are, this is how we roll, this is what it’s like where I’m from and where you’re from too – ain’t it? Western North Dakota or south Florida don’t matter one bit: you’re country, ain’t you? Well – ain’t you?  Get in, sit down, shut up and hold on.   As these songs indicate, the socially transgressive politics that have historically marked country music – particularly through the voices of women – have notably disappeared from pop-country radio in the past ten to twenty years.   The absence of those politics is marked by the absence of what was once a defining factor of the genre, or really, genres, and is at the heart of yearning, resistance and heterogeneity.  The repeated expression of palpable desire is integral to the survival of those who resist and trouble the conglomeration of a male-bodied, racist-minded, mass-national, blindly patriotic country class – or, as I perhaps more audaciously propose – gender.

What happens, then, when a band like Little Big Town’s recent “controversial” release disrupts the current, mainstreaming trend?  The title of their shocking and unusual song is, in what might appear to be a rather transparent ploy for the publicity spawning from a tantalizing scandal of misunderstanding, “Girl Crush.”  The lyrics are as follows:

I gotta girl crush, hate to admit it but
I gotta heart rush, ain’t slowin’ down
I got it real bad, want everything she has
That smile and the midnight laugh she’s givin’ you now

I wanna taste her lips, yeah, ‘cause they taste like you
I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume
I want her long blonde hair, I want her magic touch
Yeah, ‘cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much
I gotta girl crush, I gotta girl crush

I don’t get no sleep, I don’t get no peace
Thinkin’ about her under your bed sheets
The way that she’s whisperin’, the way that she’s pullin’ you in
Lord knows I’ve tried, I can’t get her off my mind

I wanna taste her lips, yeah, ‘cause they taste like you
I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume
I want her long blonde hair, I want her magic touch
Yeah, ‘cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much
I gotta girl crush, I gotta girl crush

I gotta girl crush, hate to admit it but
I gotta heart rush, it ain’t slowin’ down

 

The language is purposefully misleading, and unnervingly ambiguous.  The song’s actual object of desire, the intended addressee, doesn’t enter until a mysterious mention in the fourth line: “the smile and the midnight laugh she’s givin’ you now.”   The desire the speaker feels for the “you” the song is addressed to is, apparently, reflected onto the new lover.

This desire, however, is rather suspiciously forceful, verging on the morbid and the obsessive: she wants to “drown” herself in the new woman’s perfume, all her thoughts are completely monopolized by this woman’s presence, and the power of the mystery woman’s caresses is magnified and enlarged to an otherworldly, irrefutable magnetism – her “magic touch.”  The emphasis is also rather notably localized on the most explicitly feminine traits of the interloper, and these most feminine attributes are imbued with an uncomfortable, insurmountable allure.  Her body is described via mention of her “lips,” their only modifier being ‘her’, and her “long blonde hair” – the basic, archetypal nature of which makes her stand in for femininity in general more so than it defines her as one particular woman.  What the lyrics include and exclude in the description of this woman’s body informs us that her character and her individual traits are not especially important.  She is important simply because she is a “she,” and because of the intensity of the feelings that draw and tie her to the song’s speaker.

She whispers, pulls, and laughs seductively, projecting a crystallized cocoon of femininity around the corners of the song and weaving a network of interlacing gossamer lust-strings between the unnamed feminine characters.   Listeners, I suppose, are supposed to assume that they are meant to insert an imaginary man at the receiving end of these feminine ploys.  But even if the lyrics did provide a more substantial clue to insist on a male-sexed desire object, it’s hard to read the lines “I don’t get no sleep, I don’t get no peace / Thinkin’ about her under your bed sheets” and “I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume” and not notice that we have a two expressly, entirely female images of overpowering desire and self-absorbing sensuality.  Even if we’re supposed to remember to put a boy in that bed, well, I sure don’t.  I do, however, see a woman dramatically dowsing herself in the aromatic fluids of an erotically posed other woman.  I see one woman enraptured and maddened by the thought of another woman tangled and writhing about in a billowing web of bed sheets.

The ambiguity of her “magic touch” is simple and poignant – it could refer to an essential factor of her identity, that touch that gives her that oomph, that je ne se quai that men find so direly irresistible – or it could refer to her supernatural ability to erotically touch another person – like she is so good at laying her hands on someone and producing inordinate pleasure that there’s just no denying it, she has got to be a god.  Maybe a witch.   The meaning of “want” is likewise ambiguous: does the speaker want to obtain the long blonde hair and the magic touch, consume them, and incorporate them into her own identity like a devouring, cartoonishly villainous hag-queen: “I want to have your hair on my head”?  Or does she want the touch and the hair to be on her – to consume her – “I just want them.”  Suddenly the intense ambiguity of the idea of “want” itself becomes starkly apparent, and emphasizes the fragility of the construction of desire, and the unsure, shifting boundaries between people who comprise both sides of that bond.

A similar ambiguity is engendered by the use of verbs: “I’ve gotta girl crush” and “I’ve gotta heart rush” can be read as “I have a heart rush now, I have a crush on a girl right now,” or rather, “I feel a compelling, internal drive towards developing passion for women, and likewise for experiencing intense desire in general.”  The instability of the conjunction moves the moment of action from right now, to potentially “always in the past, and expectedly forever into the future.”  It suggests that the weight placed on the expression of desire within a relationship, toward another person, could likewise be just as powerful, necessary, consuming and exhausting when referring to a single person’s internal sense of self.   Do you have feelings toward a girl that determine something about a man?  Or do you have a narrative of feelings toward girls that says something about you?

In the video, the band’s four musicians stand in a tiered pattern on a stage in an empty cafeteria dance hall.  The two women sing at microphones slightly in front of two men, at guitar and organ, to their right and left.  Their alignment echoes the structure of then song: endless configurations of diagonal lines are possible, and even invited. Each man in the band plays his instrument quietly while the two women stare ahead, directly into the camera lens, and sway, slightly sadly, to the music.  The room is draped in shadows and a mirror ball casts speckled light slowly in a circle around the room.   As the song plays, a lone couple appears dancing tightly in tune.  They are introduced first by quick shots of their hands, grasped on waists, with torsos swinging unhurriedly.  They are eventually revealed to be a man and a woman, but their faces are then swiftly obscured again by shadow. The hall is lost in rotating shafts of hazy veils of light and darkness, eclipsing and revealing, covering and showing, ringing with the ambiguous tension of “Girl Crush’s” pulsing desires.   The emphatic refusal to openly declare the nature of this desire, and its exponential, endlessly repeating meanings, while simultaneously pretending at openly stating that same desire, draws the reader toward the queer possibilities of the song.

After the initial radio play of “Girl Crush,” several (though assuredly not a majority of) country radio stations announced that they would stop playing it after listeners called in complaining about the terrors of the gay agenda.   Fans, other listeners, people with opinions and the band themselves all quickly responded, reminding everybody to actually read the lyrics of the song and notice that the female speaker only expresses desire for a female in that she is an object of transference from which to suck the touch of a man.   “OMG DON’T PANIC OBVIOUSLY NO LESBIANS HERE” is the general tone of all these retorts – many of which likewise praised Little Big Town’s unabashed treatment of jealousy and lust as a return to classic country styles and a deviation from the current radio culture of tortured, obnoxious pop-trash.   “GEEZ just actually listen to the lyrics!!” sigh the song’s defenders in Youtube comments:

 

 

One of the rather tricky sidesteps of the song is, however, that the speaker never actually does mention an explicitly male love interest at the center.  Everyone, even the commentors insisting that some people are idiots who can’t read beyond surface values or listen to a song for more than ten seconds, simply mentally inserts a man into the vacant slot for projected desires.  Even if we do dutifully insert men into the song every time we hear it, the allusions to that explanatory man figure  – the presence of whom could excuse female-to-female desire – are fleeting and inessential.

Many of the internet commentors point out that a woman bemoaning the seductive powers of another woman who has snatched her man is not at all a novel idea, and the story has been told in similar ways many times before without inducing gasping frenzies over ghostly gestures toward female-to-female erotic bonds.   Indeed, in perhaps her most famous song ever, patron saint of all that is fine and good in this world Dolly Parton mournfully and tragically wails the praises of her unrivalled rival, the auburn haired, unstoppable temptress “Jolene.”  She describes Jolene’s features and abilities with ardent longing and  “begs” her to not steal a man who is, undeniably, rather absent from the lyrics.

In Little Big Town’s version of this age-old story, the parameters of the love triangle are different.  The man becomes so distant that not only is he a flat cut-out, a boring, obvious stand in to provide a safe background for female to female desire and bonding, but he is literally totally removed from the lyrics.  His presence, though still assumed and projected by many listeners, is a ghostly one, a projection of imagined traces.  The women in the song, however, get closer than ever before.  The speaker imagines the other woman in tactile, private spaces, and the close, intimate senses of smell and touch are invoked as the carriers of communication and desire as opposed to the potentially distant or formal senses of sight or hearing.   The triangle is indeed still in place, but its dimensions have shifted.

 

In the chapter “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles” in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Eve Sedgwick suggests that the structure of an erotic triangle in which two men fight over a woman and thus use the female as a conduit for masculine bonding is a constructive force of our social world.  The erotic triangle, she argues, is a “sensitive register precisely for delineating relationships of power and meaning” (Sedgwick 27).  Perhaps, then, there are other radiating, refractory triangles of bonds between two women, with the question of a man at the middle, that shift, mutate, combine, and rearrange, but likewise act as inventive factors of social meaning.  The structure of these triangles is not constant or solid because they are reactive relationships: these bonds are strategic permutations in which women calculate and modify their relationships to best suit their present social conditions and cope with volatile circumstances, and they will be necessarily elusive.   The stylizations of the desires that draw these triangles reflect changing sexual mores and morals that perhaps never actually change all that much.

 

In both “Jolene” and Parton’s earlier song involving an obstacle ridden triad, “She Never Met a Man she Didn’t Like,” the intruding woman who appears in the love triangle is a temptress: a lustful, whorish, witch creature that draws on the biblical misogynist imperatives of insatiable, faltering femininity and folk legends from Heinrich Kramer to Edmund Spenser.  The dimensions of the bond between the speaker and the temptress in each of those songs do, however, differ – in the latter, the witch lady is simply an awful, careless succubus who devours men because of her unstoppable, irrefutable slut-nature.  The song’s speaker warns her potentially wayward mate to ignore the advances of this beguiling she-devil because soon, “they’ll be other men, and she won’t want you then.”   In “Jolene,” the construction of the triangle is sort of the same, but the song’s speaker cannot help but be disastrously compelled by Jolene’s wiles.  The song’s chorus is a mounting escalation of desperation as the speaker is almost lost for words, but chants the woman’s name with greater and greater weight and urgency.  She, too, has been swept away, and is seduced by the smile that’s like a “breath of spring” and voice that’s “soft as summer rain.”  The bond, though a conflict-ridden one, between the two women is the significant relationship in both the songs, but the dimensions and the spaces between each character of the triangle shift.

When the love triangle characterized by female bonds reappears as a surprising departure in the present landscape of pop country radio, its range of meanings change.   The fact that this song created “controversy” that was probably more “talked about” than it was really ever actually controversial is notable, and speaks to the certain kind of threat this ambiguous use of desire holds over the commercial producers of country radio.   As soon as the song was banned, and then again when it became a major conversation and cultural news piece, its detractors made its meaning transgressive and homoerotic, and its apparent defenders leapt to insist upon its conservatism and adherence to tradition, and in so doing invented an absent heterosexual ghost.  These ironic results demonstrate the permanent flux of the female-female-male erotic bond, in which the relationship between two women must re-calculate and veil itself, submerge, twist, and fake out its audiences.  The advent of a song called “Girl Crush” might give the impression that America is happily travelling toward a progressive, free future, but the actual implications of how its meanings are constructed reflect a more stagnant reality.  In a world where “country” is coming to stand in for a new kind of intentionally oblivious, discompassionate racism and reactionary hatred of women, a shifting infiltration of veiled, ambiguous queerness works as a powerful destabilizing tactic.

Usually, the infiltrating temptress figure of Anglo-American folk tradition is demonized because she threatens the supposedly sacred heterosexual bond comprised of a stoic, desirable man (who is somehow also constantly helpless) and a guileless, maligned martyr-woman.  But in contemporary country radio, women are used as blank caricatures traded as tokens of pacification between men who are not fighting over her.  The man singing on country radio today is enacting a bizarro variation of poor white minstrelsy in which he promises that he does not believe he is oppressed by capitalism but is very, very happy with his ceaselessly circular labors, and offers a nice image of his “baby,” the infantilized, barefooted, tail-gate-dancing feminine attendant to the working class male listeners as proof.  They might note a briefly clothed gal and point out that they like it, or they might express gladness that there’s a girl in their truck next to them, but they don’t fight, ooze, yearn, or claw for them, or anything else.  They just kind of notice that things are there.

 

This smiling feminine figure, then, acts as an inducement for male listeners to likewise continue to obey their class position – and to do so by imitating the contemporaneously produced touchstones of pop-country gender.   Little Big Town re-casts the active participants in the triangle, shifts the boundaries and lengths of the female homosocial bonds, and forefronts the ambiguity of desire.   Doing so, they simultaneously threaten the code of early 21st century commercial country radio brainwashing and dance a timeworn routine of rhetorical subterfuge to maintain the safety and security of those bonds.  Their song, while at times interpreted as a threat, and at other times mis-interpreted with compulsive compulsory heterosexuality so subconsciously and faithfully asserted that no listener even notices when they automatically insert “he’s” in place of “you’s,” is still number one on the billboard charts.  Sly as ever, “Girl Crush” is at this moment informing its ever-complaining fans that now, “this”­ is apparently, at least some of the time, what “country” means.

While the bonds of shared feminine desire are obsessively cloaked, exposed, and cloaked again, male singers have long invoked tropes that reincorporate feminine bonds into male-led dream narratives, with nary a whispered accusation of inappropriate gay ideas.  In the sing-songy, 2005 wink-fest “As Good As I Once Was,” ham-headed self-caricature Toby Keith displays the bluntly divergent rules for female and male performers when he glibly alludes to what would usually be the most scandalously taboo topic in the United States: the incestuous sexual triad.  Of course, my point here cannot simply be to establish the fact that social rules for men and women are different.   But Toby Keith is deliberately and squarely portraying a similar sexual triad, which is unquestionably allowed, and we had therefore better enumerate its differences.

 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“As Good as I once Was[3]” functions like a tall tale – the masculine equivalent of melodrama[4] – in which the facts of fantastical occurrences are exaggerated to display manly qualities like strength, (white) punning, jokestery wit, and virility.  The thrust of the song plays off those ideas, and jokes that while Keith, or the speaker, may not be as good as he once was, as a young man, he’ll still be as good once as he ever was.  I’m easily won over by the slightest attempt at wordplay in country songs, so even this splat-faced, imperialist oaf almost had me.  But the first story he tells to establish his penis-driven man-abilities is one of the weirdest and bizarrely acceptable fantasies of western world-hood: the incestuous, two-twin-girl threeway.  Keith’s straightforward presentation of his ménage a trois lets us know immediately that this deal is above the board.  A man will have a boner, but the couple of gals will feel absolutely nothing – no need to fret.

 

Keith sings:

 

She said, “I’ve seen you in here before.”
I said, “I’ve been here a time or two.”
She said, “Hello, my
Name is Bobby Jo
Meet my twin sister Betty Lou
And we’re both feeling kinda wild tonight
And you’re the only cowboy in this place
And if you’re up for a rodeo
We’ll put a big Texas smile on
Your face”
I said, “Girls,”

I ain’t as good as I once was
I got a few years on me now
But there was a time back in my prime

When I could really lay it down
And if you need some love tonight
Then I might have just enough
I ain’t as good as I once was
But I’m as good once as I ever was

 

 

There’s an obvious, but undelivered joke very available: how does it matter that you’re as good “once” as you ever were, if you’re trying to get up on two sisters?  Ignoring the impossibility of double consummation according to the logic of the song, the trope that’s proposed here is common, but very unsettling.  We don’t have to go very far at all in the most accessible history of anthropology to notice that something we’re all, all supposed to be really weirded out by is incest.  And yet, the gross, creepy-uncle elbow-jab about hot sisters always specifies twin sisters – significantly.  If the idea of incest really is so viscerally disturbing to all people, then the only way this fantasy can be allowable is if we don’t understand or read any subjectivity or desire from the twin sisters’ perspectives.  They are cardboard, and the man involved gets a double fetish object.  No social boundaries are crossed if the incestuously conjured figures aren’t actually people.

Using the names “Bobby Jo and Betty Lou” does more work to erase and collapse the twins.  These names are like “Dick and Jane:” they’re archetypal pairs, and they only seem to work when delivered together.  It’s difficult to imagine meeting a “Bobby Jo” without looking slightly to the right and seeing a “Betty Lou” smiling identically at her side.  Bobby Jo introduces both sisters, merging their voices into one body – the boundaries of which immediately expand and stretch and mutate as her “I” perspective morphs seamlessly into a “we”.  “We’re feeling kind of wild tonight!” explains Toby Keith, re-narrating their words and co-opting the voice of the twins.  Feminine desire is not questioned or at stake in “As Good as I Once Was,” because its existence is an impossibility.  The country gender that Toby Keith invents and performs insists on the suspicion of such desire to the point of disbelief.  It takes the acceptance of an incestuous fable for granted, and doing so, pretends that the history of a joke like this is more real than an anthropological history that refutes it, and the quite easily imaginable long trajectory of women who have not ever good-naturedly chortled at such an obnoxious suggestion.

If Toby Keith speaks frankly to the point of ridiculousness, what happens when a female country star openly and outwardly accepts and states queer feminine subjective sexuality?   Kacey Musgraves did so with friendliness, openness and daring in her 2013 song “Follow Your Arrow.”  She wittily frames the double binds of appropriate social behavior and grazes over innuendos, observing that, “If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore, / if you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horr . . . ible person,” and “If you don’t go to church you’ll go to hell, / If you’re the first one in the front row you’re a self-righteous son-of-a -.”  After the litanies of cultural catch-22s, Musgraves throws up her hands and offers the solution to simply “Follow your arrow wherever it points.”  However, if pointing to the insistent contradictions expected of well-behaved country-folk, women, and anybody else compelled by her lyrics wasn’t dangerous enough for a Nashville artist, she includes the welcoming suggestions to:

Make lots of noise
kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls

If that’s something you’re into,
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t  . . .

 

And with that, Kacey joined the noble lineage of country women banned from the radio by the condemnation of powerful preachers and the sweating necklines of terrified executives.   Perhaps the word “joint” was a bit too much, but that reference is clearly dealt with quite easily in many other songs.  Or perhaps she made a cardinal mistake when she addressed the possibility that two individuals who are perceived to have matching sex chromosomes might kiss, acknowledged that there are standards of appropriate sexual behavior that apply to some people, but not others, noticed sexuality and the existence of unique desires, encouraged the notion that individuals have a right to control huge things that happen to their own bodies, and cheered those individuals who seek truth in personal ways and challenge traditions while they do so.  That was probably more likely the problem.

While mainstream radio might not currently reflect it, there are alternatives to those perceived traditions that Musgraves challenges.  In one history of country music, its roots are traced to the childhood memories carried over from the British Isles by poor women on boats, who worked on dirt floors and porches in Appalachian houses and sang songs to their daughters about the chances and the violences lurking in the shadows around their growing lives.   They collected pieces of songs on scrap fabric and stored it in bags, and eventually, Sara and Maybelle Carter sang on the radio with a guitar like nobody had ever done before, and warned young single girls in that laughing, but resonating way, that terrors might await around the corner[5].  Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton then left their smoky mountain homes and followed suit., and established a connective line between their history and a future of performers who would come after and shout and holler and smile, but not shy away from the spit in their tears[6].

 

Though that telling is brief, reductive, exclusionary, and limited, it’s not false, and it explains the vital existence of female homosocial bonds to any country music history.  The tradition of multi-generational song sharing was continued in the 1970s 1980s and 1990s by television specials showcasing women in country getting together and singing songs made by other women in country.   In 1995, Loretta Lynn had an entire TNN television show called “Loretta Lynn and Friends,” which was dedicated to Loretta Lynn inviting people she liked to come talk and sing with her in front of an audience.  On one episode, she chats with at-the-time new-comer Faith Hill, and then invites Brenda Lee up to sing trios of Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette standards.  They demonstrate affection for each other, saying, “you know I love her” and “I know you loved her, let’s sing one of her songs.”  They openly express tender, homosocial love – and that love is founded in their shared performances and an acknowledgment of a shared narrative history.

In 1988, at the 22nd annual Country Music Association Awards, another such performance instituted the significance of inter-generational bonds.  The not-yet-out, but eventually openly queer k.d. lang performed a joyous medley of “Honky Tonk Angels” with Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee.  They all appear to be having a ridiculously good time despite stumbling through some poorly planned dance routines.  While the older women are be-decked in the glory of late eighties, sequined Nashville gowns, lang dons her characteristic Tejano-inspired beaded mariachi jacket and high-waisted rock-a-billy pants.  lang is queer, hails from Alberta instead of Appalachia, and utilizes a mixture of musical styles in her work.  But their shared performances cement bonds and recreate relationships while noting and appreciating difference, instead of erasing it.   But moments of expressive affection and mutuality like this are currently harder to come by – and appear more surreptitiously in the lineage of banned radio songs than anywhere else.

 

The generational affection and bonds between contemporary male singers, however, are readily addressed, commonplace, and often empty or uninvited.  Notice the allusions to brothers-in-tradition in “Sun Daze,” Luke Bryan’s hat tip to Conway Twitty in “My Kind of Night,” and Chase Rice’s passionate declaration of ownership in “Country til I’m Dead:” “I love my Garth and old George Strait.”   It’s only appropriate for a man to declare his love for a man on country radio if that man is a dead combat veteran, or a sort of washed up, former country super star (sorry Garth).

 

Rice’s song keenly illustrates the performative function of the endlessly re-creating, self-reflective genre of class, and its institutive tool of country gender.  I am DEFINITELY country, says Rice.  I’m so country, that if I wasn’t country, I would literally be dead. Oh and in case you could not tell I will now stubbornly explain to you exactly what “country” is in a riotous, scattered chain of references: using live bait, being born and raised on a farm in Florida, a [Dale] Earnhardt tattoo, not including “Dale” in the song’s description of the tattoo, loving “Carolina chicks” and taking them to “the sticks,” holding on to country “roots,” pointing guns, sweet tea, American-made Chevy’s, having grease on your hands and mud on your boots, needing Jack D., and of course, loving the emblems of the past two generations of male power pop country performers, good old Garth and just old George.  Rice, along with others who endlessly explain exactly what they are and what it means in a song that’s supposedly speaking to people who are the same as them and ostensibly know what they do and like and don’t desperately need to hear a long list of desirable objects and beverages in order to identify their people in song, is constituting a new identity category.  That category is one that obliterates certain boundaries (region, desire, human qualities, hopes, thoughts, ideas, opinions) and hammers down other ones (heterosexuality, whiteness, misogyny).  One of the characteristics and clues of this new tradition is erasing the presence of women performers and writers from country music history.  They replace the meaningful homo-social bonds of song sharing, oral history, and advice with meaningless shout-outs that stack on top of one another to construct a towering mass of wobbling, blinding silence: the roar of pop country electric chorus hook-drops obliterate the masses of histories and lives around the crackling truck speakers.

The hidden, evasive queerness of feminine desire that shifts, smiles and vanishes in contemporary country music is echoed by the actual tangible production, availability, and material reality of women’s music that reflects real subjectivity, unrest, and desire.    The only thing that can destablilize the imperialist absorbing forces of the capitalist-hetero-gender-making radio machine is queerness – presented as queer in order to slip past the eyes of the censors.  However, in the scope of modern radio-scape, subtlety itself is queer: ambiguity of any kind is queer, deviance from a flat buffet of subject matter is queer, sounding not awful or being quiet or having a banjo-built chorus is queer.  The practice of deviating back and forth and around and in between the ambiguous address of desire – “I want your long blonde hair” – and a more blatant reference to homosexuality – “Kiss lots of girls” – when performed by women, already constantly suspect of deviation from the rules of the new country identity categories, does something different.  It reincorporates and institutes another kind of amorphous, shifting erotic triangle, invented through utterances, and unconstrained to time.  These triangles dance with daring and surreptitious rhetorical metis not only through a single, present moment in which a woman sings about another woman, but backwards into the past.

 

In the introduction to the American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress, Peggy Bugler writes on the value of not only preserving traditions for posterity, but sharing them with the people they belong to.  She claims that tales and songs from specific places provide great entertainment, but also great educations regarding the values and the people who shared them.   Bugler writes that remembering folk traditions and continuing to nod to them through modern song expands “not only the record of our national traditional artistry but also our cultural memory” (Bugler 16).  But a relentless sweep of insistent, performative nonsense rhetoric erases instead of builds.  It erases queerness, which is a category that could also subsume women, regions, non-whiteness, styles, stories, and good complicated stuff.   And it doesn’t only rob us of good music for our rush hour traffic or our drive out on East 22 now, it reaches into the past with blunt and shrouded paws, and gouges out a history of cultural memory, slams down a tailgate over its corpses, and blows kisses to all its former enemies.   But if we can learn to look at the past as if it were composed of these queer, rotating triangles of suggestion, desire, and deviation, we can re-construct a version of history with a different scale of time, a different sense of direction, different priorities, and different shapes.  We can see “Jolene” differently, but we can see the line from “Single Girl, Married Girl” to “Jolene” to “Follow your Arrow” differently, too.   We can re-shape a relationship to history that is productive, redemptive, and true, and also acknowledges its necessary lapses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Atkins, Rhett and Hayslip, Brett.  “When She Says Baby.” Night Train. Broken Bow, 2013.

 

Bufwack, Mary A. and Oermann, Robert K.  Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of

 

Women in Country Music.  Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1993.

 

Butler, Judith.  “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay

Theories. ed Diana Fuss.  New York: Routledge, 1991.

 

Clark, Brandy and Musgraves, Kacey.  “Follow Your Arrow.”  Same Trailer Different Park.

Mercury Nashville, 2013.

 

Emerick, Scotty and Keith, Toby.  “As Good as I Once Was.” Honkytonk University. 

Dreamworks, 2005.

 

Hubbard, Tyler and Kelley, Brian et. al.  “Sun Daze.” Anything Goes. Republic Nashville, 2014.

 

Hubbard, Tyler and Kelley, Brian et. al. “This is How We Roll.” Here’s to the Good Times.

Republic Nashville, 2014.

 

Lindahl, Carl, ed.  American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress. Vol. 1.

Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, in association with the Library of Congress, 2004.

 

Lindsay, Hilary, McKenna, Lori & Rose, Liz.  “Girl Crush.”  Pain Killer. Capitol

Nashville, 2014.

 

Miles, Emma Bell.  The Spirit of the Mountains.  New York: J. Pott, 1905.  Facsim.

Ed. Original.  U of Tennessee P, 1975.

 

Parton, Dolly.  “Jolene.”  Jolene. RCA Nashville, 1973.

 

Parton, Dolly.  “She Never Met a Man (She didn’t Like). Coat of Many Colors. RCA

Records, 1971.

 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles.” Between Men:

English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.  New York: Columbia UP, 1985.  1-27.

 

Young, Vershawn.  Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity.  Detroit:

Wayne State UP, 2007.

 

 

 

[1] See: Ira Dean’sSomething bout a Sunday,” Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” or Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I love about a Sunday,” which I first heard rather late at the Tin Lizzy Tavern in Eastern Nebraska, and then proceeded to enact the lyrics of the following day at my own Grandmother’s house.

[2] I’m attempting to force “gender” to reference multiple identity categories at a time while being primarily informed by a sexed-perspective, an attempt informed by my reading of Vershawn Young’s chapter “Nigga Gender” in Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity. 

[3] The title of the song itself is a misnomer.  It separates the predicate from the conclusion of the statement, leading the listener to invest in the fact that Toby Keith is, as good as he once was, which perhaps assumes a great generosity on the part of the listener for how good he may have been at his best.   If the listener is not especially generous, we are then asked to note that he is, according to his own song, incapable of functioning at even that paltry level.

[4] This is a claim that, notably, deserves defense and a greater space for attention than is possible in this investigation.

[5] Selected lyrics from “Single Girl, Married Girl,” an early Carter Family hit, read: “Single girl · single girl, go to store and buy, o go to store and buy / married girl, married girl, rock the cradle and cry, o rock the cradle and cry.”

[6] See Miles and Bufwack. 

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