I've been hypnotised by this article about country music and morality
, and the thesis of it is not as preposterous as it initially appears. If politics and music intertwine, and you accept that red-state in the United States is country, then I like to think of Tim McGraw as George W. Bush.
Think about it for a minute. George W Bush is, comparatively speaking, a charming man. He's straightforward - he weaves simple stories with the language of the everyman. You can disagree with the content, but the coating makes the pill go down for 50-odd million Americans, and rather than argue with the result, it would make more sense to understand the process. He's at his absolute best when he articulates (barely) the aspirations and beliefs - not just spiritual ones - of his constituents, because there's something guileless and uncoded about his method, which makes the message seem genuine. He's at his worst when he goes outside this; this can be in an attempt to step onto ground he's shaky on, or, particularly, to try to drag the resistant onto his territory.
Tim McGraw's a bit like that too. I'm thinking particularly about two of the singles from his "Live Like You Were Dying" LP. In the video for the title track, he's posed as a cowboy, except he's not wearing shoes. A romantic image, but brought into the zone of comfort - he sings to you from your television into your living room and he's going to look relaxed while he does it. He's got the home-spun wisdom down-pat, telling the story of a friend with a terminal disease who vows to live life to the fullest.
"Live Like You Were Dying" works brilliantly as a piece of pop-storytelling. It hits a particular nerve with me at the moment, having lost a family member to cancer this week, but even beyond that, there's something heartfelt and honest about it - and you can take the friend's steps - skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing - as literal or figurative and it doesn't make a difference. It's a great message, it's delivered sincerely and you can hum it while crying into your beard/beer, or whistle it while running with the wind in your hair. I've tried both, and it really works. It's in the grey middle ground between life or death - joy and sadness, whatever you want. It plays upon universal ideas about mortality, the desire for exhiliration as well as pricking a masculine-coded idea of mateship to get the grown men hugging each other and weeping on each other's shoulders in his corner as much as the sensitive gals of the red states.
"Drugs or Jesus" is a bit more problematic, and several orders of magnitude more heavy-handed. I won't deny that it's an effective whistle to the faithful, but for someone who's got an in to a series of other markets, there's trouble on the horizon.You are either with us, or you're against us."
- George W Bush.For anyone who sticks around you're either lost or you're found
- Tim McGraw.
No, this is less easy to digest. The roads lead to drugs or Jesus - presumably there's a fork in the roads somewhere for those that pick both, but this is the kind of black-and-white generalisation that rankles as much in pop discourse as it does in the political. It's exclusionary and judgmental no matter what performative spin McGraw tries to put on it, and the above quotations aren't even necessary to highlight the problems contained therein. Not that there's a spin here - the sombre, sober piano wouldn't allow it. Here, Tim McGraw has moved from what he's best at to what he, and some might say, his peers and his genre, are absolutely the worst at. A didactic on the verge of self-parody - is it sincere and true, or an excruciatingly well-aimed and well-timed jab at those things? - hard to sympathise with. The reason half the songs in any given chart at any given time are love songs of some kind is because they're the one tale that we all know - this might not outright condemn those on a different road, but it takes a muted delight in a false binary opposition.
Righteous preaching goes down a storm - or at least it must - in middle America, but it is poison overseas. Something like 80% of people in countries outside the United States disapprove of George W. Bush, yet he got a clear plurality of votes. Are citizens of the US so removed from the rest of the world that their brains are wired qualitatively differently in order that they approve of this, even if nobody else does?
I don't know. But we won't be talked down to. Uplift us with universal stories of the preciousness of life - we're up for it - but do it from our level, not a pedestal, Tim. Methinks hooking up with Nelly will be as fruitless as George Bush getting Three Doors Down to play at one of his fundraisers, at least as far as (p)reaching beyond the choir.