Previously published in The Humanist, in Here and Now: Current Readings for Writers, in Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, Fifth Edition, in Reading to Write, and in The Norton Field Guide to Writing With Readings.
In all of popular music today, there are probably no two genres that are more apparently dissimilar than country-and-western and rap: the one rural, white, and southern; the other urban, black and identified with the two coasts (“New York style” versus “L.A. style”). Yet C&W and rap are surprisingly similar in many ways. In both C&W and rap, for example, lyrics are important. Both types of music tell stories, as do folk songs, and the story is much more than frosting for the rhythm and beat.
The ideologies espoused by these types of music are remarkably similar as well. We frequently stereotype country fans as simple-minded conservatives –”redneck,” moralistic super-patriots ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡ la Archie Bunker. But country music often speaks critically of mainstream American platitudes, especially in such highly charged areas as sexual morality, crime, and the Protestant work ethic.
The sexual ethos of C&W and rap are depressingly similar: the men of both genres are champion chauvinists. Country singer Hank Williams, Jr., declares he’s “Going Hunting Tonight,” but he doesn’t need a gun since he’s hunting the “she-cats” in a singles bar. Male rappers such as Ice-T, Ice Cube, and Snoop Doggy Dogg are stridently misogynist, with “bitches” and “hos” their trademark terms for half of humanity; their enthusiastic depiction of women raped and murdered are terrifying. Indeed, the sexism of rap group NWA (N—z with Attitude) reached a real-life nadir when one member of the group beat up a woman he thought “dissed” them — and was praised for his brutality by the other members.
On a happier note, both rap and C&W feature powerful female voices. Women rappers are strong, confident, and raunchy: “I want a man, not a boy/to approach me/Your lame game really insults me. . . . I’ve got to sit on my feet to come down to your level,” taunt lady rappers Entice and Barbie at Too Short in their duet/duel, “Don’t Fight the Feeling.” Likewise, Loretta Lynn rose to C&W fame with defiant songs like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath Tonight.”
Country music can be bluntly honest about the realities of sex and money — in sharp contrast to the “family values” rhetoric of the right. “Son of Hickory Hollow’s Tramp” by Johnny Darrell salutes a mother who works as a prostitute to support her children. “Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry (and, more recently, Reba McEntire) describes a poverty-stricken woman’s use of sex for survival and her rise to wealth on the ancient “gold mine.” Both tunes are unapologetic about the pragmatic coping strategies of their heroines.
More startling than the resemblances in their male sexism and “uppity” women are the parallels between C&W and rap in their treatment of criminality. Country-and-western music is very far from a rigid law-and-order mentality. The criminal’s life is celebrated for its excitement and clear-cut rewards — a seemingly promising alternative to the dull grind of day-to-day labor.
“Ain’t got no money/Ain’t got no job/Let’s find a place to rob,” sings a jaunty Ricky Van Shelton about a “Crime of Passion.” In “I Never Picked Cotton,” Roy Clark is more subdued but still unrepentant when he says: “I never picked cotton/like my mother did and my sister did and my brother did/And I’ll never die young/working in a coal mine like my daddy did.” Waylon Jennings’ “Good Ole Boys” boasts gleefully of having “hot-wired a city truck/turned it over in the mayor’s yard.”
Similarly, rap songs like “Gangsta, Gangsta” and “Dopeman” by NWA and “Drama” by Ice-T tell of the thrill and easy money offered by a life of crime. “Drama” records the dizzying high of the thief; “Gangsta, Gangsta,” the rush of adrenaline experienced by a murderer making a quick getaway.
Of course, both C&W and rap songs DO express the idea that, in the long run, crime doesn’t pay. The sad narrator of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” “turned 21 in prison/doing life without parole,” while the incarcerated thief of Ice-T’s “Drama” is forced to realize that “I wouldn’t be here if I’d fed my brain/Got knowledge from schoolbooks/’stead of street crooks/Now all I get is penitentiary hard looks.”
Though both C&W and rap narrators are often criminals, their attitudes toward law enforcement differ radically. The Irish Rovers’ “Wasn’t That a Party?” (“that little drag race down on Main Street/was just to see if the cops could run”) pokes light-hearted fun at the police, while the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” expresses the most common C&W attitude: an acceptance that criminals must be caught, even if you are one. Neither song displays any anger toward the police, who are, after all, just doing their jobs.
To rappers, on the other hand, cops are the enemy. Two of the most notorious rap songs are Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and NWA’s “F– tha Police” (which angrily asserts, “Some police think they have the authority to kill a minority”). Despite ample evidence of police brutality in the inner city, “F– tha Police” was almost certainly regarded by nonblack America as a paranoid shriek — until the world witnessed the infamous videotape of several of Los Angeles’ finest brutally beating Rodney King while a dozen other “peace officers” nonchalantly looked on.
Interestingly, although the C&W view of law enforcement naturally sits better with the general public (certainly with the police themselves), the fact remains that country-and-western music contains a good deal of crime, violence, and casual sex. Yet it is easily accepted while rap arouses alarm and calls for labeling. Why?
I believe there are three major reasons. The first, and simplest, is language. Rappers say “bitch,” “ho,” “f–,” and “m——”; C&W artists don’t. Country singers may say, “I’m in the mood to speak some French tonight” (Mary Chapin-Carpenter, “How Do”) or “There’s two kinds of cherries/and two kinds of fairies” (Merle Haggard, “My Own Kind of Hat”), but they avoid the bluntest Anglo-Saxon terms.
A second reason is race. African-Americans have a unique history of oppression in this country, and rap reflects the inner-city African-American experience. Then, too, whites expect angry, frightening messages from blacks — and listen for them. Many blacks, on the other hand, hope for uplifting messages — and are dismayed when black artists seem to encourage or glorify drug abuse and violence in their beleaguered communities. Thus, the focus on violence in rap — and the dismissal of same in C&W.
While the differing attitudes toward law enforcement are real enough, much of the difference between violence in country-and-western music and in rap lies not in the songs themselves but in the way they are heard. Thus, when Ice Cube says, “Let the suburbs see a n—a invasion/Point-blank, smoke the Caucasian,” many whites interpret it as an incitement to violence. But when Johnny Cash’s disgruntled factory worker in “Oney” crows, “Today’s the day old Oney gets his,” it’s merely a joke. Likewise, when Ice Cube raps, “I’ve got a shotgun and here’s the plot/Taking n—s out with the fire of buckshot: (“Gangsta, Gangsta”), he sends shudders through many African-Americans heartbroken by black-on-black violence; but when Johnny Cash sings of an equally nihilistic killing in “Folsom Prison Blues” — “Shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” — the public taps its feet and hums along. . . . It’s just a song, after all.
There is a third — and ironic — reason why rap is so widely attacked: rap is actually CLOSER to mainstream American economic ideology than country-and-western is. While C&W complains about the rough life of honest labor for poor and working-class people, rap ignores it almost entirely. “Work your fingers to the bone and what do you get?” asks Hoyt Axton in a satirical C&W song, then answers sardonically with its title: “Bony Fingers.” Likewise, Johnny Paycheck’s infamous “Take This Job and Shove It” is a blue-collar man’s bitter protest against the rough and repetitive nature of his life’s work. Work in C&W is hard and meaningless; it keeps one alive, but leaves the worker with little time or energy left to enjoy life.
Songs by female country singers reinforce this point in a different way; they insist that love (with sex) is more important than affluence. The heroine of Reba McEntire’s “Little Rock” says she’ll have to “slip [her wedding ring] off,” feeling no loyalty to the workaholic husband who “sure likes his money” but neglects his wife’s emotional and physical needs. Jeanne Pruett in “Back to Back” lampoons the trappings of wealth and proclaims, “I’d trade this mansion/for a run-down shack/and a man who don’t believe in sleeping back to back.”
Rap’s protagonists, on the other hand, are shrewd, materialistic, and rabidly ambitious — although the means to their successes are officially proscribed in our society. Not for them a “life that moves at a slower pace” (Alabama, “Down Home”); unlike the languorous hero of country-and-western, “catching these fish like they’re going out of style” (Hank Williams, Jr., “Country State of Mind”), rap singers and rap characters alike are imbued with the great American determination to GET AHEAD.
Rap’s protagonists — drug dealers, burglars, armed robbers, and “gangstas” — live in a society where success is “a fistful of jewelry” (Eazy E, “No More ?s”), “Motorola phones, Sony color TVs” (Ice-T, “Drama”), where “without a BMW you’re through” (NWA, “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”). In NWA’s “Dopeman,” sometimes cited as an anti-drug song, the “Dopeman” is the archetypal American entrepreneur: clever, organized, ruthless, and not ruled by impulse — “To be a dopeman you must qualify/Don’t get high off your own supply.”
The proximity of rap to our economic ethic arouses hostility because America is torn by a deep ideological contradiction: we proudly proclaim ourselves a moral nation and tout our capitalist system. But the reality of a flourishing capitalist economy is that it undermines conventional morality. A glance at the history books shows how our supposedly moral nation heaped rewards upon the aptly named “robber barons”: the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Morgans. The crack dealer is a contemporary version of the bootlegger — at least one of whom, Joe Kennedy, Sr., founded American’s most famous political dynasty. (Indeed, I would not be surprised if history repeated itself and the son — or daughter — of a drug lord becomes this country’s first African-American president.)
Capitalism is unparalleled in its ability to create goods and distribute services, but it is, like the hero of “Drama,” “blind to what’s wrong.” The only real criterion of a person’s worth becomes how much money she or he has — a successful crook is treated better than a poor, law-abiding failure.
In short, the laid-back anti-materialist of country-and-western can be dismissed with a shrug, but the rapper is attacked for that unforgivable sin: holding a mirror up to unpleasant truths. And one of them is that amoral ambition is as American as apple pie and the Saturday Night Special.