Just over a year ago, the song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X was released, and it took the world by storm. The song lived at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for a record-breaking seventeen weeks, and it was on its way to the number one spot of the Hot Country chart when it was removed for its lack of adherence to the country genre, spurring discussion about what defines country music, and even what defines any one musical genre. This discussion was furthered with the release of a dance song called “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown, which actually did make it to the top of Billboard’s country charts. Critics were quick to call “racism” when these songs, both performed by black men, were labeled as anything less than conclusively and absolutely country.
I am left wondering what is so “country” about these songs, and why the motivation to make them part of the country canon is so strong. “Old Town Road” features some slightly twangy vocals, a small banjo sample that spends most of its time behind a trap beat, and lyrics that mention horses. “The Git Up” features agregiously and almost mockingly twangy vocals, and a lap steel, again punctuated by a trap beat. Neither of these songs feature either the instruments, sounds, or the storytelling that live in the heart of country music. To me, they are clearly pop songs with some country-like elements, not country songs with a new beat, as many claim them to be. The popular opinion seems to be that country music and other “dated” genres must embrace the more up-and-coming sounds in order to stay relevant. Others claim that keeping musical genres distinct from one another and preventing crossover limits musical advancement by forcing it into a box. Either way, blurring the lines between genres is widely believed to be a virtuous pursuit.
However, I believe that such blurring can ultimately be harmful to American music and the role that different genres play in culture. Country music has held a solid position at the center of the American soul because of how it synthesizes sounds from far-reaching corners of our country’s culture and history. The banjo originated in West Africa, but became popular when used in slave music, and it became an important part of the African-American musical identity for many years. The dobro guitar was invented in Los Angeles in the 1930s and has been a key part of many American genres. The pedal steel guitar originated in Hawaii in the 19th century. Although Hawaii didn’t join the Union until 1959, the incorporation of its culture into the culture of the continental US is evidence of our acceptance of it as a state. As America has unified these different cultures together into one under a certain set of values, country music has united these characteristic sounds into a final distinctively American product, which tells stories of regular people in its lyrics. Country music is a metaphorical representation of our collective identity as a nation.
If country music is ultimately a blend of sounds from American culture, then what is the problem with incorporating elements like trap beats and rap? Shouldn’t that be a step in a similar direction? The problem is that musical genres evoke certain emotions and memories and they address different audiences. Country music plays a nostalgic role as it recalls our nation’s history and draws attention to honest and real lifestyles rather than lifestyles of glamor and glory. Pop music, on the other hand, is usually about the biggest lifestyles imaginable, and it seeks to break some fundamental cultural foundations. Pop sounds have been permanently melded to this message, making them incompatible with country.
Because society is always so desperate to move forward, as the world falls into a pattern of entropy the longer it is around, people will be inclined to pop music. Once it gets ahold of our cultural bedrock, it will not let go until that bedrock is shattered. Many of the sounds unique to country music will fade if the center of the musical format shifts further in the “pop” direction, and we will eventually lose these more traditional sounds entirely. It used to be such that the most pop-like sound tolerated on country radio came from the likes of Taylor Swift in her early years. However, since we have allowed intrusions into the genre in the name of “progress”, this is no longer the case. As the goalposts shift to accomodate more pop-like sounds due to artists who are more eager to please than anything, the traditional sounds, instruments, and songs will no longer be tolerated by the industry, and they will cease to exist.
I concede that there are (few) merits to this moving of the goalposts. It has introduced an appreciation for country music into the mainstream, however small or distorted this appreciation may be. However, those fans of trap music who find themselves enjoying the sound of a banjo aren’t likely to investigate that sound further and develop an appreciation for Hank Williams and George Jones. Meanwhile, fans of classic country are disappointed with what passes as “country” these days, as they are forced to listen to “Old Town Road” while Randy Travis is left forgotten. Country music is not expanding–it is shifting and vanishing.
In the current year, there is a perception that updating or even shattering cultural foundations that have been around for ages in favor of some single soft amalgamation is a virtuous pursuit in itself, because it pleases the most people. However, as conservatives, we hold tight to the principle that something that is new is not an inherent good by itself. We strive to remember our roots and preserve culture, and though this idea applies to much more than music, I feel that there’s no better avenue through which to track culture than through the progression of music. If something holds value, then we would be remiss to allow it to change only to improve its marketability. We don’t do that with faith (or, at least, we shouldn’t be doing that with faith). We don’t completely dismantle the foundations of our political principles to be more likeable. Why should we allow music, being the significant cultural element that it is, to get bent out-of-shape?