April 13 2017
Even for those who don’t care much about music—like me—the songs we hear are an important element of the culture that surrounds us. In recent years, most of what I have heard has been dictated by my oldest, tween-age daughter. She’s programmed all the top 40 pop music stations into our van’s radio, so I’ve been saturated in Adele, Pink, Taylor Swift, Katie Perry, Justin Bieber and a bunch of others whose names I don’t know, but whose songs I (sadly) could easily recite.
I try to pay close attention to the lyrics. Most pop stations seem to be good about policing songs for truly inappropriate content (like swearing and explicit sexual references), but I find myself constantly having to evaluate shades of gray. Many songs seem fine, but then include throw away allusions to casual sex and substance abuse. Flo Rida’s hit “My House” is mostly a harmless recitation of the benefits of staying at home for a party, rather than going out, but a few stanzas in, the song makes clear that this partying involves undressing:
Morning comes and you know that you wanna stay;
Close the blinds, let’s pretend that the time has changed;
Keep our clothes on the floor, open up champagne.
Others are far more explicitly sexual, like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” which starts with “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go,” and gets worse from there. Or Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” with its endless double entendres. I try to switch the station whenever anything seems over-the-line, but often end up just hoping that the worst of the lyrics went over my kids’ heads.
Now, I have a more permanent solution in mind. A few days ago, our family took a road trip and as soon as we left the Washington, D.C. area we found that our radio choices had shifted. Gone were the multitude of pop stations, and country music dominated instead. We listened. My oldest was pleasantly surprised by how much she liked the country songs (which she had assumed would be lame), but I was mostly struck by the complete difference in content and imagery the songs relied upon. Over several hours, there wasn’t one song that had me cringing or worrying about whether my kids were hearing something they shouldn’t.
In fact, most of the songs had explicitly positive messages: The singers sang about being grateful for what they have, appreciating their partners and aging together. There was a song about the need to treat women (including your mother) with respect; another Carrie Underwood song about a man who had hoped for a son, but had a daughter who became the center of his world. There were mentions of holding hands, husbands and wives, backyards, driveways, and prayers. I’m sure beer was in there too, but in the context of barbecues and good times in a way that seemed perfectly wholesome and reminiscent of an America that too much of pop culture scorns as fundamentally uncool.
Most of the country singers we heard on the radio were men, but their songs were overwhelmingly respectful and pro-woman. They didn’t fixate on women’s looks or evoke either over-the-top sexiness or antiquated ideas of femininity, but rather painted pictures of women as strong, full-of-life, complicated individuals. Take Dylan Scott’s “My Girl,” which could earn applause from women’s studies professors:
She looks so pretty with no makeup on
You should hear her talkin’ to her momma on phone
I love it when she raps to an Eminem song
That’s my girl
Man her eyes really drive me crazy
You should see her smile when she holds a baby
I can honestly say that she saved me
My girl, yeah
Urban feminists often assume that rural and southern areas are hotbeds of sexism, where women are treated with less respect than women in the enlightened north and coasts enjoy. Yet if the songs they produce are any indication, women receive far more respect in country music than is typical in rap, pop or house music.
I’m sure true aficionados of country can come up with counter examples of raunchy country songs that rival pop and rock in terms of kid-unfriendliness and mistreatment of women. Yet the impression left by a casual listener is that country music tends to highlight values you’d actually hope seep into your kid’s mind, rather than desperately hoping they’ll tune out.
Country music certainly isn’t perfect: I don’t think I heard a song that used the construction “It doesn’t,” rather consistently reinforcing the incorrect “it don’t” usage. But I’ll take bad grammar in a song about loving your wife over pop culture’s nihilism any day.