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“Country music is a form of therapy”: in the United States, how ideological war has found its way into music

Professor emeritus at the Paul-Valéry University of Montpellier, Claude Chastagner is a specialist in Anglo-American popular music.

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“Country music is a form of therapy”: in the United States, how ideological war has found its way into music

Professor emeritus at the Paul-Valéry University of Montpellier, Claude Chastagner is a specialist in Anglo-American popular music. In 2022, he published From barrios to bayous - Popular music and identity in the United States with Presses universitaire de Bordeaux.

LE FIGARO.- American country singer Oliver Anthony writes content with a high political content, even if he denies any partisan commitment. Is his success unprecedented in American musical history?

Claude CHASTAGNER.- In this style of music, his success is indeed unprecedented. The singer Dolly Parton had a dazzling success but here, the speed with which Oliver Anthony broke through is impressive, as the American press has already highlighted. Above all, his success does not concern a single song, namely Rich Men North of Richmond, but around fifteen, which entered the top 50 downloaded music last summer, which had never happened to a singer during his lifetime .

Is the highly political dimension of country music new?

It must be remembered that originally, music in the United States was never organized on a racial basis. Regardless of the region, even Louisiana or Appalachia, where slavery lasted longer, there were always cultural exchanges between slaves and their masters. This proximity between white and black cultures, despite the violence, continued after abolition. African-American musicians sang British and Irish repertoires while white musicians played blues.

It was from the appearance of recording technology in the 1920s that, for commercial reasons, specifically black music, race music, and white music, country and hillbilly, were produced. It was in these years that a dichotomy appeared between country and soul, blues etc.

Country music was subsequently used to reinforce racial and political differences, although today the political dimension remains complex. There are some of the most conservative, nationalist and even racist white musicians who borrow from rap and vice versa. There is also a phenomenon of recovery of country by a white, very masculine sociology which is found in traditional white music which exalts the roots. But conversely, there have been left-wing singers in the past, like Bob Dylan.

Oliver Anthony rightly regrets a bygone authenticity in his words. What is the divide that emerges behind the success of his songs?

His political positions are quite vague. But what is clear is this very American opposition between the modern and the ancient, between authentic tradition and the misguided modern world, made of vulgarities. There is also the other opposition between “us” and “them”. “Us” the poor, white, hard-working people, and “them” the rich and the politicians in Washington. A societal opposition that ignores the more usual criticisms against capitalism. We also find conspiratorial references, for example with the innuendo of a pedophilia network run by the powerful, which echoes the accusations made by the Qanon sect against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In this, Oliver Anthony differentiates himself from other singers who could also be described as populist, such as Bruce Springsteen, who denounced the development of predatory capitalism and the responsibility of large pharmaceutical companies in the opioid epidemic. There is something more visceral and less elaborate about Oliver Anthony, which speaks more to the people he is speaking to. That is to say Donald Trump's audience: people who think they don't have a voice and to whom the singer lends one.

We can still see implicitly a certain libertarianism, this movement of thought which refuses the control of the State and advocates total freedom for the individual. The singer also criticized the Welfare State, taking up the arguments of President Reagan who wanted to eliminate all social assistance in the 1980s. The real value, for him, is that of work.

The very refined style chosen by the singer to express this vision of the world is not insignificant...

It is true that this musical simplicity, with just a guitar and a voice, has something authentic, more real, simple, unlike other kinds of country which can sometimes be very rock, very electric.

Oliver Anthony speaks very intimately about his depression. It is more generally a fairly recent phenomenon. There is a trend in American music towards more frankness which does not only concern country. One of rapper Kendrick Lamar's biggest hits is a song about his mental problems. And for some current singers, and according to the slogan of the 1960s, the personal, the intimate, is political.

Can we compare the music of Oliver Anthony with other genres of traditional music such as Portuguese fado which carries in its texts and melodies the suffering of the human condition?

Yes, and we could also mention Greek rebetiko or even the blues. These genres, with folk, share a simplicity that has allowed people who have no education to express something intimate, with sadness, pain, exile and on the other hand expression of hope in a form of joy and liberation. As if music was a form of therapy.

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