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Honorable Mention for the 2015 Woody Guthrie Award, International Association for the Study of Popular Music - US Branch
Anything but Country
Any judgement of the working class as negative (waste, excess, vulgar, unmodern, authentic, etc.) is an attempt by the middle-class to accrue value. That is what the representations of the working-class should be seen to be about; they have absolutely nothing to do with the working-class themselves, but are about the middle-class creating value for themselves in a myriad of ways, through distance, denigration and disgust as well as appropriation and affect of attribution.
Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture
There is a phrase I have heard on the first day of classes for the past decade, ever since-for ice breaking as much as informational purposes-I began asking my undergraduates, "What do you listen to?" Now, every semester, it issues from students of various sorts, a line so familiar as to be recognized by all, even when mumbled hurriedly by the shy and self-conscious: "Anything but country."
In discussions of popular music on campuses throughout the Midwest and in the Northeast, mid-South, and Deep South, college students have told me that this phrase prevails (it is the standard answer, one Alabama undergraduate attested) in response to questions about listening preferences-questions, as the students well know, that get at who one is and wants to be. The same "ABC" formula circulates off campus, too, among adults out in the world, when they are asked to declare their musical tastes. Indeed, across generational groups, country stands out as a music that Americans are often at pains to exclude in these culture-focused moments of social self-construction.
This chapter asks what is going on in such instances. Why is "Anything but country" such a common refrain? Who invokes it? What does it mean? And is it really about the music? My approach to these questions begins with an investigation of the meanings of country music-meanings not from inside the songs (the subject of chapter 2) but from outside. That is, I begin by examining the meanings that attach to country music as a cultural category and brand.
Country Music and the Phantom Hillbilly
Long heard as an affront by those targeted with it, the word hillbilly marks one as being from the country, originally, from Appalachia, and it bears connotations of ignorance and lack of sophistication. Notably, "hillbilly" was also for thirty years the standard industry label for the music now known as country. The music's name change to "country and western" in the 1950s recognized hillbilly's derogatory status, but it was not a complete image makeover. Country audiences are still associated with white working-class, provincial, and southern identities, as well as ignorance and, in recent decades, bigotry.
Bryson's 1996 empirical study yields perspective on the social meaning and function of country music in late capitalist U.S. society. The study confirms previous research finding that high-status individuals no longer brandish cultural capital by the means that reigned throughout most of the twentieth century-that is, narrow, exclusive involvement with classical music and "high" culture forms uncontaminated by mass culture. George Jones and Tammy Wynette's couplet "Our Bach and Tch'ikowsky / Is Haggard and Husky" stands as a relic of that defunct cultural order, serving in "(We're Not) the Jet Set" (#15 1974) as one musical metric among others-of geography, transport, food, society-that gauged the distance between the exclusive "jet set" and the less distinguished regular folk. By contrast, in the current cultural system (solidified since the 1980s), entitled middle-class subjects wield multicultural capital through knowledge and engagement in a broad range of global musics-deploying them as "potential ingredients in a singular and singularly distinctive cultural mix . . . [that] signals a high level of educational attainment, untrammeled access to cultural goods, and command over the time and resources necessary to master a variety of social and aesthetic codes." As I mentioned above, the new system of distinction-by-inclusion depends on crucial exclusions. The "cultural omnivores" in Bryson's study expressly excluded the categories of music associated with the least educated audiences, including country (published research identified country audiences as lacking in education and occupational status as early as 1975). In the light of her findings, a taste declaration like "Anything but country" appears first and foremost as a gesture of social exclusion. Musical exclusion is secondary, a vehicle and symptom.
And so, a half-century after shedding the "hillbilly" designation, country music continues to trail a phantom hillbilly. Country's cultural meaning remains tethered to the image of a certain kind of social subject. It is a figure stigmatized by ignorance and constitutive-by its exclusion-of middle-class status and entitlement. The racial and class (and sometimes geographic) designation "hillbilly" is one sign under which this figure is known. There are others, as we shall see.
"Unafraid to Get Political": Foo Fighters in Jed-Face
In the waning days of summer 2011, Foo Fighters, a celebrated, long-established alternative rock band fronted by Nirvana veteran Dave Grohl, released a video to promote and kick off a North American tour. Their tour promotion video "Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)" consists of two main scenes, both set in a truck stop. The first scene takes place in the truck stop diner, where the band's "faux country" song "Keep It Clean" plays on the P.A. system.The song is a broad parody of country music, sung in a voice as close to bass-baritone as Grohl can manage-with a phony drawl, references to "Momma" and "Daddy," steel guitar flourishes, and other musical and linguistic markers that signal country, southern, redneck, and hillbilly tropes in popular culture.
"Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)" weds sonic and visual parody to a mash-up of hillbilly, cowboy, and redneck identity. The video features band members costumed as "redneck truckers," according to the gay news site the Advocate. Alternately, they are "hillbilly cowboys," by Huffington Post's account. Using still another term to describe the costuming, the music magazine Spin invoked the slur white trash. In fact, it is impossible to untangle redneck, trucker, poor white, hillbilly, cowboy, and country music images in the video. And that is consistent with the way these images circulate in American culture, in a muddled blur of stereotypes that also at times includes fundamentalist Christian, racist, and homophobic elements as markers of provincial white working-class identity. My own label for the band's performance practice here borrows the name of Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies, combines it with the concept of blackface minstrelsy, and designates Foo Fighters' production as an instance of Jed-face (figure 2).
Scene 2 of the video takes place in the men's shower room of the truck stop. Leading into this is a transition from the diner scene that pivots on a sight gag. The group is sitting at the counter over plates of disgusting food, irritating the waitress and jiggling a bowl of urine-colored Jell-O, when one guy's shower reservation number is called. At this-and here is the gag-all four stand up and set out for the shower, in orderly single file and without a word. On their way in, they pass a self-service hot dog stand with a compartment labeled "Hot Buns." The camera lingers meaningfully, drawing out the question hereby implied: are these hillbilly truckers kinky or simply accustomed to shared bathwater?
In its dramatic change of look and sound, the shower room immediately suggests an answer. Several techniques conspire to create a cheesy porn effect. Camera work consists mainly of close-ups and slow motion, speaking voices have vanished, and the music now originates from outside the scene of action (i.e., is extradiegetic). Stylistically, faux country has given way to quasi-disco. The song is "Body Language" by Queen, and the white-tiled shower room recalls the setting of that song's polymorphously steamy 1982 video. Onscreen action here, by contrast, consists of "kinky" erotics played for laughs, with another splash of potty humor. Foo Fighters, drenched and naked, are still wearing their hillbilly drag, trucker caps, and cowboy boots (figure 3). It is a goofy, stagey "gay" enactment that works to reassure you that its enactors are anything but. This is a gay shower scene that might have been written by junior high school boys, and it seems telling that, on YouTube, the censored, underage audience video registered nearly double the viewings of the uncensored version that is off-limits to many younger viewers.
A couple of weeks after the release of their video, Foo Fighters were scheduled to play Kansas City, and Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church from nearby Topeka announced plans to picket the concert venue. The congregation is infamous for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, among other events, while carrying signs with messages like "God Hates Fags." In recent years they began picketing military funerals, wielding antigay and anti-U.S. slogans, including "Thank God for IEDs," referring to the improvised explosive devices that caused thousands of American military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics see Phelps and the WBC as attention seekers who are better ignored than counterprotested. Foo Fighters, however, saw the opportunity to get back into their hillbilly-trucker getup and play "Keep It Clean." This was an excellent move for purposes of their own attention seeking-the reason for their video in the first place.
The day after Foo Fighters' performance on the streets of Kansas City, they posted a video of it, and the new video went viral. Widespread online media coverage from Huffington Post to the Washington Post and from Spin to the Advocate greatly expanded publicity for the band's tour. Surprisingly, it also depicted Foo Fighters as the newest champions of "tolerance" and as artists "unafraid to get political." The Advocate observed that the WBC picketers "at first seemed unaware the band was making fun of them." But the Advocate, billed as the oldest continuous LGBT publication in the United States, seemed in turn unaware that the band was making fun of them. As I discussed above, the whole song, and the video, is an extended gay joke. So how could a gay magazine and dozens of other media sources miss this fact in depicting Foo Fighters as righteous heroes of gay solidarity?
One answer is Jed-face. A tired and by now dicey (in public) gay joke is given new life, and its homophobia refigured as political progressivism, thanks to a hillbilly/trucker/country music joke. Foo Fighters' Jed-face in this song and video taps the stereotype of the oversexed and perverse poor white/hillbilly that surfaces in Tobacco Road, Deliverance, and other cultural instances, which one scholar has dubbed the "priapic [i.e., always erect] hillbilly." The band's hillbilly/country/trucker persona allowed them to act out homosexual and scatological fantasies with impunity in the comic guise of a depraved other. In the process, they even won praise in the liberal and gay media for their "tolerance" and political courage.
Some observers identified with the rural working class were less enthusiastic. YouTube comments underscore the offensiveness of Foo Fighters' Kansas City hillbilly-drag performance. A viewer who signs as truckdawg43 wrote, "The one thing I hate more then WBC is some assclowns coming in acting like they are rural and gonna tell us poor simple folk how to live. . . . They could have done it just the way they are without the drag on rural folk and shined their asses at em and then I would have given em a big hell yeah [sic]." Here, to hate the Westboro Baptist Church is to hate being lumped together with them in Foo Fighters' broad-brush travesty that, as the commenter attests, destroys prospects for progressive political solidarity.
What cultural logic is at work in Foo Fighters' performances and their celebratory receptions? It is a logic that links "hillbilly" and "pervert," the result of which is caricatured here for laughs (in Deliverance, the same hillbilly pervert figure carries a menacing charge). At the same time, it is a logic in which "gay" and "country" figure as opposites-and so their collision also plays for laughs (on stage in Kansas City, Grohl underscored the gag, juxtaposing gay icon Lady Gaga with country trio Lady Antebellum to illustrate his assertion that "it takes all kinds"). It is a logic of Good Whites versus Bad Whites, in which Foo Fighters score points for the good, enlightened, metropolitan whites by comically impersonating and facing off with bad, benighted, backwater whites. And it is a logic of fighting hillbilly with hillbilly, in which WBC's fundamentalist hillbilly is bested by Foo Fighters' hypersexual hillbilly and in which mockery of poor and working-class people is simultaneously a mockery of gay people but can be read as a victory for tolerance, because it reaffirms that the real bigots and homophobes are redneck/hillbilly/country music lovers.
The Use of Country Music in Queers v. Boone v. Queers
Another summoning of country music to signify homophobia surfaces in a mass communication from a national LGBT advocacy organization to its constituency. Occupying center stage in this story is the unlikely figure of Pat Boone. The singer ascended to fame at the dawn of the rock 'n' roll era with his wholesome act and vanilla renditions of R&B songs, including Little Richard Penniman's "Tutti Frutti" in 1955 and "Long Tall Sally," which Penniman cowrote the following year in the express hope that Boone would not sing it. In Boone's hands, hot songs were cooled and hip songs squared. Rhythms lost their syncopation, vocals dropped blue notes and inflection, clever double entendre lyrics were reworked into bland twaddle. But Boone, a white artist, often sold more records with his insipid crooner covers than the African American musicians who originated the songs, and his record sales during the late fifties were second only to Elvis Presley's. Like Presley, he starred in Hollywood films (a dozen of them) and, later, television shows. In the seventies, Boone turned to southern gospel and was eventually inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2003). In 1997, at the age of sixty-three, the outspoken conservative and born-again Pentecostal Christian even released an album of heavy metal covers performed in big band style, which he promoted with an appearance at the American Music Awards in leather fetish wear including a studded dog collar-all of which briefly put him back on the talk show circuit and the Billboard charts (albeit the far reaches) and got him temporarily fired from his Christian television gig. Clearly, there are lots of things you could call Pat Boone. "Country singer," however, is not one of them.
Yet that is how he was identified by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a lobbying and advocacy group that describes itself as America's "largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization." "Country singer and right-wing pundit" served as the opening grab phrase of a December 2008 e-mail blast from HRC, an upmarket, establishment outfit by reputation, which, characteristically, solicited member donations by relaying news of a purportedly urgent threat to LGBT people and their rights. Here, the threat was inflammatory homophobic rhetoric from Boone, newly published on a right-wing blog. In the wake of protests over California voters' passage of Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage and, elsewhere, deadly terror attacks in Mumbai, Boone forged an outrageous equation between the peaceful protesters and the bloody terrorists. HRC, for its part, seized the opportunity for fund-raising. And in its effort to present Boone as the kind of figure LGBT rights supporters would want to oppose materially, the group called him a country singer.
Perhaps HRC knowingly took license, linking Boone to country music in hopes of pumping up donations, or perhaps the error was accidental. At the very least, HRC was guilty of unfounded assumptions and gross lack of fact checking. Even on the offending blog, Boone's blurb line clearly labeled him "a top-selling recording artist" during the "rock & roll era." In any case, whether conscious or inadvertent, HRC's error is suggestive. If its misidentification was accidental, then the e-mail suggests that HRC assumed some special linkage between right-wing homophobia and country music, over against other musical styles; it suggests that the organization, in the absence of knowledge about Boone, presumed the sexually bigoted singer came from the country music world. Alternately, if HRC knowingly misidentified Boone, it might suggest that the group expected its membership to be more galvanized by an appeal against a right-wing country singer's homophobic rant than one by a right-wing rock 'n' roller.
Whether HRC assumed a false connection between homophobia and country music or knowingly imposed the connection, the instance points to a notion that underlies a variety of cultural representations: that LGBTQ people and culture are incommensurable with country music and its culture. Country music is conventionally associated with heterosexual white, provincial, working-class, southern, and midwestern identities and cultures, and with redneck personas. LGBTQ identity is imagined especially in terms of gay men, who in turn are linked to metropolitan, bourgeois, coastal lifestyles. In the dominant middle-class perspective, rednecks and queers are thought to occupy opposite ends of various political, social, and cultural spectrums. Further, as HRC's mass communiqué may suggest, country music has also become linked to homophobia. The "country music" entry at glbtq, an online encyclopedia of LGBTQ culture, notes queer objections to the music on the grounds that "country speaks to a straight, conservative, white society and that many fans of country music are homophobic and racist." Country music and its constituents are coded in culture as not only conceptually opposite, but ideologically opposed to the queer.
The Stakes of Representation
Why do representations like those of Foo Fighters and HRC matter? The reason is that such representations play a pivotal role in the making of social inequality. To investigate how this works, we must establish some cultural and historical context.
Since the early twentieth century, knowledge workers-the "intellectuals" in a broad sense of the word-have grown as a proportion of the American workforce. At the same time, the specialized, "objective" knowledge they possess has gained central importance in the culture-a shift that has accelerated since the 1990s with the rise of the Internet, the 24/7 news cycle, and a global explosion of media and communication technology. By the end of the twentieth century, the United States was moving from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. The prime commodity in the new economy is not agricultural or industrial goods but knowledge. One's socioeconomic status in a global landscape now depends on creating and controlling this commodity.
In the years since World War II, America's knowledge class, the upper middle class, has grown from 2 to 3 percent of the population to a mass grouping expected to comprise about 33 percent of the population by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030. Typified by professionals with a postgraduate education and managers with a bachelor's degree, the upper middle class is also labeled the professional-managerial class. The white working class, meanwhile, which comprised the majority of the American population after World War II, has been shrinking in recent decades. Members of the working class have a high school education, maybe some college, and are employed in service jobs or manual labor. The upper middle class, while growing, has also been consolidating-its members marrying partners with high levels of education like their own and living in affluent neighborhoods among people like themselves.
In fact, between 1970 and 2007 (thus even before the 2008 economic downturn), U.S. metropolitan areas showed a dramatic increase in residential income segregation at both ends of the income spectrum-though the affluent (including the upper middle class) are more segregated than the poor. The rise in residential income segregation paralleled the equally dramatic rise in income inequality in America, and it serves to exacerbate its effects: researchers note that income-segregated neighborhoods magnify social, economic, and physical advantages for high-income families and magnify disadvantages in the same realms for low-income families. The cultural sociologist Michèle Lamont highlights another implication. She notes the increasing isolation of the upper middle class and hence the difficulty for the educated class "to see how distinctive their particular understandings of the world are." Lamont worries, in other words, that having little acquaintance with people from different walks of life might allow the upper middle class to universalize its own worldview, falsely.
Evidence suggests that there is indeed reason to worry about this. Undoubtedly we have cause to worry, too, about the particular implications of social isolation and distorted vision within this group. After all, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes, "ideas are simply part of the business" of the professional middle class (PMC), which includes the "journalists, academics, writers, and commentators" who "are paid to provide the 'spin,' the verbal wrap . . . that gives coherence to events or serves to justify [social and political] arrangements." And how does the distinctive, perhaps even insular, perspective of middle-class news and entertainment media professionals affect white working-class people, the kind associated with country music? Judging by the annals of America's so-called culture wars, the answer is, very badly.
For a generation we have been told that we live in a country polarized by culturewars-that Americans are bitterly divided by ideology, particularly in their stances on sexuality, morality, and religion. The term culture wars made a prominent appearance in 1991 as the title of a book by the sociologist and religious scholar James Davison Hunter, who mapped "new lines of cultural warfare" in terms of a polarizing "political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding," which he identified as "orthodox" versus "progressive." Since then, countless politicians' and pundits' statements and media features have embroidered on the theme, and it has been advanced in several of the biggest political and pop sociological books of the period, including the 2000 best seller Bobos in Paradise, by the conservative pundit and current New York Times columnist David Brooks. Culture wars chatter is still with us, though it may have peaked in the 2004 election year. That year we heard much about "latte liberals" and "NASCAR dads," red- or blue-state status was offered as the explanation for every tendency and taste imaginable, and some pivotal new culture wars volumes appeared.
Possibly the most famous and influential of these was left-leaning author and journalist Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004). Frank argued that the white working-class had been led over the previous twenty years into "backlash" voting against their own health, safety, and economic interests by a Republican Party that persuaded them to place "cultural issues" like minority rights, gun control, abortion, and gay marriage (all of which, by this account, they fervently oppose) ahead of their own economic interest and material well-being.Frank's argument still surfaces daily as an explanation for the supposedly irrational political and civic actions of America's white working class generally, who spoil things for themselves and the rest of us (his book was marketed internationally as What's the Matter with America?).
Three examples, arising within a few weeks of each other in late 2011, illustrate characteristic ways in which the Kansas thesis continues to surface in public discourse, years after the appearance of Frank's best-selling book. These examples come from the New York Times, long regarded as the national newspaper of record, and today the U.S. newspaper with the highest on-line readership. The Times is particularly useful for present purposes, because its website publishes readers' comments on certain columns and articles and tallies fellow readers' recommendations, yielding a readers' ranking of readers' comments. I selected the following examples by an admittedly unscientific method, flagging a trio of comments that seemed representative of current summonings of the Kansas thesis as observed in my daily newspaper reading. It is striking that each of these Kansas-flavored comments climbed to near the top of the rankings in the hours and days following their initial publication. The examples suggest that Times readers are familiar with Frank's 2004 argument, are persuaded by it, and continue to apply it not only as an explanation for the problems of the U.S. white working class-who, by Frank's account, have been hoist with their own petard-but also as an explanation for the economic and social problems of the nation at large (I encountered similar comments on other online media boards, but they did not provide rankings and are omitted here).
The first example is a comment on an unsigned Times editorial titled "The New Resentment of the Poor," criticizing congressional Republicans' proposal to raise taxes on the poor and the working class at a time when the ranks of poor Americans were growing. The reader wrote:
You have to wonder why these poor people in Kansas and others keep voting Republicans. They must think higher tax for themselves is a fair price for preventing gays from getting married or the evolution from being taught in the public schools. [sic]
Notably, the editorial inspiring this comment contained no mention of Kansas, gay marriage, or teaching evolution. It mentioned poor people, but sympathetically, as targets for unjust tax increases and not as voters, Republican or otherwise. The comment at first glance might therefore seem a non sequitur, and surely it would be incomprehensible to any reader unversed in what is clearly the backstory, Frank's Kansas thesis. But Times readers evidently grasped the comment's references, and they emphatically endorsed its message. It ranked in the top 3 percent of comments on this editorial, nineteenth out of 593. It is hard to miss the irony of such a result, which suggests a remarkable unanimity of resentment toward the lower classes among Times readers and the Republican legislators condemned by the editorial, which was very popular with those same readers.
Three weeks later, the New York Times published an article titled "In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious." It was a report on small-town and rural social disruptions sparked by anonymous postings on Topix, a social media website that hosts local forums. One reader responded:
The sad thing is that these are the people who vote Republican. . . . easily manipulated to vote against their own self-interestbecause they don't understand economics, don't read national or international news, and don't have educational opportunities. As the author said, "What IS the matter with Kansas?" Well . . . now we know. (Ellipses and emphasis in original.)
There is no mention of Kansas or of party politics in the Times article, which examines the effects of anonymous online smears in communities where anonymity is scarce (smears that could be coming from anywhere on the Internet, as some commenters pointed out). Once again, the comment-and its reference to "the author," meaning here not the Times reporter but Frank-might seem to arise out of the blue. But clearly it did not seem that way to Times readers. They ranked it in the top 1 percent of comments, third out of 245.
Less than three weeks after this instance, the Times op-edcolumnist and blogger and Princeton economist Paul Krugman published a piece titled "Panic of the Plutocrats," discussing what he called the "hysteria" of economic elites and their apologists over the Occupy Wall Street protest against economic injustice. A reader wrote:
I can understand why the cosy CNBC crowd reacts with venom, but what I do not comprehend is how they manage to convince working class folks to join them in sustaining a rigged system that hurts ordinary working people. . . . . I guess there's always a chicken willing to vote for KFC. [sic] (Ellipses in original.)
The comment's opening picks up on a reference by Krugman to cable network CNBC's "talking heads" and their overreactions to the protest. This tie-in serves to launch another mustering of false-consciousness charges against the working class-which Krugman's column, displaying clear popular sympathies, in no way suggests (in fact, Krugman's Times column and blog have often refuted the notions on which Frank's Kansas thesis rests). The commenter here does not cite "moral voting" issues or Kansas but does invoke as hard fact the image of a working class manipulated into opposing its own material interests. Again Times readers piled on to recommend the Kansas-style explanation of America's ills, placing this comment in the top 1 percent of its group, ninth out of 603.
Though one would scarcely guess it from New York Times readers' comments, the Kansas thesis has been credibly debunked on multiple occasions, starting as early as Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, and Jeremy Pope's Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (2004). Fiorina, a Stanford political scientist and Hoover Institution fellow, refuted the Kansas thesis with polling data showing that the majority of American voters are actually moderate and tolerant, not ideological, and are concerned primarily with leadership and security, not moral values. Further refutation of Frank came from the Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels's 2006 review article, "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?," and from Andrew Gelman's 2008 book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. Bartels shows, among other things, that white working-class voters in 2004 were focused on economic more than cultural questions, no less than they were twenty years earlier (a 1984 study by Jerome Himmelstein and James McRae had already argued that "New Republicans" who switched parties to vote for Reagan in 1980 were not, in fact, disproportionately lower to middle class, socially conservative, more religious, or angrier at government).
Gelman, a statistician and political scientist at Columbia University, pores over data showing that individual lower-income voters nowadays go for Democrats and individual rich voters for Republicans, just as they have for decades. For various reasons, rich versus poor voter patterning breaks down at the state level and indeed is already fuzzy at the county level-except in the places where national media outlets are located: metropolitan New York and Washington, DC; Los Angeles and San Francisco. In these areas, upper-income voters are unpredictable: so many of them vote Democratic that they create a new, reverse pattern whereby rich counties are more likely than poor counties to support Democrats. The phenomenon of rich counties displaying more liberal voting patterns is the essential basis for the stories told in Bobos in Paradise, What's the Matter with Kansas?, and other culture wars accounts by both liberal and conservative national journalists. Gelman shows, however, that this voting phenomenon is concentrated in the states where the journalists live.Thus it seems that national commentators have mistaken their particular coastal, major metropolitan locales for the United States overall. Such foreshortened perspective is called parochialism-at least when the accusation falls on residents of small towns or so-called fly-over states. Not surprisingly, the media commentators' error has been resonant. After all, they are the people who interpret the nation and explain us to ourselves, with tremendous authority and influence.
Distortions like this one result from what cognitive scientists call availability bias, that is, generalizing on the basis of the nearest available information. But the journalist and blogger Ezra Klein sees more going on here. He points out that this bias is also "quite convenient" from a career perspective. Rather than being punished for their neglect of fact checking, journalists, editors, and producers rise swiftly through the ranks for promoting the narratives already known and understood in the profession. Frank and other journalists have access to the same exit polls Gelman used and could have consulted them, but they reap career rewards for playing to a professional bias toward familiar, favored story lines. Fiorinapoints to another, supremely powerful bias, the media appeal of controversy-here, spectacular headlines declaring "national polarity." Indeed, Frank's story of white working-class America going Republican offers what may be the most salable story form in the contemporary U.S. media marketplace: it turns conventional wisdom (poor voters support Democrats; rich voters, Republicans) on its ear.
We might further note that class bias facilitates each of the other biases and that the low power and status of the white working class relax the stakes of whether one's news stories about this group are watertight. This point may remind us that media consumers also play a role in determining which narratives come to the fore, by reading and viewing critically-or not. Significantly, the New York Times has published articles citing and sometimes written by Bartels, Fiorina, Gelman, and others who contest the Kansas thesis and related culture wars arguments. By all indications, reader response to these items has been muted. The arguments have not enjoyed an influence comparable to that of Frank's Kansas account, as gauged by rankings of articles most e-mailed and most blogged and by readers' comments.
Interestingly, the three data-driven rebuttals of Frank cited here share one finding in common. All three find that there is indeed a sector of American society that has since the 1980s become vehemently, ideologically intent on "cultural issues." It is not the white working class who have grown rigidly ideological but social and political "elites"-"better-educated white voters" and the political elites of both parties. Why, then, would these middle- and upper-middle-class traits get pinned on the white working class? There can be no single simple answer to this question, but it hints at a related question, and at least a partial answer. When was the last time you saw or heard a working-class media commentator, editor, or producer?
In both entertainment and news media, representation of the white working class, when it is not scarce, is generally reductive, offering a simple, untextured, often stereotyped portrait. For example, media sources in 2004 reported on a constituency newly dubbed "NASCAR dads." Amid all the complexities and uncertainties of the election season, including various swing constituencies deemed unpredictable, audiences were assured that this group could be counted on to speak with one voice-indeed, they seemed to share a brain. Time and again we heard that George W. Bush had these white male NASCAR types securely in his pocket. And so when Bush made an appearance at the annual Daytona race, reams of mutually parroting coverage depicted a jubilant reception. Readers had to depart the beaten path of media chatter to find any perspective that contradicted or even complicated that story (figure 4). One account that did so was by a youthful African American journalism intern, Matt Thompson, who reported from the Daytona stands that NASCAR fans expressed a divergent range of views on the incumbent president. Thompson further reported, by dramatic contrast to the prevailing media chorus, that race fans heckled Bush's presidential motorcade and greeted it with a gesture sometimes referred to as the redneck salute. "One middle finger went up in the crowd, then another, and soon they were everywhere," Thompson wrote.
The expanding ranks of media and academic commentators alike are members of the professional middle class, positioned to represent its interests and perspectives while also representing those of the upper class. In modern capitalism, managers and professionals serve as intermediaries between capital and labor. Their job is often to "conceptualize . . . what others must do" and, on behalf of the ruling-class owners, to command those who do the labor. The professional-managerial class is thus situated antagonistically vis-à-vis the working class-a point registered clearly in many country songs. As outsiders to the working class, the professional-managerial class lacks knowledge of working-class worlds and lifeways, especially given that their own middle-class world dominates the culture at large, in which middle-class existence is "silently marked as normal and desirable." Nevertheless, the professional middle class are the narrators of working-class life and reality, because they are the narrating class: the analysts and experts, the language, representation, and knowledge specialists for the whole society. Cultural representations of the working class therefore reflect the (purportedly neutral) viewpoint of the middle class-whose identity and privilege depend precisely on its distinction from the working class. In media, institutional, and professional contexts, members of the middle class speak of and for the working class, acting, officially and with authority, as interpreters of the class other. But why would middle-class commentators be charged with representing a group of which they are not members and on which they may have little perspective?
One reason is that middle-class professionals are sanctioned in their authority and expertise, and their observations and assessments bear the marks of legitimacy. Another is that class cultures are not acknowledged as such. As Fox observes, for Americans, class cultures are "not wholly other" and do not "exist in relative independence . . . in the same sense as 'other' cultures do." The view described here contrasts with that of Bourdieu, who stresses that neighbors inhabiting different class realms may "be more remote than strangers." It contrasts, too, with the anthropologist and political theorist James C. Scott's vision of the classes as so segregated and mutually opaque as to warrant the term class apartheid. Ironically, this very segregation and opacity allows middle-class people to presume that they understand the working class. After all, it takes a modicum of knowledge to recognize the extent of one's ignorance in any sphere. But there is a further notion at work here, an assumption of transparency in one's social inferiors. The British sociologist Stephanie Lawler points out (citing Gayatri Spivak) that working-class people, as the other, are assumed to be knowable by the middle class. This situation may help to explain the resonance of a line made famous by Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens in their Tejano-flavored duet, "Streets of Bakersfield" (#1 1988). The song opens with a pair of back-to-back verses, after which the instruments drop out for a full bar to frame the arrival of the chorus. Yoakam and Owens enter climactically in a cappellaharmony, singing, "You don't know me, but you don't like me."
The Trouble with Country
As a popular-media source of alternative, working-class perspectives, country music is a rarity. But country is frequently condemned as phony, disingenuous, and inauthentic by music critics and cultural commentators. The following pair of examples illustrate characteristic critiques from sources on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. The first example comes from an opinion column by the author and journalist Mark Judge for the high-profile conservative news website the Daily Caller:
It's time to abolish country music. Just ban it outright. It has become a toxin in American culture, retarding the cerebellum of the body politic. . . . Modern country music is the phoniest music in the world. . . . What is most noticeable [in country] is the deep resentment.
Judge pathologizes country music in terms of cultural toxicity and civic cerebral retardation. He levels a phoniness charge at country and rails against its "deep resentment"-which he depicts as real, not phony.
Comparable in many ways is this excerpt from a music column by the Los Angeles indie musician, underground music critic, and Acid Logic e-zine publisher Wil Forbis:
Like most decent Americans,I've never been a big fan of country music. It's always struck me as musically dull, lyrically trite, overly obsessed with its own themes and disingenuously traditional,as if writing songs about hopping trains in 2005 (or 1995 or 1985) is somehow relevant in some metaphorical way to the present human condition. Too many country artists . . . [reject] any appearance of modernity as if it were a mail pouch of poisoned chaw.
This passage might be read as a personalized "Anything but country" declaration, inscribed with the author's particular country music pet peeves. But in fact Forbis's inventory of faults in country-"musically dull, lyrically trite, overly obsessed with its own themes and disingenuously traditional"-is quite typical of country critiques from nonfans. It overlaps with a litany launched by Judge at one point in his article, denouncing country's "adherence to formula, its resentment, its anger and its lack of innovation," though Judge alone cites anger and resentment among country's failings. Like Judge, Forbis accuses country music of phoniness, but he further specifies the target of his critique: it is the traditionalism of country lyrics that is "disingenuous." Forbis underscores this point with a hyperbolic flourish rendering "any appearance of modernity" as a "mail pouch of poisoned chaw" from country artists' perspective. But the real rhetorical kicker here is the opening clause, "Like most decent Americans," which invokes a view of country fandom as morally suspect. This is not an isolated view. The Arab American lesbian writer Joanna Kadi, a country music lover, observes that people who dislike country feel unusually entitled to share their negative feelings about the music, which are often coupled with anger or disbelief directed at country fans themselves. "Even when people don't like my choice of reggae, hard rock, or classical, they don't respond so viscerally and angrily," she writes.
We have seen that listening to country can make you culturally, educationally, and socially suspect through its associations with the least educated members of society-here, the white working class. Now Forbis and Kadi raise another kind of suspicion that surrounds contemporary country fandom, a moral suspicion.The moral cloud hanging over country-in Forbis and in Judge's conjuring of toxicity and retardation (as his article later makes explicit)-is not simply a matter of identity politics, of country's guilt by association with the least educated listeners. For, as Forbis's critical language shows, the aesthetic dimension of country is very much in play in his moral assessment of the music. This points to the crucial role of culture, aesthetics, and taste in producing social distinctions-a subject that has been greatly illuminated by Bourdieu.
Building on Bourdieu's work in Distinction, Lawler draws a clear link between the cultural construction of taste and that of moral value and highlights both constructs' production of social classes. Taste works in tandem with its other, disgust, as "part of a long-standing middle-class project to distinguish [middle-class individuals] as different" from the working-class masses. Lawler notes that the working class are frequently represented "as disgusting rather than merely 'common'" and sees this as indicating "the degree to which they must be 'pushed away'-expelled from a normative and normalized middle-classness." She explains, "Once an aesthetic is established as 'tasteful' those . . . endowed with this appreciation are able to legitimately claim a place as 'properly human,' while those . . . unable to appreciate what they ought to appreciate are rendered disgusting . . . [and] can be robbed of any moral worth." In this connection, we might recall Bourdieu's observation that "aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent." And we might note Lawler's emphasis on the importance of challenging "an unmarked and unproblematized middle classness which claims a monopoly on 'true humanity.'"
Forbis's "Anything but country"-like critique presents a kind of corollary to Lawler's formulation. Here, those who appreciate what they ought not appreciate, country music, are rendered disgusting, outside the realm of "decent Americans." A taste for country music is the failure of taste that flags a lack of moral value-indeed, a lack of humanity, along the lines just sketched. Lawler's explication bolsters the sociologist and minister-theologian Tex Sample's claim, in his book on country music, the church, and working people, that "elitist taste legitimates inequality." We might further deduce from all this that a taste for country music serves as not only a symptom of low social status, but a cause of it.
Of course, tastes and their meanings are constantly shifting, as arethe objects of middle-class disgust. Cultural changes since the 1970s have largely leveled the old hierarchy of high and low culture, and middle-class musical tastes are now broadly inclusive. Certain sounds once marked as exclusively country have been taken up in other styles. Timbres of banjo, mandolin, and, occasionally, fiddle circulate more widely, for example, through Americana roots music. Still, years on from the granting of connoisseurial status to formerly debased styles like jazz and rock, country music remains a taste apart. Indeed, over four decades of shifting style and taste, cultural meanings of the music once known as "hillbilly" have been remade in such a way as to perpetuate, if not redouble, its status as an object of disgust.
Fox locates the cause of country's contemporary cultural "badness" in racial ideology:
For many cosmopolitan Americans, especially, country is "bad" music precisely because it is widely understood to signify an explicit claim to whiteness, not as an unmarked, neutral condition of lacking (or trying to shed) race, but as a marked, foregrounded claim of cultural identity-a bad whiteness. As "white" music, unredeemed by ethnicity, folkloric authenticity, progressive politics, or the noblesse oblige of elite music culture, country frequently stands for the cultural badness of its adherents. Country is, in this sense, "contaminated" culture, . . . mere proximity to which entails ideological danger. (One example: while I have never seen a personal advertisement in a newspaper that lists a preference for any other musical genre among the disqualifications for potential romantic partners, the stipulation "no country music fans" is quite common in such ads.)
I find Fox's analysis incisive and concur with his reading of country as marked by pronounced, hence tainted, whiteness. I would note, however, that our culture's ascription of badness to country music and its adherents invokes a broad-spectrum bigotry, encompassing not only racial bigotry, but other forms-including gender and, increasingly, sexual bigotry. The examples in this chapter illustrate that the moral suspicion attaching to country music is the moral suspicion attaching to the white working class as (purported) ground zero for America's most virulent social ills: racism, sexism, and homophobia. In Foo Fighters' video and its reception, in Frank's Kansas thesis and its uses, in Forbis's music criticism, and elsewhere, we encounter images of the white working class as America's bigot class. Such representations have become commonplace in the dominant culture. For obvious reasons, this is a problem for white working-class people. For less obvious reasons, it is a problem for everybody.
In 2011, DreamWorks Studios released The Help as a major motion picture, following on the success of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 best-selling novel of the same name. Set in the 1960s, The Help is a story about African American domestics in the service of genteel white families in the segregated Deep South. Shortly after the movie's release, the New York Times published a related opinion piece by Patricia Turner, a professor of African American studies in California. Turner reports a diversity of opinions in her professional and social circles concerning the film's depictions of southern blacks and whether its white author is capable of telling the black maids' story from their perspective, as she purports to do.
But Turner's main point concerns an aspect of the story that she finds problematic and even dangerous: its message that certain white housewives "are bad people, therefore they are racists." She notes, "To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not." In fact, she argues, "Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud." Turner elaborates with an example of another novel-turned-movie about the Jim Crow South, the most celebrated of the entire genre. "The fallacy of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" she writes, is "a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals." She concludes, "My parents, and the countless other black Americans [who endured the Jim Crow era], . . . would not have wanted us to whitewash that earlier world."
The interpretation of southern politics and race relations given by Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird has been widely disseminated for more than half a century, thanks to the extraordinary popularity of both the novel and movie versions of this American classic. But it was not invented there. The historian Joel Williamson finds U.S. southern white elites placing the blame for racial violence on poor whites as early as the turn of the twentieth century. He labels this persistent narrative the Grits Thesis.
Turner's op-ed piece, titled "Dangerous White Stereotypes," identifies class-based stereotypes in the popular 2011 movie The Help and the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird and locates danger in their whitewashing of the nature and origins of segregation and white racism. The stereotypes pertain to poor and working-class whites, people who come under the identity labels "redneck," "hillbilly," and "white trash" (among others). These identities and their functions are the focus of many years' study by the anthropologist John Hartigan. Like Turner, Hartigan sees the scapegoating of poor and working-class whites in standard accounts of U.S. racism as historically distorted and socially regressive and as instrumental in perpetuating racism. Writing on "rednecks," "hillbillies," and "white trash," he concludes:
This imagery [performs a] critical function in the maintenance of whiteness, for these are the figures whites use to delimit an attention to the subject of racism. . . . After all, poor whites are not the bank officers who deny mortgages and other loans to African-Americans . . . at rates two to three times that of their white counterparts; poor whites are not among the landlords who refuse housing to [people of color], nor are they the human resources managers who are racially influenced in their hiring and firing decisions. . . . To deconstruct whiteness [we must recognize] the important work these stereotypes perform in maintaining a prevailing image of whiteness as racially unmarked and removed from the blot of racism.
Turner's and Hartigan's analyses highlight the role of stereotyped images of poor and working-class whites in producing and maintaining racial inequality in America. The stereotypes are shifting, to be sure, but not necessarily in a helpful direction. Lawler writes, for example, that, in "a racializing move which, one might say, 'hyper-whitens' them, there is, increasingly, an implicit coding of 'the working class' as white. Of course, working-class people are not exclusively white, but their emblematic whiteness might be necessary to a continued disparagement." Lawler frames her comments in a British context, but they are also apt to the contemporary United States. The American working class has long been coded, however accurately, in terms of a whiteness that in recent years has become less a default status and more a marked condition. Whereas unmarked whiteness still wields tremendous power as privilege, marked whiteness is a growing burden, carrying racist and imperialist stigma. Disparagement of the working class is not new, but its coding as hyperwhite is a relatively recent development, and so is the central role of imputed whiteness in the group's "continued disparagement."
As both Turner and Hartigan demonstrate, class and race are mutually entangled in American social and cultural life, so pursuing one often entails confronting the other. Racial difference surfaces frequently in this book's analysis, not as a primary category of inquiry, but as a crucial element in the workings of class and of gender and sexuality in country music contexts. Racial sameness surfaces, too, undergirding many of the instances under analysis. These intraracial instances always involve conflict across class and status boundaries, unfolding at times exclusively within the category of whiteness,as defined under contemporary U.S. racial regimes.
Foo Fighters' "Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)" video serves up familiar images of poor and working-class whites as hillbilly-redneck country music lovers, conveying these visually through characterization and props and sonically through country music. The band's faux-country performance of "Keep It Clean" at a Westboro Baptist Church protest and its extensive media coverage in terms of a bold progressive gesture posit a scenario in which enlightened Good Whites isolate and fight homophobia at its source by mocking uneducated, provincial, country music-loving Bad Whites. This instance fits Hartigan's description of the "complex and emotionally charged contests over belonging and difference that engage whites intraracially." In Hartigan's analysis as in Turner's, charged intraracial contests result in a distorting and dangerous story of the causes of U.S. racism, taking the spotlight off of upper- and middle-class white people and institutions and focusing it glaringly on poor and working-class whites.
Charged intraracial contests play out similarly in "Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)" and its media treatment. Band members "Jed up" in stereotypical imitation of poor and working-class whites, and commentators frame the spectacle as a victory over the people thus caricatured, indicatively the backward, intolerant, guilty party in America's homophobia problem. This, too, is distorting and dangerous, for some of the same reasons identified by Turner and Hartigan. At the least, it reinforces a notion that homo- and transphobia are confined to certain groups of bad people rather than systemic throughout the culture, and it locates the problem in a low-status and relatively powerless segment of society while ignoring the institutions-including the law, medicine, education, and the media itself-possessing the greatest power to produce and maintain, or to eliminate, gender and sexual bigotry and its effects.
At a more fundamental level, Foo Fighters' performance and its reception show country music functioning as proxy for the people of the white working class, figured as ignorant and bigoted. This jibes with Bryson's data indicating that high-status cultural omnivores-modern middle-class subjects with broad, multicultural tastes-exclude country as a cultural form associated with certainpeople-specifically, audiences with the least education. Bryson theorizes that cultural omnivorism has limits, which serve purposes of socialexclusion. Her study is important in suggesting that shared distaste may be as culturally significant as shared taste, the usual object of inquiry in studies by Bourdieu and many other researchers.
Bryson also underscores the interrelations of race and class in this realm. She emphasizes, "cultural tolerance should not be conceptualized as an indiscriminate tendency to be nonexclusive, but as a reordering of group boundaries that trades race for class." Bryson notes that "the correlation between race and class [i.e., the tying of class privilege to skin privilege] is an important feature of modern industrialized societies" and remarks that "the relationship creates substantial room for ideological confusion" (e.g., in widespread cultural notions presuming that whites automatically occupy higher class positions and people of color, lower class positions). In this sociocultural context, Bryson posits, "educated respondents resist racial integration only when it means class integration." This principle finds illustration in her privileged research subjects' tendency to expand their tastes into diverse racialized styles like Latin music, jazz, and blues, thus enlarging their multicultural capital while drawing the line at styles associated with the least educated-that is, lower-class-fans of whatever race or ethnicity, including gospel, rap, heavy metal, and country. The same patterning of symbolic exclusion is echoed in material acts recently documented by Diane Reay. The British sociologist studied white middle-class parents in London who, out of a principled commitment to diversity (and against the grain of their class), chose to send their children to disadvantaged urban schools. Reay found that these parents showed positive emotional responses to the "ethnic minority other" but more "wariness" toward the "class other."
HRC traces familiar musicosocial boundaries in its Pat Boone-themed fund-raising letter, which also mines both the queer/country opposition that is a source of humor in "Keep It Clean (Hot Buns)" and the country-homophobia linkage that grounds Foo Fighters' lionization in the media as champions of gay tolerance. HRC's mass e-mail banks on its identification of former teen idol Boone as an outrageous and vocal homophobe while misidentifying him as a country artist. The missive skillfully crescendos in its account of Boone as an incendiary liar and fearmonger and a "mouthpiece of bigotry." Although these provocative descriptions appear to be apt and accurate with reference to Boone, HRC nevertheless uses them to launch its own fictions and fearmongering. The opening words of its e-mail, country singer, forge a link to Boone and hence to his queer hating that is, however tactically valuable for the group's fund-raising purposes, completely false. In crafting its appeal to constituents, HRC deploys a narrative that is known and accepted among well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class Americans. Indeed, to judge by New York Times readers, it may be an article of faith. It is a narrative that locates sexual (and other) bigotry in the realm of country music, which is understood as a realm of white working-class people.
Everyday representations of this group in advertising and entertainment media gain support and legitimation from intellectual media like What's the Matter with Kansas? and the civic dialogues that engage such productions, online and elsewhere. Frank's influential and best-selling argument holds that members of the American white working class are so bent on ideology-opposition to gays, abortion, minorities, gun control-that they act, irrationally, against their own material interests. More education, New York Times readers frequently attest, would surely improve the situation. Yet Times readers themselves are demonstrably well educated and still display remarkable ideological attachments through their unshakable faith in the Kansas thesis, notwithstanding several well-researched, cogent studies refuting its most fundamental claims-including the notions that lower-income voters have turned Republican, that white working-class voters are focused on cultural over economic issues, and that the white working class (rather than cultural elites) have become rigidly ideological. Indeed, such a fervent embrace of Frank's story may suggest that his real accomplishment in Kansas was less about formulating a new explanation of recent GOP gains than about articulating, with colorful characters, engaging narratives, and a compelling case-study framework, an explanation that many readers were already inclined to accept.
What would incline Frank's readers, many of whom evidently are also Times readers, to believe, and to believe in, his Kansas thesis, a story of "how conservatives won the heart of America" (to quote the book's subtitle), evoking the nation's heartland and its common folk? Perhaps the prime factor in receptivity to the Kansas thesis would be nonmembership in the white working class. After all, Frank's argument seems unlikely to find devotees among the people he dissects and explains via the damning notion of false consciousness. A factor that could well predispose one to the Kansas thesis is membership in a class adjacent to the one under scrutiny, since anxious policing of a class boundary is inspired by proximity to it (hence Ehrenreich's title Fear of Falling). The middle class is positioned adjacently and, indeed, antagonistically to the working class. So could it be that Kansas-thesis adherents from the American middle class-a group defined above all in terms of distinguished individualism and conscious, deliberate agency-are simply acting their scripted part, are realizing, in their reproof of the working class, the inevitable implications of a hierarchic and competitive class structure?
Anything but Working Class (Conclusion)
Mutual aversion between the middle class and the working class is a structural given, the most predictable result of a socioeconomic system that positions groups unequally in relation to economic power, social prestige, and vocational and cultural authority. Nevertheless, to characterize middle-class champions of the Kansas thesis as simply realizing the implications of the class structure would be misleading. Rather, their actions are among those that produce the class structure, the system of socially and economically ordered groups recognized as such from within and without. The class structure is dynamically created and re-created on a continuous basis, in forms that have shifted and continue to shift over time. As discussed in this chapter, for example, the upper middle class has become a larger, more influential, and more insular segment of U.S. society in recent decades, whereas the white working class has become smaller, and the shift to a knowledge economy affects the two groups very differently.
The cultural instances examined here also provide a glimpse into a tendency, increasing since about 1970, toward representation of the white working class in reductive terms foregrounding social conservatism and bigotry. The rise in such representations has been concurrent with the rise of neoliberal subjectivity-which emphasizes privatized, individual agency and commodified identities-and with the rise of (what Bryson dubs) "multicultural capital" and of the stigmatization of bigotry. Thus over four decades that have witnessed tremendous growth in the importance of presenting a cosmopolitan and tolerant self, we have increasingly seen the attribution of present-day and historical racism, sexism, and homophobia moving from privileged whites to less powerful social groups. These include the poor and working-class whites who are associated with, conjured by, and often mocked through images of country music. In our present moment, language and perspectives on race, gender, and sexuality powerfully mark class and status positions and figure in the production of social hierarchies. Representing a group as bigoted carries high stakes.
Relatedly, this chapter has questioned the capacity of professional middle-class commentators to act as informed and unbiased narrators vis-à-vis the white working class. Gelman's research uncovers an evident parochialism underlying coastal metropolitan media professionals' dominant narrative of the 2004 presidential election year-which painted an ideologically entrenched, values-voting white working class eager to cut off its nose to spite its gun-loving, gay-, minority-, and abortion-hating face. Though its accuracy has been credibly questioned on virtually all counts, the Kansas-style culture wars narrative maintains a powerful hold on the dominant cultural imagination-as New York Times readers(among others) demonstrate daily. The "middle-class stereotype" of a bigoted working class, described by Ehrenreich in 1989 as "too durable to be affected by the facts," has found renewed durability in Frank's twenty-first-century retread.
If there is cause for optimism in this scenario, it may lie in the research findings of Fiorina, Bartels, Gelman, and others showing that so-called latte liberals and their lower-income compatriots share political interests to a far greater extent than prevailing wisdom would suggest. Gelman's identification of cross-class, Democratic voting among many upper-income residents of major metropolitan areas suggests possibilities for political alliance between the well-connected, influential upper middle class and the working-class whites indicted by the Kansas thesis. Fostering such alliances calls for more contact between increasingly segregated sectors of American society. It calls for higher standards of media production and consumption, including better-quality messages and more critical reception of sensational, skewed, and formulaic messages in news, entertainment, and new media. And, most important, it calls for political will.
Finally, then, is the declaration "Anything but country" really about the music? This chapter has examined it as a boundary marker loaded with meanings that exceed the musical, an expression of social, aesthetic, and other differences, and distances, between class cultures. Thus "anything but country" is not only and not simply about the music. But neither is this charged exclusionary gesture or its considerable cultural baggage removed from the music. Country music is a flashpoint. Within and around it, class tensions that are elsewhere quiet hum, crackle, and emerge audible. Country songs take part in cultural dialogues that both produce and push against class and status, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, and other formations. The songs do their cultural work by means of sounds wedded to lyrics and images, which both reflect and produce various cultural notions. Country music is thus for some hearers the sound of working people, small-town America, and an idealized simpler time, while for others it is the sound of closed-mindedness, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The examples above demonstrating disidentification with country music attest that country, an object of delight and devotion for some listeners, is an object of alienation and revulsion for others. To regard this as merely a matter of taste and thus ultimately mysterious relegates the question to individual and purely aesthetic realms. But the phrase "Anything but country" resonates in realms of the social and political-and aesthetics, of course, are rarely pure. Country as a social symbol and cultural brand is harmonious with certain-namely, working-class-subject positions and is therefore dissonant with other-namely, middle-class-subject positions.
Indeed, the middle class is defined by distinction from all that is working class. As Lawler puts it, "Working class-ness forms the constitutive outside to middle-class existence." Representations of the working class in the dominant culture-several of which this chapter has examined in both country music and political media contexts-work as a foil to "produce middle-classed identities that rely on not being the repellent and disgusting 'other.'" Country music's potency as a creator of classed taste and identity is evident in the derision and anxiety it arouses in the dominant culture. And it is evident in middle-class cultural omnivores' exclusion of country and other styles associated with the least educated listeners-education being one of the standard markers, along with income and occupation, of class status (and considered by many researchers the most reliable). Of course, people like the Bushes, patricians far removed from middle-class/working-class border skirmishes, can afford all manner of cultural and faux-populist indulgence-though it may not protect them from middle-finger-flipping stock car racing fans. Bourdieu observes that "social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat." This principle is key in explaining the ferocity of boundary-making activity between the working and middle classes.
Even apart from country's brand aura, its audible musical effect-of delight or disgust or something in between-depends on a perceiver's social position. Such is the nature of taste, which, although regarded as conferring individuality, is collective and class-based. Indeed, country music's message, relevance, and value vary dramatically through the lenses of middle-class and working-class culture and subjectivity, respectively. The middle-class ear, so to speak, is ill attuned to country music and is often as deaf to its virtues as to its genuine flaws. To hear country on its own terms, we must seek out the particular values and devalued culture of the working class. Only then can we assess country music's qualities and messages, including its messages concerning gender and sexuality.