The Best and Worst of Popular Culture

When it’s cold outside but there isn’t any snow to play in, I exercise in my basement, so that’s where I was this morning. As is usual for me on inside mornings, I listened to country music to fight the monotony of working out in place. My old iPod shuffled through the thousands of songs on my playlist and among others alighted on two by John Prine that, in my view, manage to exemplify the best of country music and the worst of contemporary culture respectively.

The first, The Other Side of Town (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2g0CaneKXY), is really everything I love about country music. In it, Prine assumes the persona of a stock character – the terribly henpecked and brokenhearted husband – and makes himself into a figure with whom the audiences – the live one in front of him and the others in their basements or wherever – can identify, whether or not they fit that profile. Everybody has dreamed escapist dreams to avoid thinking about whatever unpleasantness they were suffering, and that universal experience comes poignantly alive in Prine’s song.

The song’s subject is sad but its lyrics are also – like much country music – quite intentionally funny. Humor is embedded in both the baseline, storytelling lyrics and, separately, a verbal twist about rhyming that makes the live audience laugh out loud. Prine’s wry humor works brilliantly – it leavens the audience’s experience without detracting from the pathos that is brought to life by the song’s story.

In sharp contrast, it’s an understatement for me to write that I despise the other of Prine’s songs that I heard this morning – Some Humans Ain’t Human (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB2E6RX7W44).                     

This is a political song – it would be overly generous to call it a protest song, except perhaps as a protest against those with whom Prine disagrees – the point of which is to explicitly dehumanize those with who are outside the progressive bubble. George W. Bush, who was president when the song was written and performed, is the only (indirectly) named, supposed un-person, alluded to (presumably as an example of somebody who ‘ain’t human’) as follows:

“Some cowboy from Texas

Starts his own war in Iraq”

(Bush Derangement Syndrome long predated Trump Derangement Syndrome, and was very nearly as virulent, if not as long-lasting. Now that Michelle Obama has announced that she and W have the same values, just different policy preferences – https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2019/12/11/michelle-obama-defends-friendship-george-w-bush/4402339002/ – Prine might be spurred to reconsider the question as to whether Bush is human just like the rest of us, or even to reconsider the song’s message; sadly, though, it’s more likely that if he were to perform it today he would just switch out lyrics to make Trump the object of his Seven Minutes Hate rather than Bush).  

… But the broader message of the song is that terrible people, presumably conservatives, are everywhere:

“You might go to church

And sit down in a pew

Those humans who ain’t human

Could be sittin’ right next to you”

And that they are so inherently evil as to be not human.

In short, it is a song that promotes hatred. And the worst thing about its message, in my view, is that it is clearly meant to be taken as invective rather than humor. This takes the usual anathematization of Republicans by celebrities and the media to a whole new level – the level at which treating them (us, for me) badly as people is fully justified.

I scarcely need point out that selling a message based on division and hatred can only make it more difficult for us to find common ground.

I’m pretty sure that in 100 years, the poets of today who will still have an audience aren’t the intentionally obscure wordsmiths who vie for recognition from a readership of hundreds*, but the people who are writing songs that are loved – and plumbed for meaning – by multitudes. The Nobel committee was exactly right to try to give its prize for literature to Bob Dylan.

Music is a very powerful force. It can bring us together through the acknowledgment of shared experiences, as in The Other Side of Town, or divide us into warring camps like Some Humans Ain’t Human or, for that matter, The Horst Wessel Song, with which Some Humans Ain’t Human has altogether too much in common.

M.H. Johnston

*Not that there’s anything wrong with writing for a small audience…

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>