NASCAR and Country Music Exclude Me (and That's Okay, but It's not Okay)
For a few days (on and off silly, not non-stop), I’ve been working on this post about NASCAR and country music.
This morning, I was listening to NPR in my Subaru Outback while driving to work wearing a polar fleece LL Bean jacket (BUT I was NOT drinking a latte!...I was drinking a latte with a depth charge) when I heard this bit from a story on the Virginia governor’s race. To set the scene, this is a quote from Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry (or Gerry) Kilgore, speaking at a fundraiser he recently held at the Martinsville Speedway, the site of last week’s NASCAR race, or so I’m told:
“When you talk about NASCAR fans, you’re talking about true Virginians and true Americans, the most patriotic people that I’ve ever met are the NASCAR fans.”
And to my ears, this is incendiary, inflammatory and charged stuff. It’s in code certainly, but you don’t need a decoder ring to get the message: True Virginians? True Americans? What, pray tell is a false Virginian? What is a false American? And if NASCAR fans (from an extremely limited demographic, right?) are true, then non-NASCAR fans (everyone not part of that demographic) are false. I’m not a NASCAR fan, but I love America.
In other words, a candidate for state-wide office in the United States, taking a page from the Karl Rove playbook, is appealing to an extremely limited demographic. When you add that he’s doing it in a region know for a history of racial intolerance, you’ve got some pretty messed up stuff.
Anyway, here’s the post I wrote a few days ago:
For a while now, I’ve been trying to think of a way to articulate my feelings about “new country” music and NASCAR. My basic feeling is that both are exclusive and both are for sale to the highest bidder. But those feelings are difficult to articulate in a world where everything is for sale to the highest bidder. What distinguishes NASCAR and country music is that they tend to be for sale as an entire group. Instead of random participants supporting a cause, the entire concept can be rented to the right group.
Country music was such a critical part of the Republican convention. NASCAR dads were a 2004 election phenomenon (and, unlike soccer moms, there was never a question about how they would vote). Country music is prominently featured in Freedom Fests all over the country, and in general seems pointed toward – supporting patriotism/nationalism, Republicans and conservative values. Outside of the Dixie Chicks, and Willie Nelson, I’m not aware of a mainstream country artist whose lyrics promote values other than those just listed (although in the back of my mind there is a Garth Brooks song that was a bit open-minded in a subtle human-rights kind of way – but I credit the song with Garth’s downfall. I also feel I should note that Willie is more of a populist than he is a liberal. The Indigo Girls are not country artists, and Mary Chapin Carpenter is not mainstream). And the Dixie Chicks were boycotted for exercising her first amendment rights/breaking ranks with the concept.
One problem I have in talking about it is that I really don’t listen to new country. So I’ll admit that I’m ignorant on country music, but I won’t admit that I’m ignorant about how it makes me feel. I love most all music, but when I think of my favorite country artists, most are dead or out of favor. Folks like Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, The Carter Family, Johnny Cash and Roy Rogers come to mind. As a youngster, I listened to more than my share of Kenny Rogers and Charlie Pride; I watched my more than my share of “Hee Haw.” I still think Buck Owens was a genius.
And what bothers me about country music (as well as NASCAR) is difficult to articulate.
But if I ever dwell on CMT, or see a live Faith Hill concert on NBC or catch lyrics to “I raq and Roll” or see a commercial for NASCAR or photos from a NASCAR event, it all seems very exclusive to me.
And there are two kinds of exclusivity, one where others are welcome and choose not to participate and one where others are not really all that welcome at all. There is something about country music and NASCAR that seems more like the latter than the former to me.
Quick test: I say picture a NASCAR fan, what images come to your mind? Now picture a baseball fan.
Similarly, NASCAR is associated with the Republican party and southern values and nationalism and conservatism. I’m persuaded by Kilgore’s appeal to patriotism in his rally at a NASCAR track. Some associations are more intentional than others, but the associations are certainly there, and they’re not terribly hard to see.
As I think about the major spectator sports in America – football, basketball, hockey, baseball, tennis, golf and auto racing/NASCAR (with the exception of one race, the Indy 500, auto racing is NASCAR in terms of major American spectator sports) – none of them comes across as racially exclusive in anywhere near the same way that NASCAR does. Not even hockey (which has a history of African-American stars as well as stars from other racial backgrounds and fans from many ethnic groups).
Similarly, when I look at music, no other major genre (not even classical music which is made world wide) seems as racially limited in its demographic as country music is. R&B, Rap and Hip Hop, Punk, Alternative, Electronic music, Opera, Jazz, even Adult Contemporary seem to have much more diverse followings than country music.
All major country stars are from one racial group – not true of other musical genres.
And let’s face it. The two are somewhat connected, no? NASCAR culture and country culture share similar geographic roots, similar fan bases, similar exclusivity, and similar willingness to be sold off as a group. I literally do not know one NASCAR fan who is not also a country music fan. And yes, that’s anecdotal, and yes, it would not hold up in the logic bowl, but let me say, that there is no other major sport/major music link that could even come close to the synergy established between country music and NASCAR (although the skaters and snowboarders love punk rock or whatever).
You can use NASCAR for politics or to promote films about Jesus. You can use country music for politics or festivals about freedom. Baseball has never been sold as a sport. R&B has not been used to advance a political cause.
And notice, Monday Night Football is trying hard (and has for some time) to connect itself to country music’s exportable charm. First came the Hank Williams, Jr. “are you ready for some football” bits. Now they have some feller sangin’ “I Like it I Love it” at every half time. The reason it has not worked so well – in my view – is that for every person you charm, you put off at least three. Because Country music seems so tied to limited demographics, it doesn’t play as well when your audience is not itself a limited demographic. The whole time the country guy is singing, I’m feeling excluded and wishing for a little Radiohead or some De La Soul.
But I’d welcome an argument that I’m way off base here. Am I?