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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Conversations about political agendas behind song lyrics spark conversations as country music continues to top the charts

Jason Aldean, who released the summer hit “Try That In A Small Town” which has sparked heated discourse in the country music landscape. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0
Jason Aldean, who released the summer hit “Try That In A Small Town” which has sparked heated discourse in the country music landscape. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Recently, country music has been topping the charts and sparking conversation across the American political landscape. Songs like “Try That in a Small Town” by Jason Aldean and “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony have amassed millions and millions of hits on the Apple Music streaming databases. However these songs have come under fire for having reactionary lyrics that may or may not indicate racial and class prejudices. 

Even songs that seem completely innocuous like the cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” by Luke Combs or “One Thing at a Time” by Morgan Wallen have caused some issues. Wallen was in the midst of a media scandal when he was filmed using a racial slur in 2021, and Combs’ cover of the iconic Tracy Chapman song has brought up discussions of appropriation of music by a black artist, especially because the song is about poverty and the desire to move beyond one’s means. 

The success of some of these songs is partially attributed to being fodder for the current political culture wars that dominate our lives. It’s my personal opinion that “Try That In A Small Town” uses coded language. If it isn’t purposefully calling attention to the racial divide in this country, I strongly believe this to be about social justice protests in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd. There’s always been racially prejudiced implications with characterizing urban communities as dangerous and rural communities as safer and protected. 

The American South is obviously a culturally and racially diverse place, but the South that “Try That In A Small Town” paints a picture of is close-knit and divorced from the outside world. The song’s message predicated on justifying violence as a means from “protecting” their community against people that may or may not actually exist. I’m not saying by any means that urban violence doesn’t occur or rioting isn’t harmful, but it seems to me that the lyrics are meant to stoke a reaction out of people. 

Unfortunately, this is the same problem that “Rich Men North Of Richmond” faces. While it’s trying to invoke a message that resonates with everyone, its inflammatory lyrics look down upon certain groups of impoverished people. 

Unlike Aldean, Oliver Anthony was a surprise success. His song became a viral smash on Youtube and music streaming sites, seemingly because of his rustic presentation and message. In his music video, which has racked up 67 million views on Youtube, all Anthony had was a microphone and a guitar. He seemed like the lower-class, hardworking man that the song he’s singing depicts. 

He’s considerably less polished than Aldean. His vocals don’t sound overproduced, there are no pop-country cliches like a looped beat, and the premise of the song isn’t about getting drunk on the weekends. His raw, throaty vocals match the song’s vindictive, angry nature, about working tirelessly in poverty while the upper class hoards wealth and sits on their laurels.

However, the song overall is kind of odd. There’s a reference to Jeffrey Epstein: “I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere,” Anthony sings. The very second stanza lets on that this song has a reactionary, if not conservative, tone. “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat…And the obese milkin’ welfare.” This is a classic talking point wielded against those who qualify for government assistance, who are characterized as feeding off the hard work of others.They harbor a lot of resentment towards those who qualify for government assistance and are characterized as lazy, undeserving leeches who feed off of the hard work of others with taxpayer money. 

Right-wing pundits like Matt Walsh and Marjorie Taylor Greene lauded the song as a “working-class anthem,” while Anthony himself reacted negatively to the media blitz. 

According to Anthony, the message is supposed to be apolitical, that the blight of the poor is universal. But this is something that kind of negates the argument of the song. If this is a song about people struggling to make ends meet while the rich keep them down, targeting those who take government assistance is a confusing stance. 

In my view, reason why these songs in particular have been successful is because of being part of the political landscape. These songs have reactionary messages and inflammatory lyrics, and because left-leaning media is pointing out these aspects of the music, it’s as if these songs get massive amounts of attention and streams out of spite. This is the tragedy of art and media in our modern landscape. Nothing can be examined honestly, to truly explore what something means, without it being fodder for the raging cultural divide. 

I’d like to end by saying I’m a fan of country music. There are songs currently on the charts that are not harmful in any demonstrable way. Millions of listeners have rewarded these artists due to the fact they simply like said songs. Art with a political meaning deserves to be engaged fairly, but that doesn’t mean that said art deserves a wholly positive reaction. At some point, the unfortunate ugliness of insisting that something prejudiced isn’t prejudiced grows louder than the music itself.

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