One of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard is a country song: “Bluebird,” by Miranda Lambert. Its chorus is the sweetest thing. It goes “If the whole wide world stops singing/ and all the stars grow dark/ I turn a light on in my soul/ and keep a bluebird in my heart.”
But it’s not just a complete load of sugar. The second verse speaks about standing up for oneself and forgetting the people that have wronged you. You might expect a song like this to tell you to always forgive and see the best in others, but it points out that sometimes you have to choose yourself and walk away from those who are toxic.
Thomas Rhett (and many other country singers) collaborate in the song “Be a Light”, which is just as it sounds. It is an encouragement to be kind to others and be a light in a world that is full of darkness. As cliche as that can sound, it is simply a reminder to be a good person when other people have simply chosen not to care. Carrie Underwood’s song “So Small,” speaks about giving love to others and letting the light in even when you are down, because at the end that is all that really matters. The song “Most People are Good” celebrates motherhood, working hard, yet taking a break on Friday nights, and even loving anyone that you want to and not being ashamed of it. And everyone knows the “Humble and Kind” song.
Many songs sung by female country singers either speak about love or about walking away from a man that did you wrong. Some are very descriptive and portray the feeling of heartbreak very well in either anger or sadness. In many of Carrie Underwood’s breakup songs, she sings of her anger and regret. Other songs are far more sad, such as Maddie and Tae’s song where they ask their mother a number of questions that relate to healing from a relationship gone terribly wrong. Some of the love songs sung by country singers are so beautiful and have meaningful lyrics, such as “We Were” by Keith Urban, and “One Man Band” by Old Dominion.
And yet country music is also notorious. One of the main issues is its tendency to objectify women. What’s even crazier, is that classic country music is said to have been more respectful of women than today’s country music. To bring up Thomas Rhett again, one of his songs is literally called “Get Me Some of That”, which really does not need any further explanation. It does a great job of reducing a girl to nothing more than her appearance and sex appeal. There is also the endless trope of a girl riding along doing nothing but looking pretty in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s truck. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is a bit odd that that theme is seen in so many country songs. It just seems to endlessly portray women as literally nothing but sexual beings. Some examples are “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice, and “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line.
We could go on for so long listing the weird country songs that do not flatter self-respecting women. One I found particularly amusing was “Single Saturday Night,” by Cole Swindell, where he says “Sittin’ over in the corner, baby, I saw/ Pretty red lips working on a White Claw/Shaking to a little ‘Shook Me All Night Long/ And I thought ‘Damn, what a beautiful sight.’” That’s really the whole description of whatever he met on a Saturday night. It seems to me that he must be dating a pair of red lips that shake in the air to songs, which is a bit weird, but some men like weird things. But you get the know the guy’s actual character in the song of course. Very typical, but at least it describes an actual human being. You know that he goes out with his bros every Saturday and goes to church. At least we know he’s a human being who does things for himself, while whatever he’s dating seems to exist only to please him and wear his T-shirt.
Other songs are about cat-calling (which most women see as harassment), and one gem of a song called “Eyes on You” is one of those songs a man might see as sweet, but most would see as extremely creepy. It’s essentially about how a man won’t stop staring at his girlfriend and literally refuses to look anywhere else. Another song by Lee Brice “One of Them Girls” is also probably what some guys would think as cute, but is again, actually really creepy. It’s literally about how this dude loves hitting on the very girls who give all the signs that they do not want to be hit on. It literally says the girls are saying “no” when he asks them to dance and that he is taking that as them trying to see how far he’ll go. In my experience, when girls say “no” they mean “no”. That’s not an invitation to “go further”. It talks about how those girls just want to have fun at a party, and not be bothered by guys. It describes how these girls turned down the guys back home, framing it as “they broke all those guys’ hearts”, as though their existence was for those guys. It’s messed up how this song frames independent women who want to be left alone as the girls to be pursued, not the girls who are actually interested. It then shames the girls who actually want to get with guys, as though the girls “handing out their numbers” are the ones who are unattractive and to be avoided. Common sense and common decency tell us that the girls you should ask out are the girls who actually want to be asked out, and that you shouldn’t shame them for doing the exact same thing you, as a guy, are doing! There are so many more songs that are exclusively about hitting on girls (and I’m not entirely sure most girls appreciate songs that are only about how guys accost them). And finally, even the songs that seem to be a bit sweeter and more wholesome pretty much characterize all women in the same light: sweet, submissive, and beautiful wives that exist to make their husbands happy.
Interestingly enough, one of my favorite songs by Maddie and Tae is famous for explicitly calling out this stereotype. The cliche of the pretty girl in the pickup truck, cat-calling, names like “pretty little thing” and “honey”, and how the most active thing that a girl typically does in a country song is “shaking her moneymaker”. It’s really bad if two women in country are calling out their own genre.
What’s more, country music is famous for its glorification of white people. While it is commendable for celebrating working-class people, it does less of that and more of celebrating a Southern white male lifestyle that seems to consist of drinking alcohol, going to church, partying and hitting on women. Most of the attractive women in country music happen to have blond hair and blue eyes. Not a coincidence. And there are even some songs that seem to reminisce about a not-so-great past, including the song “Mayberry” by Rascal Flatts, and even worse, the song “Beer For My Horses” by Toby Keith, which is actually about lynching.
What can we take away from all of this? Country music’s lovely points and not-so-great points can be seen as a representation of the great and not-so-great points of a conservative or Christian ideology. On the one hand, these kinds of ideologies often prize love, caring, family, hard work, humbleness, and tradition, but at the same time rigidly uphold harmful gender roles, characterize women as either sexual objects for men to hit on or sweet, lovely women that exist to serve their men, taking pride in being white just because you are white, and sometimes even longing for that time back in the 1950s where white men had a monopoly on all the power, while women and minorities were pushed to the side.
Can we really condemn all country music or every bit of conservatism? No, some of their values are what we all should strive to practice: having a good family (though not necessarily the heteronormative family they insist on), taking care of one another, building a community and getting along with the people you live around, having faith, the intrinsic value of working hard to get to where you want to be, and keeping the traditions that make us happy (but not necessarily the ones that are steeped in a questionable history). But we should refuse to follow the unhelpful aspects of conservatism. Women live for themselves, not as a tool to uphold a man’s fragile masculinity. White culture is not in any way, shape or form the best culture there is, and diversity in beliefs, lifestyles, and ethnicities should be celebrated. People can be trans, gay, and do not have to be a part of a “traditional family”. Respecting people who are not white males and giving them positions of power is what we call progress.
All I am trying to say is, that most of us know where conservatism leaves a lot to be desired, and none of us should accept those parts of it. But we can’t write conservatism off entirely, nor can we ignore some of its harmful messages that are still pretty prevalent in our society.