“Over the last 20 years, country music has undergone a major demographic shift, appealing more and more to middle class listeners in urban and suburban areas,” says Peter Schmelz is an assistant professor of musicology at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studies and writes on the intersections between music and politics. “And though many scholars resist the idea that country music is solely aligned with conservatives, it has been used as a powerful political tool by the right, tapping into a kind of nostalgic fantasy about what America once was.
“In the lead-up to the Iraq war, artists like Toby Keith and Darryl Worley very explicitly backed the Bush administration’s plans. Worley’s single ‘Have you Forgotten’ even made the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and was so popular in the weeks before the invasion that his label released the album a month ahead of schedule.
“Though we think of rock from the late 1960s and into the ’70s as being incredibly politicized, today rock really doesn’t feel very political. U2’s ‘Beautiful Day,’ which has been used by a number of candidates all along the political spectrum, has a mood of uplift and optimism, but it doesn’t really tell a story. Country music and rap feel much more political, and it’s interesting how solidly those two genres in particular have lined up behind the candidates: Obama has ‘Yes We Can’ by Wil.I.Am, while McCain has ‘Raisin’ McCain’ by John Rich. So for all the arguments about nuance and crossover, in the political arena the music remains very divided, especially in songs clearly targeting the party ‘base.’
“Yet both musically and politically a significant number of voters remains up for grabs, and many are likely more sympathetic to country than to hip hop. One of the most compelling musical moments of the campaign so far was the playing of Brooks & Dunn’s ‘Only in America’ after Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver. It was a very savvy move, and I think the Democrats are right not to concede the mainstream country audience. But they have to be careful. Picking a country act that has been marked (willingly or unwillingly) as part of the Democratic camp — I’m thinking of the Dixie Chicks — could alienate more people than it attracts.”
Peter Schmelz is an assistant professor of musicology at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studies and writes on the intersections between music and politics in the Soviet Union and the United States. His essay “Have You Forgotten?”: Darryl Worley and the Musical Politics of Operation Iraqi Freedom recently appeared in the collection Music in the Post-9/11 World. His book Such Freedom, If Only Musical: Unofficial Soviet Music and Society During the Thaw is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
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