In early America, barns were often built in a circular shape- Lexington, KY still has a famous “Round Barn” next to their historic racetrack, where charity auctions, and special events (like square dances, which ironically seem especially amenible to round spaces) are held. What is often forgotten is that the roundness of these barns was not an architectural feature meant to maximize storage or minimize the use of materials, but rather a literal means of keeping the Devil from hiding in a corner.
Hundreds of years later, “the Devil” has, for most of society, long changed from a real being to a metaphorical concept, but corners to hide in are becoming harder and harder to find. The world now could desperately use some neutral corners, but they are being systematically eliminated. (A college ‘safe space’ most certainly does not count- it is fully politicized and is only safe for one set of viewpoints.) After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush famously stated (without too much blowback, given the hyper-patriotic environment that followed the attacks for six months or so), “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” That philosophy, of removing the potential for neutrality- which implies nuance and ambiguity- has now come to encompass almost every aspect of society. Today, visibly symbolic and binary choices have to made everywhere: you stand for the anthem and you’re a reactionary racist who supports police brutality and white privilege; you kneel for it and you’re an unpatriotic spoiled brat who doesn’t respect the flag. This is just the most recent example, but the trend is pervasive: if you hold numerous, conflicting opinions, you’re worse than useless: you’re in the way.
This lack of neutral corners comes at a price. The idea that “The Personal is Political,” first popularized in 1969 in an article by feminist Carol Hanisch, was no doubt incisive and important, but the idea now encompasses far more than it was intended to. In our current, unavoidably interconnected world, turbocharged by the internet, we instantly sum people up by if they’re on ‘our side’ or ‘the other side’, and we are quick to judge them accordingly.
The same can be true of music- its genres- in what they stand for as much as what they are. a A CBS legal executive was fired after one particularly misguided response to the Las Vegas massacre, posting to social media that she was “not sympathetic [to the LV shooting victims] bc [sic] country music fans often are Republican gun toters”. Putting aside for a minute the question of if people should be fired for the visceral reactions they post on social media, think how common that kind of reaction is- at least internally. Millions of years of evolution have left us with a meme for quickly separating “us” from “them” because thinking that way was highly efficient and advantageous for a long time. But it doesn’t work very well in today’s world, and it’s particularly sad to see it being applied to music.
One of the wonders of music is its mystery: how can this combination of certain lengths of sound waves move us so magically? When combined with lyrics, how does it elevate otherwise commonplace words? It is this mystery that the late Oliver Sachs explored in his loving and fascinating Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. It’s a mystery that can be examined but (luckily) never entirely explained. I don’t know all that much about country music, but I do know enough not to dismiss it. There’s more to country music than men singing about their pickup trucks, dogs, and guns, and there’s more to its fans than mere political affiliations. In an era where songs-as-stories have become more rare, country has largely preserved this tradition, and that’s to be applauded.
If there are to be any neutral corners left, music should be one of them. Before we decide to categorize it, analyze it, label it, and turn it into merely another way of identifying its followers as ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’, let’s give it a chance to be itself. Instead of just trying to get something out of it, let’s allow music to sit still for a while- until it reaches out and gives something to us.