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Tim McGraw. (Photo: 1035 WEZL/Flickr)

I Listen to Everything, Except Rap and Country Music

• February 25, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Tim McGraw. (Photo: 1035 WEZL/Flickr)

While the two branches of music might appear to have nothing in common, they rose to pop-culture establishment in very similar ways. Today, they share the same songs and the same stage.

No less an intellect than David Foster Wallace once remarked, “I have the musical tastes of a 13-year-old girl.” You don’t necessarily learn that much about someone by asking, “What type of music do you like?” But you can learn about someone through the music they don’t like … and when I was in high school in Chicago, when people I knew were asked to describe their music tastes, no answer sprung up more than “everything but rap and country.” (Metal was sometimes substituted for one or the other.) It’s impossible to quantify, but I’m positive I wasn’t alone in this experience. Googling “everything but rap and country” returns 449,000 results, ranging from the parodic to those earnestly describing this preference as some badge of honor. Open disdain of two genres with such contextually racial and socioeconomic backgrounds is a strange thing to proudly claim—and I wonder what my classmates might be thinking today.

If you turned on the radio in 2013, you would’ve eventually heard the Nelly-starring remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which shattered sales records to become one of the biggest country singles of all time. You also might have heard Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” which casually mentioned throwing on some T-Pain as a way to set the mood, or Florida Georgia Line’s “This Is How We Roll,” which name-drops Hank Williams and Drake in the same line. That follows collaborations within the last decade between Jason Aldean and Ludacris, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, Tim McGraw and Nelly—drops in the bucket, but new ground considering the stereotypes associated with each genre. For if rap is historically black and country is historically Southern white, how could the two styles co-exist? Why would they want to?

It’s not as weird as you might think. They’re both genres that began as regionally-focused outsiders, battled with identity issues of how to be accepted by the greater world while still retaining their heart, and eventually wound up as two un-budging commercial forces.

COUNTRY ORIGINATED AS THE natural evolution from traditional forms like gospel and vaudeville, becoming a conduit for the Southern way of life through artists like Hank Williams, the Carter Family, and Johnny Cash (to briefly name a few). In the ’60s, the encroaching influence of teen culture through rock ‘n’ roll helped popularize the “Nashville sound” with singers like Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline, who took a more mainstream, producer-driven approach to the traditional song forms. 

In the late ’70s and progressing through the early ’80s, a broader, more romantic image of the country-associated lifestyle was spread by shows like Dallas, movies like Urban Cowboy, and so-called “countrypolitan” singers like Glen Campbell, Dottie West, and Lynn Anderson, who further combined the genre’s traditional underpinnings with a more modern, pop-focused sound. More traditional artists like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson weren’t afraid of dipping their toes in this mainstream direction, either. As Chet Atkins famously remarked when asked what typified the Nashville sound, “It’s the sound of money.”

The world hasn’t totally spun around—Tim McGraw aside, it’s still more likely to see a rapper on a country song, not the other way around—but we’re getting closer.

As the market is fickle, the proliferation of such a sound made country fans a little restless. The countrypolitan sound became less appealing as the ’80s wore on, beginning the rise of the “neotraditionalists” like Reba McEntire and Wynonna Judd, who appealed to the genre’s atavistic heart. Writing in Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History, Jocelyn Neal remarks that the “essence” of the neotraditionalists was “a concerted effort on the part of the musicians and fans alike to reclaim the past of country music for the present, to rekindle traditions that they felt had been lost.”

IT’S NOT ALTOGETHER DISSIMILAR from what you might say rap is going through right now, as the genre’s outlaw heart has been somewhat tamed by the massive amounts of money to be had. Kanye West is credited with being the first modern rapper to show that you didn’t have to be “gangsta” to appeal to big audiences—without him, it’s impossible to see rappers like Drake, who openly raps about super-specific emotions usually found in teenaged Livejournals, finding any kind of chart traction.

But the pendulum has arguably swung from criminal and past Kanye into the deracialized, inauthentic pop that cannibalized country in the ’80s. Where the mainstream norm was once ringtone rappers like Kid Hurricane and J-Kwon blazing on the charts for a brief moment, old schoolers like Ludacris and Busta Rymes respectively guesting on songs by Justin Bieber and the Pussycat Dolls, or Nicki Minaj pandering to her pop fans, it’s now Macklemore: a rapper described by Jon Caramanica of The New York Times as the first “first contextually post-black pop-star rapper,” which means none of his success is owed to rap’s traditional power structures. Macklemore’s appeal as the soberest cheerleader at the turn-up function is obvious, but his meteoric rise to the top presages a souring from “real hip-hop fans,” who aren’t so enthused that the genre they spent an entire life learning the ways of is now being co-opted by fans with less patience for tradition.

Of course, such complaints end up not mattering in the long run. For as much righteous complaint as there’s to be made that the whitewashing of rap—a historically black genre—is bundled with America’s tendency toward doing things how they’ve always been done, it’s inexorably true that rap has become less of a market curio and more of the entrenched norm. (Certainly, no local news station would ever run a segment on rap as the latest, hottest craze kids are into. They’d rather save their energy for molly and Skrillex.) You could say the same of country, which rebounded from the post-’80s cold snap with mega-stars like Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, who helped solidify pop-country as a way of life and paved the road for acts like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line to come through. After country sales and radio control exploded in the ’90s because of those stars, things leveled off to a point that was still far above the ’70s boom.

What’s more important is that each genre’s more traditional practitioners don’t appear to have any interest in being too harsh about the way things are now, at least not in public. Famously, Macklemore received pretty much no criticism from any of his fellow nominees when he ended up winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album over more artistically deserving albums by Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Drake. (Jay-Z was also nominated.) Of those four, Drake came the closest to a rebuke when he remarked: “This is how the world works: He made a brand of music that appealed to more people than me, Hov, Kanye and Kendrick. Whether people wanna say it’s racial, or whether it’s just the fact that he tapped into something we can’t tap into. That’s just how the cards fall.” Similarly, a country singer like Zac Brown hedged his words in criticizing the modern sound pushed by singers like Bryan—he wasn’t hating on the sinner, but the sin. To do so would be hypocritical, as though any singer with enough ego to make a full-time career of it isn’t trying to get as big as possible—as though it’s more ethical to make a Sprite commercial than a song like “Thrift Shop.”

The point of all of this is that there’s money to be made, and no point in ignoring a constantly growing audience thirsting for both rap and country. Some fans and artists may be battling with those identity issues of how to remain authentic while getting bigger, but the definition of “authentic” continues to shift. Who can decide what “selling out” means in 2014? It’s much easier to have fun.

“I think those collaborations came to be because the industry now understands that country music consumers are not a music fan of only one type of music,” Karen Stump, senior director of consumer insights at the Country Music Association, told me. “You’re not country only or rap only; people like both. I think that’s been there for some time, but we recognize it now, so collaborations work well, and the reverse is they help grow the interests of artists and music as a crossover.” She points to interior data suggesting that today’s modern country fan is, essentially, anyone: young and old, rich and poor, college-educated and not. As the popularity of the music has grown, so has its audience. New York City, the pinko progressive capital of the world, even opened up a country music radio station last year, Nash 94.7, after 17 years without one.

Not every collaboration is destined for success. Florida Georgia Line and Nelly may have hit the top of the charts, but Brad Paisley and LL Cool J weren’t received so warmly when they collaborated on the ill-titled, ill-advised, ill-everything’d “Accidental Racist.” They were honestly trying to ameliorate lingering tensions (real or imagined) between their respective fan bases, but it came off as a little too on-the-nose. Conversely, the “Cruise” remix succeeded because the subject matter was so remarkably unambitious—it’s a song about cruising and having a good time. The world hasn’t totally spun around—Tim McGraw aside, it’s still more likely to see a rapper on a country song, not the other way around—but we’re getting closer. In the end, the promise of the market evens everything out. If you’re still proud to not listen to rap or country, you’re suddenly in the minority.

Jeremy Gordon

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