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Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the womens volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Kamalani Akeo: An unsung hero contributing to the success of Pitt volleyball
By Matthew Scabilloni, Senior Staff Writer • 10:10 am

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Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the womens volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Kamalani Akeo: An unsung hero contributing to the success of Pitt volleyball
By Matthew Scabilloni, Senior Staff Writer • 10:10 am

Opinion | Resisting country music is futile

Country+music+artist+Connor+Smith+plays+the+guitar+during+his+concert+at+Stage+AE.
Nate Yonamine | Assistant Visual Editor
Country music artist Connor Smith plays the guitar during his concert at Stage AE.

Coming from Arizona, country music has long been integral to my life. It was the soundtrack to summertime, to softball practice and grocery shopping. No barbeque was complete without the croons of Chris Stapleton. I often felt ashamed to enjoy it, however. To me, it felt like it only discussed religion — my complicated relationship with which I have no room to discuss in this column — guns, America and sex. 

Growing up in a conservative area with a relatively liberal upbringing — my mom was openly out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community — it felt as though I needed to defend my “liberal agenda” with my entire outward-facing persona. Positioning myself as opposed to such a surface-level representation of conservatism felt obvious.

Not to date myself, but I was born in 2003, meaning that I‘ve only lived in a post 9/11 world. My first exposure to country music that I can remember is Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” Back then, I thought listeners of country music all fit the dumb, hay-chewing caricature I pictured. But country music is more layered than I had ever thought.

It’s impossible to talk about country’s sound or message without giving respect and acknowledgement to its origins. Country music was originally a Southern musical tradition when it entered the national mainstream in the 1920s. The genre wouldn’t exist without the influence of African American tradition — namely, the blues. The blues genre originated following the Civil War era in the late 1800s and was largely influenced by the work songs and field hollers of enslaved people. The genre contained the pain of injustice due to centuries of unfathomable horrors reaped against a people — the blues, characterized for its emotionally raw vocal expression of feeling rather than a simple narrative, was a manifestation of suffering. 

The pain of Depression-era unrest was a focal point of country music’s emergence into the mainstream in the 1920s. However, it’s important to note that country music’s evolution into the mainstream coincided with the expulsion of Black artists from the genre. Despite my argument that recent changes within the genre signify a brighter, more informed and inclusive future, these changes do not erase the systemic racism within the genre or its racist themes throughout the 20th century, nor do they excuse the significant and disproportionate lack of mainstream representation of Black artists now. 

Though country remained a popular genre throughout the 20th century, especially for the blue-collar working class, it took on a more conservative form and approach in the hands of white performers. Songs focused on stereotypically American themes — think freedom, trucks and God.

Men lamented the country girls they had loved and lost, occasionally dabbling in some heartbreak-induced alcoholism to freshen the mix. Making love was always safe. When more women joined the scene, Dolly blamed Jolene for stealing her man, Reba questioned who he loved, while Shania remained steadfast in her commitment to the one she loved. Notice the focus of these songs — the success of most women in country music was contingent on their adherence to the precedence, meaning that they weren’t to make waves. Love songs — and their amiability to performing them — allowed them to stay in the mainstream. 

The Chicks are the cautionary tale used to scare younger country stars, Taylor Swift being one of them. The unification of the country following the jolt to the national consciousness that was 9/11 meant sweeping aside the U.S.’ failings. There was an onset of patriotism and nationalism all throughout U.S. culture following the attacks, but there is hardly a more prime example than the flow of “America First” country music. See Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)”.

In 2003, The Chicks were ostracized from the industry after criticizing President Bush’s then-imminent invasion of Iraq and U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. They publicly denounced his intended actions and made their shame in sharing their home state of Texas with the former president undeniably known. This resulted in an outright rejection of The Chicks as public figures. Sponsorships were pulled, hate mail was sent — they were blacklisted.

The powers that be recognized the force of musical propaganda — they utilized it during the Great Recession. When the markets crashed in 2008, we looked to music for distraction. Pop club hits such as Kesha’s “TiK ToK,” Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” and Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)” all focus on the spaces they were meant to occupy. Tonight you can forget your woes — losing your house, your parents’ impending divorce, your crippling student loan debt — all you truly need can be found on the dance floor!

The emergence of the pandemic as a global threat forced everyone indoors. I’m not going to rehash the events of the past four years for that reason, but an especially important effect of quarantine was the onslaught of reflection and education it inspired. Our reemergence into society coincided with a renewed sense of political responsibility and an indignance for the corrupt systems in place. The pandemic irrevocably and undeniably altered the attitude of the country — a move that translated into country music.

Of course, most of us remember Kelsea Ballerini’s performance “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO),” where she brought Drag Queens out on stage during the 2023 CMT awards after the banning of Drag performances in Nashville. The Chicks released their album “Gaslighter” in 2020, which was welcomed by America.

However, the shift I’m referring to is less outwardly performative — well, as much as music can be non-performative — as its focus was an articulative message. Tyler Childers’ 2020 response to the Black Lives Matter movement took shape in his song, “Long Violent HistoryIt’s called me belligеrent, it’s took me for ignorant/ But it ain’t never once made me scared just to be/ Could you imagine just constantly worryin’/ Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?” 

I am not claiming that country music has shifted perfectly toward political awareness and advocacy. It was only in 2017 that Tyler Childers released his song “Feathered Indians.” The threat of suppression is ever looming — Morgan Wallen’s hit song “Last Night” is reminiscent of 2010 club hits, but more alarming are his actions. He found himself in the midst of being canceled — yet somehow escaped its grips — when a video from 2021 resurfaced in which he uses racial slurs

Recent developments have shown promise. We now live in a time where there’s room in the industry to serve more than Ford F-150 owners. Resistance to state tyranny, big money and systemic abuses of power were at the crux of country music as it was born. Now, we’re seeing it come back around in 2024, ready to bolster the next generation to use music as a vehicle of change.

Gabriela Herring is an English writing major with minors in English literature and secondary education. She mostly writes about things that her friends (and her mom) are tired of hearing her talk about. Write to her at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Gabriela Herring, Staff Columnist
Gabriela Herring is an English Writing major with minors in English Literature and Secondary Education. She mostly writes about things that her friends (and her mom) are tired of hearing her talk about. Write to her at [email protected].