I think, before we go on, it’s important to remember how this conversation started, as a rage about what being an imposter means, and then where it went, into a meditation on whether one can ever escape her past, even if the people of her past no longer recognize her.
In other words, it was not about Aaron Fox personally, but about the ways in which I felt threatened by the implications of what he was saying.
Having now read his article, I can’t say that’s changed.
It’s funny. I actually started thinking about all this again after Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon went off on Nashville. She says, in part:
A lot of this came up for me recently, and I would have buried it except tonight my boyfriend went on a standard rant about how Nashville ruined country music. It’s true–a bunch of assholes decided country would sell better if you eliminated the fiddle and the steel guitar and the banjo and replaced it with pop music and called it country because an occasional twang could be extracted from the singer.
(An aside: I lived in Virginia for a couple months and sang a lot of karaoke. Occasionally people would try country and fail miserably. I cannot sing to save my life, but I would sing Patsy Cline and the Dixie Chicks and because I have the requisite twang, people would be so impressed. It was funny.)
The reason I quote this part is that it inadvertently reveals something very crucial to our discussion, I think, which is that our ideas about what is “country” are very much shaped by what we’re told is country music, regardless of what it actually sounds like. At the same moment she says “a bunch of assholes decided country would sell better if you eliminated the fiddle and the steel guitar and the banjo and replaced it with pop music and called it country”–implicating Shania and Faith and them–she evokes Patsy Cline, whose most popular songs don’t, by Marcotte’s standards, sound country at all.
Who does Marcotte see as the “real” country stars, the voices Nashville has left behind? Steve Earle, Dale Watson, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. Who does Fox identify as the people outside of “Nashville” currently? John Conlee and Waylon Jennings, early Randy Travis, Steve Earle, Dwight Youkum, Hank Williams. Fox says that when he hosted a radio show in New Jersey, he had to find a way to balance listeners’ desire to hear the Statler Brothers and Conway Twitty against the need to play what was on the Americana charts. But Fox clearly enjoys the energy of hearing these old, now neglected stars next to these new stars, also neglected by the Nashville establishment. So, he’s recognizing a commonality between these older stars and the alt.country crowd.
And now, my friends, we’re in an interesting place. Because, now that you’ve seen the list of who makes up the alternate universe, who is recognized as being “authentic” and “real,” clearly you’ve noticed who’s not real or authentic country music.
I’m not going to get too into this–the many ways women are excluded from being “real” country–, because I’m not Barbara Ching, and all I’d be doing is rehashing her kick-ass chapter in A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music. (Yes, the home of that awesome Michael Bertrand essay.) But I want to talk about what it means that women are not automatically recognized as being producers of “real” country music.
Let’s start with Shania Twain, since everyone seems to point to her as being the most fake, least country thing Nashville has ever produced. She really writes her own songs. She’s really from a destitute, working class background. She really put her own dreams on hold to take care of her family and then came to Nashville to pursue her career. She then really made music that appealed to a wide audience of real country music fans (as much as she’s had wide success, her fans are made up of a great many regular country music fans).
She’s got exactly the right characteristics. And yet Marcotte, Fox, and even I (shit, everyone except Steve Pick) characterize her as not a part of this authentic country music that we love. What’s going on?
I truly don’t know.
But here’s the more interesting question. What’s a girl to do? How can a woman be “real”? How can she be “authentic”? If having what seems to be the right credentials isn’t good enough, what is?
You could sleep with Gram Parsons like Emmylou Harris. You could sing songs about your rough upbringing like Loretta Lynn or Gretchen Wilson. You could make yourself so obviously fake that it circles around into real again like Dolly Parton. Or you can wear your hair back and dress very plain and take what you’re doing very, very seriously while being in awe of your opportunities like Gillian Welch.
But the truth is you have to do something, even if, like Lynn and Wilson, what you do is to pretend to be who you already are. You can’t just be.
So, here’s where it’s really interesting for me. What the fuck does it mean for me to have called Aaron Fox a poseur? With what authority can I indict him for anything? See, and here’s where his article suggests some really interesting shit that he doesn’t quite get to because of the constraints of the book it’s published it (but he hints at the contours of such an argument in his discussion of the kinds of working class masculinities that were celebrated right after September 11th). Being recognized as authentically country means something very different for men than it does for women.
For Fox, there is some standard, some core of “authentically country” that he can allude to (even if he disagrees about the fairness of such standard existing). He can rightly say to me “You are, in fact, using class to stereotype me (I put myself through Harvard working two and sometimes three full time jobs, and I’m the son of a professor and a nurse, not a banker or a president, I smoke, and like it sounds as if you do, I live pretty much paycheck to paycheck. What does that make me, a Rockefeller?)”; he can call upon his lived experiences to reinforce his authority to speak–working two or three full time jobs, being a DJ, listening to this music, knowing the cannon, AND, most importantly, he can allude to our common experiences to say “look, you live paycheck to paycheck and I live paycheck to paycheck. In some important ways, I’m very much like you.”
And that’s the crux of the awesome feminist mistake he’s making, what he’s not getting when he reads me–like Marcotte, I’m not real. I can only access authenticity through Willie and Waylon and the boys. He can’t say “In important ways, I’m like you,” because the way the whole discourse of country music is set up, it doesn’t work that way. I can be like him, but he can’t be like me, because I, as an autonomous individual that is real and authentic just by being, don’t exist.
So, he’s mistaking me for as real as him (thank the gods) and I’m mistaking him for as unreal as me, hence the reason I about died of shock when he showed up here in the first place.
All very interesting.