With liberal darlings Wendy Davis and Sandra Fluke hitting the skids on Tuesday, and “Girls” star Lena Dunham canceling public appearances and threatening to sue conservative outlets, it is perhaps time for another liberal savior to rise. And that’s where Kacey Musgraves, who took home Song of the Year for “Follow Your Arrow” at the CMA’s on Wednesday, comes in.
The song has been labeled controversial and progressive—and has been celebrated in such outlets as Rolling Stone and Slate. And you might be surprised to hear me say that, as a music fan, there is something about it I like.
So what should a conservative-leaning culture writer say about all of this? I’m torn. On one hand, I welcome the fact that country music is once again challenging us to think about one’s own personal philosophy. As the Dish noted recently, country music once boasted a wide array of complex and diverse political opinions.
In recent years, however, country radio largely eschewed controversial political stances in favor of songs about trucks and drinking and booty (not that these aren’t all fine American values—it’s just that one can only hear so many songs about them in a lifetime). It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment this occurred but, as journalist Erik Kleefeld noted, the completion of this shift coincided with the Dixie Chicks’ effectively being drummed out of country radio.
Younger readers might not realize it, but there was a time when country music regularly grappled with cultural issues, and when one could find a wide spectrum of opinions on the country dial. One minute, you might hear Loretta Lynn sing about “The Pill,” and then the next song would be Merle Haggard lamenting about long-haired hippies burning draft cards.
“Once upon a time, country was better than any other genre at doing ‘issue’ songs,” music journalist Chris Willman told Alyssa Rosenberg over the summer. “Now, they’ve all but abandoned that, with the rare exceptions that have something to do with cancer or patriotism, and even then, I’m thinking more of a few years ago than right now. I’d say there are at least a couple of reasons for that. ‘Bro-country’ is so dominant right now that it’s hard to put out a song that isn’t about tailgating or beer or partying or booty-chasing.”
These things tend to be cyclical, and—aesthetically speaking—I am happy that commercial country radio is beginning to once again embrace more edgy, rootsy songs. (They never really went away, of course. Americana music and “alt-country” musicians have churned out some great stuff; it has just mostly been absent from commercial or terrestrial radio).
But while I have grown to abhor “bro” country, and find the reemergence of diverse political and cultural commentary a welcome return, it’s hard to endorse the worldview presented here.
Not surprisingly, Musgraves’ success has captured the attention and admiration of some folks who might not normally be country fans. Perhaps desperate for a new liberal heroine, Slate tweeted: “A song about gay love and pot smoking just won country music’s song of the year. Really.”
Actually, they are misrepresenting the tune. Or, at least, it’s not that simple. One could just as easily argue that this song is a defense of traditional American values like chastity and sobriety and regular church attendance, inasmuch as those alternatives are presented as equally valid.
No, the real problem with this song is not that it promotes anything so much as that it promotes everything. Or maybe that, in so doing, it promotes nothing. Now, I’m sure that to young country fans living in the heartland—kids who have been inundated with hideous “bro country” songs about drinking and riding in trucks for a decade now—the notion that one should “do whatever you want” and “follow your arrow” might sound like an original, non-conformist, and daresay intellectual, concept. The fact that it makes your parents uncomfortable when it comes on the radio is an added bonus.
But, in fact, the message advocated here is nothing more than a twangy, catchy, and admittedly sexier, recycling of the pernicious “If it feels good do it” lie that led so many of the 60s generation into the darkness.
The danger, should anyone actually follow their arrow to the logical conclusion, is not that this song promotes the wrong values, or liberal values, or conservative values—and it’s certainly not that it encourages to trust our own instincts, no matter what the critics say—but that it presents all values as equally valid.
Anyone turning to country music for life lessons or values had better be content with the advice to simply not be so judgmental! Sadly, some impressionable young listeners will internalize this “advice.” And that’s unfortunate.
Moral relativism might sound fresh and courageous to young ears but, as a culture, it’s probably one of the most gutless cop-outs we can make. If following your arrow means being true to yourself and following your core values no matter what the crowd thinks, well that’s a good message. But this is the most generous interpretation, and, I suspect, the one least likely to be internalized by young fans.