Tag Archives: white supremacy

Overturning “the Lie that Has Made Country Music Bad, Boring and Fake”

Brittney Spencer performing under multicolored stage lights
Brittney Spencer performing in Nashville

Laurie and Debbie say:

The incomparable Tressie McMillan Cottom has a long read, The Black Vanguard in White Utopias, up at The Undefeated. Like everything Cottom writes, the whole thing is worth your time and attention. We especially appreciated her analysis of the racial history of the country music scene and how that is playing out in the 2020s, which is not to undervalue her writing about the music, the venue, or the Jason Isbell concert that sparked the piece.

Isbell, who is white and male, has a radical political stance which is out of keeping with the country music industry. One way this shows up is that he regularly features women, especially Black women as opening acts. The eight women featured in the 2021 Nashville concert series Cottom attended were Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Adia Victoria.

Despite living on a fantasy island of its own making, the country music industry is struggling to ignore Black Lives Matter, especially the white reactionary response. Country artists, fans and critics are duking it out in culture wars over vaccines, critical race theory and conspiracy theories. The more country music ignores the social and political moment, the more disconnected from its fan base it becomes and the more culturally impotent it appears. The problem for country’s gatekeepers is that plenty of people still have a healthy appetite for the genre’s white utopianism. But that audience wants country music to reflect its political anger. A new, expanding audience dabbles in country’s artistry but detests its politics. That audience wants a country music product that does not traffic in conservative nostalgia.

Unsure of how to reconcile these competing demands, the mainstream country music machine’s playbook is erasure.

Cottom’s piece combines historical research, interviews with Isbell and many of his opening performers, and incisive commentary.

To see how ugly sonic segregation is in today’s country music, it helps to know where it started. While the genre has always been sentimental, country music used to acknowledge public problems like the Vietnam War and wage theft and corporate greed and political malfeasance and domestic violence and even the civil rights movement. But in the 1970s, a backlash to the 1960s’ progressive movements crystallized into a political ideology when Richard Nixon made overtures to white voters through an appeal to country music. Nixon declared the first Country Music Month in 1970, and his new “silent majority” strategy started a long courtship between Republicans, white voters and country music.

Then the 1980s arrived and a significant share of country’s audience got richer. More money attracted more political grift.

And …

Material conditions do not exist in country music for the same reason country music cannot platform Black voices. Race is materiality. Country tropes erase the who, what and why in their myth-making because those are directly tied to the racial conditions that country listeners are escaping. There is an Applebee’s but no taquería on a rural main street because there are no immigrants. Jobs are blue-collar but never service work because that work is racialized and gendered. There are no unions because unions have become female and non-white. There is no wage theft or cheating bosses because white country artists have more in common with bosses than workers. The country music racial repertoire is a soundtrack for an ethnoracial petite bourgeoisie that likes beer and agrees on who should not exist.

Cottom goes on to brief profiles of the various opening performers. She particularly name-checks Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire,” about the last slave ship to land in the United States. The images in the video are well-tuned to the subject matter.

 

Cottom’s conclusion?

Whatever the country music machine chooses to recognize, this Black country vanguard in cowgirl boots, Afro puffs, sequins, purple velvet, blowouts and graphic tees made beautiful music at The Ryman. Each night served a different slice of Black female interiority that is rarely seen in country or anywhere else. It was Black music and it was undeniably country. “Hell, yes, I make country music. Black people make country music,” Victoria told me. “But we cannot sell white people the nostalgia for a romantic white past.” Black country artists cannot sell white nostalgia because being Black is evidence of country music’s most sacred lie.

It is hard to mythologize millions of white Americans’ desire for a sonic landscape where the civil rights movement never happened and Oliver Brown never integrated public schools, and Marsha P. Johnson never threw a brick through a plate-glass window and Eric Garner wasn’t choked to death and Breonna Taylor wasn’t killed as she slept in her own bed. Maintaining that lie has made country music bad and boring and fake. The irony is that Black artistry troubles the lie with truth that would save white mediocrity from itself, if whiteness could stop drowning long enough to let it.

======================

Thanks to Marcia C. for the pointer.

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

======================

Imagining a Body-Positive Future

..
Laurie and Debbie say:

Anna North’s recent article in Vox, “The past, present, and future of body image in America,” is an interesting experience for the two of us to read. We have recently completed an academic article, on submission to a special issue of Fat Studies, which is surprisingly similar in its scope and outlook to North’s piece. Assuming it gets accepted, we’ll share that here when it is published in 2022; meanwhile, North’s piece is a different trek over much of the same ground, well named as “the past, present and future of body image.”

North’s conventional journalistic opener quotes a directly affected person (in this case, Elena Ariza, now 21, talking about her experiences with body-shaming as a Latino student in a predominantly white California middle-school and high school.

bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.”

Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance.

She goes on to discuss the Facebook/Instagram issues which Debbie wrote about here last week, and later some of the public reaction to the leaked documents.

young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.”

North then takes us back into a very brief history of the roles of thin-ness and fatness in earlier centuries in Europe, and a somewhat deeper dive into the history of the fat acceptance movement. She is scrupulously careful to keep reminding her readers of the links between fatphobia and racism:

[In the early 1970s,] Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”

“If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” [Sabrina] Strings [author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia] said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.”

..

..

In the last ten years, North recounts, things have begun to change:

Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds.

As both our forthcoming article and North are very aware, social media, of course, is a major driver of all the different things that are going on at the same time:

Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.”

Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said.

And North and the two of us end on very similar positive notes. While the problem remains huge and the damage being done every day is real, nonetheless there are new kinds of paths through and resources to draw on:

In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way.

Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.”

..

Although she never says it in so many words, North’s article implies that she believes, as we do, that nothing can change if we can’t imagine it changing–and if we aren’t willing to work to convert our imagined future into reality.

All photographs (c) 1994, Laurie Toby Edison, from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes.

======================

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

======================