The Unfit “King”

I didn’t cry and there’s nothing wrong with me (Gladwellocalypse, Part 2)

The new season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, is really good. It started off with one on golf, which was a bit of a softball—I don’t know the demographics of the podcast’s listeners, but I somehow don’t think the rich jerks and CEOs the piece puts in its sights are among them, or if they are, that it remotely hurt their feelings. But then he moved on to some pretty deep and serious topics: terrorism, desegregation, the Civil Rights Movement, racist Winston Churchill—discussing the Bengal famine of 1943, which I’ve also written about indirectly as one element of British imperialism in India. And then came one on country music.

Now as a writer I get it: sometimes you need to lighten things up, or if nothing else, go a bit afield from the topics you usually cover—the eclecticism of my own articles is evident. And also, you can’t always please everyone. Finally, if Season One of RevHist was an indicator, there’s going to be one that I just disagree with. This, it seems, is that one. So in spite of my wife hating it when Malcolm and I fight, here goes:

I know that he’s not intending to be scientific by comparing Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 rock songs as if they were emblematic of what all the writers, performers, and listeners think about the genre, to the small sampling of individual country songs he has handpicked for their tear-jerking qualities. The corpus of rock music is much larger than that of country, and covers a wider range of topics.

And rock isn’t really a genre at all, and hasn’t been for a long time, but a supergenre—maybe even a megagenre. Even the list he quotes demonstrates this when it mentions The Ronettes and Nirvana in the same breath. Wikipedia lists some 43 genres of rock in their article on the topic, which links still more articles that get even more specific. Many maps and family trees have been created and argued about regarding how all of these interrelate.

One of the exemplars Gladwell puts forth is Unwed Fathers, and specifically the line:

Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever
He just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.

Right from its name, the song is not about these two—the mother and child have no agency in the tale, and only exist as the hapless victims of the titular men. These are generic, not specific people, and definitely not real ones.

Just to stick to the same theme for something like an apples-to-apples comparison, I offer Everclear’s “Father of Mine”. I’m not even really a fan of this band—I own no CDs and no songs and never have, but just from catching it on the radio, this one gets me way more—the refrain “Daddy gave me a name/ then he walked away”, is pretty raw, but then it has lyrics like:

Father of mine,
Tell me where did you go?
Yeah, you had the world inside your hand
But you did not seem to know.

These seem to me to drill down into that sense of loss much more effectively than the country piece. Maybe because Gladwell had a fairly idyllic upbringing, while mine was less so, my feelings are a bit more attuned to the story Everclear’s Art Alexakis tells from his own experience as a child abandoned by his father. He writes about the sadness, but also the bitterness, anger, and how hard it is to let other people in afterwards. That’s quite specific and also quite real.

And I’m talking about specificity because Gladwell offers that as the reason country music’s lyrics are sadder. While I’ve already offered a counterexample, I’d also disagree with the point as a general rule. Detail can actually make songs less relatable. Turning back to “Unwed Fathers”, the lyrics make sure to let you know that it’s an “Appalachian Greyhound station”, but its story is one that happens everywhere and at every time.

There is a device, used across a variety of media called a cipher, also known as the everyman after a 15th-century English morality play of the same name, as well as by a variety of other names. The idea is that the audience is presented with rather undeveloped elements, particularly around place and character, and they fill in the details, or more specifically, their own details—putting themselves into the work. A listener not from the Smoky Mountains listening to “Unwed Fathers” might feel excluded; that there is something about this experience that is outside of their understanding, when there’s really not.

Gladwell next advances the idea that since everyone is from the same area, they all have a shared context, and that’s what allows them to be more specific. Here I think he’s delved into complete nonsense.

Maybe my take on this comes from having lived in Japan, a large, highly homogenous society. I can tell you that in their case, at least, it leads not to more, but to less specificity—their shared worldview means that they can say less and still be understood perfectly.

In fact, this is the idea behind haiku, and its predecessor, tanka. the Japanese, and particularly those of the imperial court were bored of hearing so many words, and the strictures of the syllabic poetic form were created, at least in part, so that rather than being explicit, composers would be forced to employ metaphors. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), one of the masters of the haiku is famous for the piece:

古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音

An ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The splash of water

This seems simple and pictorialist at first blush, but as Dorothy Britton notes:¹

It carries one, in imagination, to the veranda of a temple in Kyoto, perhaps overlooking a landscaped garden hundreds of years old with a moss-edged pond. One hears the sudden plop of a frog jumping into the dark water on a still spring afternoon. But the thought process started by this poem go on and on. The pond could be eternity, God or the Ultimate Truth about this universe and man. And we, brash mortals with our works and investigations—each one of us no better than a frog jumping—make but a moment’s splash, and the ripples circle and die away….

Gladwell talks about “layering” in country songs; this is layering.

Next he interviews Bobby Braddock, songwriter of the showcased pieces, and the main subject of the story, searching for the source of his weepy lyricism:

Your… kind of … tolerance for emotional volatility seems extraordinary.

Braddock replies:

I guess “tolerance” is probably a pretty good word for it.

I kept expecting Gladwell to circle back and replace it with wallowing. Instead, he says, much more favorably:

[…] Braddock is from the musical side of the United States where emotion is not something to be endured, it’s something to be embraced.

He goes on to detail how Braddock used to eavesdrop on other people’s cell phone conversations, which presumably inspired some of his works. That’s just creepy, and voyeuristic would indeed be a good descriptor for many of the country lyrics Gladwell talks about.

“He Stopped Loving her Today”, the Braddock song that Gladwell dwells on most, is again, pretty creepy. It’s about a couple that breaks up, but the man never stops obsessing about her until he dies. That’s not a touching sentiment in my book.

And there’s also a certain inauthenticity that comes from observing these emotional states and perceiving them from the outside. Braddock is looking for tools to extract tears from our faces not telling heartfelt stories of things he has actually experienced.

I’d liken it to ER—I had to stop watching the show, even though the acting and characters were great, because every time a pregnant mother came into the hospital, you knew she was a Chekhov’s Gun, and it was just a matter of when and how they were going to use her to shoot you square in the feels. Real, heartfelt emotion does not have a North-South divide, but I don’t want to have my feelings manipulated by made-up narratives with nothing but a profit motive revealed when the layers are peeled back.

Part of the premise of Gladwell’s piece was shown in its subtitle: “A musical interpretation of divided America”. In other words he’s saying our political differences match those in the emotionality of our preferred musical styles, with rock standing in for the North and country for the South. And maybe he’s right—maybe I’ve just touched on why Astroturfing and wedge issues work better in the red states.

To conclude, let me throw a gauntlet back at Gladwell: listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up”. Again, I’m not a fan of The Boss, but even before I read his recent autobiography, Born to Run, I could tell this song was highly personal. After reading the book I know that the album it comes from, Tunnel of Love, was written during his first marriage that was just not working out. If you don’t consider this New Jerseyan’s sparely worded tale of a dysfunctional relationship, blue-collar squalor, drinking to forget, and potential marital infidelity to be on a par, if not far beyond, any manufactured melodrama delivered in a folksy twang, maybe you’re the one who’s beyond help.

But only in this regard; I look forward to more RevHist. Between the writing and publication of this article, two further RevHist episodes have come out, both about racism in the legal system and they were also excellent.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2 Addendum: Golf No Softball

Part 3: Descent into the Absurd


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: The Limits of “Revisionist History”


Notes

  1. In A Haiku Journey, 1980.

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