One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.
Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.
In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.
Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.
Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.
It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.
Left Kenny, 2011; Right Kenny, 2015. That, folks, is what’s called establishing a brand. pic.twitter.com/mouRMdVGbx
— Chris Speckhard (@ChrisSpeckhard) June 21, 2015
Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.
Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.