What them white people thinkin’ ’bout

The left needs to trade Terry Gross and NPR for Tim McGraw and K102.

Ask almost any politically active liberal or radical in the Twin Cities which radio station he or she listens to most, and chances are it’s going to be one of three: 91.1 FM (Minnesota Public Radio), 770 AM (Radio K) or 90.3 FM (KFAI).

At best this is a shame, and at worst it’s tragic. The most useful and important political commentary on the radio isn’t on “Free Speech Radio News” or “Democracy Now” – it’s on 102.1 FM (K102), the Twin Cities’ contemporary country music station. Anyone who wants a better understanding of contemporary U.S. politics should spend a few weeks listening to Top 40 country singles.

As everyone knows, the Democratic Party is trying to climb out of a well-deserved rut – and is doing a lousy job. John Kerry, D-Mass., should be trouncing the clown in the White House in every single poll. But he isn’t and he can’t. The reason for this is well known: Support for Democrats has declined precipitously among working- and lower-class whites.

There are two standard narratives about this trend. The first – the one trumpeted by the Democratic Leadership Council – is that the party has turned into a freak show. According to this narrative, the Democrats have been hijacked by a cabal of feminists, black nationalists, queers, atheists and others who are out of touch with “the mainstream.”

The second narrative – perhaps more insidious – is working- and lower-class whites themselves are the problem: They are too stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. to be part of any authentic progressive movement.

Both narratives are dead wrong and it’s sad they continue to be so prevalent amongst those who ought to know better. If more liberals and radicals spent a few weeks listening to commercial country music stations like K102, the left would be much stronger today.

Almost all the country songs in heavy rotation convey anxieties, yearnings and sentiments that are far more compatible with a progressive or radical political agenda than with a conservative one. In fact (unlike the freak-nasty doggerel on stations like 101.3 FM (KDWB)), many country songs express outright hostility toward authority, wealth, entrepreneurial skill and consumerism.

The omnipresent theme in popular country music today is the modern world’s lack of stability or permanence. For example, in “19 Somethin’,” Mark Wills wishes he could return to the carefree days of his youth: “Now I’ve got a mortgage and an SUV/ But all this responsibility/ Makes me wish (sometimes)/ That it was nineteen eighty-something.” And in “In a Real Love,” Phil Vassar sings about how his wife got pregnant when “I was 22 workin’ double overtime/ I was spending dollars and makin’ dimes/ We were overdrawn, and barely hangin’ on.”

And so on. To regain lost momentum, progressives and radicals have to reach out to the kind of people (and there are obviously a lot of them) who find lyrics like Wills’ and Vassar’s meaningful. After all, it is the left that promises secure jobs, plenty of leisure time, a check on the “Wal-Martification” of rural areas and rewarding socially valuable but unpaid labor (e.g. homemaking, coaching your kid’s baseball team) – it doesn’t get any more family friendly than that. To overstate the case (but only a little) there’s a honky-tonkin’, truck drivin’, whiskey drinkin’, shotgun shootin’ leftist revolutionary waiting to emerge in the average country music fan – he or she just needs a little encouragement.

Of course, the source of many of the anxieties expressed in contemporary country music is capitalism. It’s really striking how radical this music can sound when you listen to it with a sympathetic ear. It’s time for those of us on the left to swallow our pride (and our snobbery) and trade Terry Gross and Amy Goodman for Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Rachel Proctor at K102. The rewards could be significant.

Nick Woomer welcomes feedback at [email protected]