When Rolling Stone started its first ever genre-specific subdomain with Rolling Stone Country in 2014, one of the primary concerns from country fans was that the outlet would interject its political ideologies into the music space similar to how the long-running left-leaning periodical has done throughout its history. When Saving Country Music interviewed the Senior Editor Beville Dunkerley before the launch of the site, she assured, “As far as government politics, hell no! We’ll leave that to the magazine and RollingStone.com.”
Of course, policies and personnel can change. Beville Dunkerley recently moved on to work for Pandora, and Rolling Stone Country‘s other Senior Editor Joseph Hudak assumed the reigns of the outlet exclusively in November 2016. Almost immediately, and amidst the contentious environment of the recent Presidential election, it was clear that Rolling Stone Country would be completely willing to get political compared to its previous stance, including a piece posted by Hudak days after the promotion where he compare the backlash to Beyoncé’s performance on the CMA’s with Donald Trump’s Presidential win.
Now Joseph Hudak and Rolling Stone Country have decided they’ve had enough of country artists sitting on the sidelines as Donald Trump trashes our country, and is basically trying to guilt trip them to getting involved in the anti-Trump movement.
“It’s no longer a reasonable excuse to say that country artists are stuck in the stranglehold of radio, or that speaking out means a guaranteed Dixie Chicks-style blacklisting,” the article says. “Yes, there will be fallout, but after this weekend’s parade of lies, falsehoods and ‘alternative facts’ bullshit by the administration, it’s too dangerous not to stand up.”
I don’t think Rolling Stone Country has fully thought through what they’re advocating for here. I think Joseph Hudak is a great writer and editor, and I’ve had respect for him going back to his Country Weekly days. But the last thing we need is country artists like Luke Bryan and Justin Moore getting all political on our asses. While we’re at it, how about we advocate for Dan + Shay to dole out tax advice, and nominate LeAnn Rimes for Interior Secretary? If you think the policies of the Camacho Presidency are ridiculous, wait until Florida Georgia Line starts sharing their political stances.
You can’t just call for the political activation of the artists of country music, and expect for only the ones that are opposed to Donald Trump to speak up. But that’s exactly what Rolling Stone Country is hoping for, and says so multiple times in the piece. “If you’re ambivalent about any of this, by all means, proceed with business as usual,” it says, while in the same breath, talking down to those artists who’ve turned an “ambivalent” eye to Donald Trump as being complicit to the problem.
I hate to burst your bubble, but most of the artists of mainstream country—which are the ones whose voices would make a difference if they spoke up because of the amount of people who would actually listen—are Trump supporters, or are at least conservatives, and probably feel positive about many of Trump’s policies. You don’t think that by doing a call to arms for political action from the country music talent pool you’re not going to awaken this conservative, pro-Trump beast as well? You think these artists will honor your request to just ignore the call to action if they’re fine with Trump? At the best this prodding to act out politically will result in a sum neutral for the anti-Trump forces, if not inadvertently ignite a fervor of Trump support among mainstream country music artists that heretofore has remained generally dormant, and curiously so.
In fact I’ve been both surprised and somewhat impressed that the vast majority of country music artists have chosen to remain on the sidelines throughout this political shit storm out of respect for their fans, the political process, and their place in it. I’ve found new admiration for some of these artists from the wisdom they’ve shown by not allowing the press and current events to not draw them offsides, understanding that we’re seeing one of the most politically contentious environments since The Civil War, and not in spite of, but due to the seriousness of the matter, have decided to remain on the sidelines, and focus on their sphere of the world: music.
This idea that country music artists need to speak out about Trump is predicated on the wrong-minded notion that celebrities, especially mainstream country music singers for crying out loud, have either some moral superiority or elevated political acumen to speak on these matters with more authority than the rest of us do.
As Whitey Morgan once said, “You’re a fucking entertainer. I don’t give a fuck what you think about the state of the goddamn world. Fucking entertain me, that’s what I paid you to do. I know that’s pretty harsh, but that’s the way I feel sometimes. Where do they get off thinking they know best?”
Who gives a shit what Cole Swindell thinks about how to resolve the insolvency of the Affordable Care Act? If anything, being a pop country music artist makes one uniquely unqualified to compose and share opinions on political matters. I love Alan Jackson, but he once won a CMA Song of the Year award while admitting he didn’t know the difference between Iraq and Iran. Belief that celebrity somehow elevates one’s political opinions is exactly how Donald J. Trump got elected President of the United States.
Don’t mistake this with the idea that I don’t believe country music artists or anyone else don’t have the right to speak out politically, or even include political messages in their music. As someone who operates under the auspices of the 1st Amendment on a daily basis, I will take up arms to ensure that Sam Hunt and Chase Rice can say whatever stupid-ass things they believe about politics, even if it’s against my own opinions, and unfairly bolstered by their celebrity status.
What is most dangerous here about Rolling Stone Country‘s assertions is this mindset that either you actively speak out and engage in political discourse, or somehow you are a party to the worst offenses of either Donald Trump or his supporters. In other words, you could have voted for Hillary Clinton, a third party candidate, or not voted at all. Yet if you don’t come out in vehement opposition to Donald Trump as an official stance as part of your pop country celebrity franchise, then you are complicit with racism, homophobia, lies, and environmental destruction. Even though Rolling Stone Country‘s Joseph Hudak at times tries to tell readers that if they disagree, the can feel free to stop reading, he also states, “You either accept that lying is wrong or you do not. You accept that mocking the disabled is wrong or you do not. And you accept that sexual assault is wrong or you do not. There is no middle ground.”
But there is middle ground, which is believing that just because you have been afforded an audience with the public through your celebrity status as a country music star, doesn’t mean you have a right to use that privilege to assert your political beliefs on the public. Or perhaps as a country music star, you believe that music should be a place apart from political polarization, and should be respected as an art form that can bridge differences as opposed to creating or exacerbating them, and this is more important now than ever.
Speaking of celebrities speaking out on political matters, John Stewart, the former host of the politically-charged and left-leaning The Daily Show, said recently in an interview,
There’s now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. There are guys that I love, that I respect, that I think have incredible qualities, who are not afraid of Mexicans and who are not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums. In the Liberal community you hate the idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look a Muslims as a monolith. They are individuals, and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country. So this is the fight we wage against ourselves and each other.
What Rolling Stone Country is attempting to do by this call to political action is to politicize the institution of country music. This is a very dangerous thing to do. What happened when country music became politicized in the aftermath of 9/11? Toby Keith and his often belligerent rhetoric became the poster boy for country music for a decade, and the Dixie Chicks were unfairly ostracized from the genre due to the fury that swept over the country listening population.
As an institution, country music is doing exactly what it should be doing at this moment, which is staying the hell out of politics, trying to respect music fans of all belief systems, and trying to keep at least one sector of the American culture free and clean of the acrimonious environment created whenever anything political is broached.
That doesn’t mean we don’t live in important times, and that people shouldn’t act upon whatever their heart is telling them. The American left is very angry at the moment, and this is understandable. But if we politicize every sector of American life, and continue to draw battle lines with each other, this politically corrosive environment could do just as much to undermine the arts, culture, and well being in American life as any policy of the Trump Administration.
We’re already seeing this happen in American media. The proliferation of ad blockers, and the rise of Facebook and the mobile web already bankrupted and put out-of-business a major portion of the independent and mainstream press coverage for music and other cultural interests at the end of 2015. Now the political season that once was regarded as cyclical, has become virtually endless, and the rapt attention by the American public has made everything else an afterthought.
Even the NFL has suffered this season, and though some have surmised that politics isn’t to blame because the lack of viewership extended until after the election, this is a shortsighted view. We didn’t reach the peak of political fervor during the Presidential debates, on election night, or even during the inauguration. Right now, today, the political acrimony and media chatter is just as widespread, and arguably even more strident than at any point during the election itself, and it’s getting worse. This is probably why Rolling Stone Country feels the need to delve into political waters. Trying to get people to pay attention to your artist feature or album review in this environment is like trying to roller skate uphill.
One thing Joseph Hudak does get right is that the artists of country music are in a unique position to reach many of the voters in Trumpland. But that doesn’t mean those listeners will be receptive to the message Rolling Stone Country wants them to heed, even if country artists were willing to deliver it, which they aren’t. These people have been marginalized, lampooned, called racists and homophobes in many cases simply for living in rural, Trump-voting areas and being white and male, and people wonder why they voted how they did. They’ve lost their jobs, seen their communities get ravaged, been forgotten in time, and marginalized. The rural disenfranchised don’t need celebrities shouting at them about what to think and how to vote, they need someone to listen to them. Donald Trump did, and now they’re listening to him. This is the lesson in believing the people of rural America were insignificant.
The election of President Trump has brought out a lot of ugliness in both sides of the political aisle. The reason it may look worse and more dire for people on the left at the moment is because they are out of power. It is a shame we live in an era when even our leaders can’t agree on basic truths, but everyone is pushing fake news, spurious facts, reading polarizing information from slanted sources, and passing judgement on one another. All the more reason to isolate this behavior within the political fold, and leave music out of it.