Country Grammar: Patriotism Exploited

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How Patriotism Became the Selling Point of Popular Country Music

by: Leslie Hale
Contributing Columnist

I was 13-years-old on September 11, 2001, a seventh grader at Levelland Junior High. Like most Americans who are old enough to remember that Tuesday morning, I carry snapshots in my memory that resurface around this time every year.

I first learned about the attacks in a history classroom several hours after they occurred. For whatever reason, the administrators at our school thought it best not to tell us what was going on; they wanted the students to remain oblivious to the events that were unfolding that morning, and they wanted the teachers to facilitate that by going about their day and teaching as if nothing was amiss. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for our teachers, and apparently for this one teacher in particular it was just too much. She found the policy insulting, and she didn’t abide by it. She thought we deserved and were old enough to be told what was happening, and so she explained it as best she could, given the limited information at the time and seventh-graders’ limited ability to comprehend it. Then she turned on the radio, and we spent the rest of the class listening in dumbfounded silence as the details and death tolls continued to roll in, each report more heartbreaking than the last.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, the palpable and undeniable weight of a nation’s grief hung in the air. It was hard to process and, even today, hard to describe.

But many have tried, and that effort has taken many forms, from novels to documentaries to magazine covers to conspiracy-laden YouTube videos — and, of course, country songs.

My most-played Pandora station consists of the country music I grew up on: Garth Brooks, George Strait, Shania Twain…all the greats of ‘90s and early-2000’s country (in my opinion, the all-time greatest era of country music, though that could just be the nostalgia talking). I was listening to this station recently, and for the first time in years I heard a song I had all but forgotten about.

Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” was first performed at the 2001 CMA awards, just two months after the September 11 attacks. The song went on to top Billboard’s country chart for several weeks and peaked at number 28 on the Hot 100. Ironic, seeing as Jackson was initially hesitant to record the song, let alone release it, as he didn’t want to capitalize on a tragedy. It seems as though his motivation in writing the song was to simply process his own feelings about the events of 9/11. He is quoted as saying, “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song, and I didn’t want to be vengeful…but I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”

And he captured that feeling well. In just a few verses and a stunningly simple, honest chorus, Jackson manages to describe the fog of emotions we all felt that day – the confusion, the anger, the isolation, the panic, the uncertainty of what it all meant and the longing for anything resembling the comfort and innocence we’d known before that tragic September morning.

But despite its poignancy and initial popularity, Jackson’s heartfelt tribute didn’t seem to have the staying power of other songs with the same subject matter. One artist above all others seems to have made an enduring and profitable brand out of post-9/11 patriotism. I’m speaking, of course, of the angry American himself: Toby Keith.

Before I go on, let me explain that my feelings regarding Toby Keith are complicated. I want to hate him, but I can’t bring myself to. How could I hate the man who sang “I Should Have Been a Cowboy”, one of those aforementioned great ‘90s country songs? Plus the guy wrote and recorded a song with STING, for crying out loud – and it was good! And, okay, fine, “Red Solo Cup” was my ringtone for way longer than I care to admit.

Plus, though it’s easy to tout Toby as a hate-monger who has banked on sensationalistic redneck anthems for over a decade, the fact is that the guy has consistently put his money where his mouth is by entertaining the troops overseas and founding and supporting several charities for soldiers and veterans, among other causes (most recently, he was one of the artists who helped raise funds for the victims of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado). Though his songs are often trite (and let’s be honest, objectively awful), it could be argued that perhaps the ends justify the means.

Probably the most well-known of Keith’s patriotic anthems, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was released not long after Alan Jackson’s tribute and enjoyed similar success. But that’s where the songs’ similarities end. While Jackson’s tune was tasteful, introspective, almost hymnal, Keith’s was…well, a Toby Keith song. It was crass, borderline tasteless and lacking in lyrical and musical depth. Just about the only good thing I can say about “The Angry American” is that it makes for a great 4th of July drinking game. (How to play: Listen to the song and take a drink every time Toby makes a reference to America, or any American symbol or institution. Just make sure to keep a phone close by for when you inevitably need to call an ambulance after one of your friends starts showing signs of alcohol poisoning.)

Regardless of whether Keith’s intention was to become the poster boy for proud, patriotic “arena country” – which seems to have become a subgenre all its own – that was the eventual result. Like apple pie and baseball, it’s hard not to think “America” when you hear the name Toby Keith.

Alan Jackson didn’t set out to write a vengeful, patriotic song. Toby Keith obviously did. He succeeded, and he continues to milk that success 12 years later.

In the years since 9/11, we have seen our country become the most divided it has been since the Civil War. With all the ignorance and vitriol spewed from both ends of the spectrum, it’s hard to believe there was a time not so long ago when we all momentarily forgot about our disagreements and differences and took the time to recognize our common humanity in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

And that, I believe, is where Alan Jackson got it right. He managed to speak to that humanity in an honest, heartfelt way. He managed to write a song that captured a range of emotions that, at the time, were almost impossible to find words for. And though he didn’t set out to write a patriotic song per se, I believe that Jackson managed to write something more truly patriotic, more American, than anything Toby Keith has ever recorded.

Toby Keith’s patriotism is a Coors Light kegstand at a Memorial Day cookout. Alan Jackson’s is a quiet moment of introspection on an eerily still September morning.

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I could tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.

Jackson is, of course, referencing 1 Corinthians 13:13, one of the most popular of oft-quoted Bible verses. But when listening to the song, I can’t help but think of a different passage from that same book.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Quite a far cry from “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”.

Of course, I can’t possibly know what was on either of these men’s minds when they wrote these songs, and far be it from me to criticize. People have different ways of processing their feelings after such traumatic events. Maybe there is some validity in anger. In fact, there almost certainly is.

But there is also something to be said for patriotism like Jackson’s. There is something to be said for humility. There is something to be said for a person who isn’t afraid to admit that anger was just one of the many emotions they felt that day – emotions that also included confusion, despair, loneliness, faith, hope, and love.

These days, we’re often told, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”. I don’t agree. And if someone asked you on the morning of September 11, 2001, I don’t think you would either.

So, this September 11 – Patriot Day, as it’s come to be known – think back to how you felt that morning so many years ago. Think back to where you were. What you did. Who you called. What you said. Think back to what you was going through your mind as you fell asleep that night, and how it felt to wake up in a world you knew would never be the same. My guess is that, in those first few moments, you were feeling closer to Alan Jackson’s singer of simple songs than to Toby Keith’s angry American.

And if you ask me, we could all stand to be a little more Alan Jackson and a little less Toby Keith.

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