The Song, Not The Singer

Chris Neal | September 9th, 2010


When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, each person who knew enough about his music and his life to have an opinion on either (that is to say, pretty much everyone all over the world) was forced to decide: Did his personal behavior detract from the value of the music he made? Did the increasingly bizarre plastic surgery make the pulsing beat of “Billie Jean” less danceable? Did the allegations of child abuse make “Man in the Mirror” less true? More than a year later, there is no clear consensus, and likely there never will be. Since the first caveman painted on a wall 32,000 years ago, we have sought and failed to separate our perception of art from our perception of those who create it. “I guess that’s a pretty good picture of a bison hunt,” some Paleolithic wag surely said, “but coming from Ogg, I’m just not sure. Isn’t he a vegetarian? What does he know about hunting?”

This dilemma has always been particularly acute in the world of country music. No other genre has such a strongly held tradition of putting artists and fans into personal contact, and no other genre so aggressively sells the idea that its artists and fans share the same ideals and values. Mainstream country songs are built not to sell a fantasy (as is often the case in rock and hip-hop), but to reflect the listener’s reality—and the person singing them is expected to share that reality.

chely-wrightThe modern country music business is such an efficient machine that fans are rarely forced to face the cognitive dissonance of separating art from artist—so when it happens, it’s a doozy. Chely Wright hadn’t seen the inside of Billboard’s country Top 40 chart since 2005, but she nonetheless has spent two decades tirelessly recruiting fans from among the traditional, conservative-minded mainstream country audience. So when she came out of the closet in May, longtime devotees who were uncomfortable with her homosexuality had to determine whether her music now sounded different to them. Did “Single White Female” still ring true coming from the lips of someone who is most certainly not, as the song says, “looking for a man like you”?

In theory, it shouldn’t. For one thing, Wright didn’t write “Single White Female,” so when she sings it she is naturally singing in character—something almost every country star does on a regular basis if he or she relies even occasionally on the work of outside songwriters. But more importantly, songs aren’t just about the surface text of their lyrics. “Single White Female” is ostensibly about a woman who’s attracted to a man, but at its heart it’s about the uncertainty of letting someone know how you feel about them. That’s something that anyone, male or female, gay or straight, can understand and relate to.

Just the same, a song should not be given undue weight because of things we like about the artist. “Anything Like Me” might take on an added resonance for fans that know Brad Paisley is the father of two young sons, but that information shouldn’t be necessary to appreciate the song to its fullest. Their exceedingly generous work for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt might reflect on the personalities of Rascal Flatts’ members, but it doesn’t make “Unstoppable” or “My Wish” any better or worse. If Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert write a song together, we should be able to listen to it with open ears rather than comb it for inside details about their relationship.

I’ve encountered fans who argue that “Remember When” is a great song precisely because it reflects the long history that Alan Jackson has shared with his wife, especially given the couple’s candid admissions about the challenges they faced along the way in keeping their marriage together. But for a listener who doesn’t have that context, “Remember When” has only its words and music to recommend it. That listener must be able to pour his or her own experiences into the song; it is those thoughts and feelings that matter to the song’s long-term value, not Jackson’s marital history.

charlie-danielsOne of the major minefields in keeping art and artists separate is politics. Mainstream country fans tend to lean rightward, and many grow uncomfortable if they learn that an artist singing to them doesn’t share those views. It wasn’t Natalie Maines’ disrespect toward a sitting president that enraged so many country fans back in March 2003, it was the discovery that she and her bandmates were liberals in a field that discouraged them from saying so openly. Many listeners who had heard and enjoyed the Dixie Chicks’ previous music now rushed to dismiss it and devalue it, as if somehow the actual sounds on the CDs they were steamrollering had changed. Tim McGraw has managed to avoid the same fate by letting his views be known in a more subtle manner, but what if he hadn’t? Must “Don’t Take the Girl” become less meaningful for a Republican listener if that person is alerted to fact that the man singing it is a Democrat? For that matter, is it fair if a liberal fan denies the self-evident power and glory of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” if he or she objects to Charlie Daniels’ right-wing blog posts?

Holding political views contrary to our own is far from the only way artists can upset fans on an extramusical level. Country music has long performed an ever-shifting balancing act between the glorification of bad behavior and the condemnation of same. We like to think of certain stars as hard-drinking, freewheeling partiers and rebels, just as we like to think of others as stable, easygoing family men and women. There are many classic country songs celebrating infidelity as a sweet temptation, but when a country star gets caught sleeping around fans aren’t always terribly understanding. The reverse can also be true: sympathy for Sara Evans following the messy 2006 dissolution of her marriage no doubt plays into the public’s perception of her new single, “A Little Bit Stronger,” about a woman recovering from a bitter breakup. The song should stand on its own, but it simply cannot. As country fans paying attention to the news about our favorite artists, we know too much.

Luckily, our ability to separate the art from the artist seems to grow with distance and perspective. Pablo Picasso was a militant communist with a raft of mistresses, but today we feel free to appreciate his works without worry. The British public was mortified by Lord Byron’s extramarital exploits in the early 1800s, but today we are perfectly capable of appreciating the splendor of “She Walks In Beauty.” Country music is no different—Hank Williams was certainly a handful backstage, but his music is easily recognized as among the greatest of the 20th century. At the moment we may not be able to keep our ideas about the singer from affecting our ideas about the song, and that is unfortunate but understandable. The art that lasts will eventually shrug off the baggage that comes along with its creators.

  1. SamB
    September 9, 2010 at 6:53 am

    This is an absolutely excellent article, and I agree with just about every word. I did a course at university that looked at the different schools of literary criticism, including the various conflicts between the ones who state that the author’s biography should be completely ignored and immaterial when criticising a work, and the ones who believe it’s an intrinsic part of the work. It’s a topic I find extremely interesting!

  2. Drew
    September 9, 2010 at 7:01 am

    I’ll echo what SamB said above me, just an excellent article here. I hope we get to read more from Neal, as the message and the writing delivering said message is truly great.

  3. Paul W Dennis
    September 9, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Good article – I think an educated listener should be able to separate the artist from the art. You completely can disagree with Pete Seeger’s politics (as I do) and still accept the magnificence of his body of music. David Alan Coe has realist some really racist and sexist material, but that does not detract from his story telling abilities. One of Coe’s songs “Will You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)” was recorded and interpreted by Tanya Tucker, one of country’s wilder souls but can you really hear the song performed by anyone else

  4. Tara Seetharam
    September 9, 2010 at 7:45 am

    This is a fantastic piece, and such an interesting, relevant topic to explore.

  5. Ollie
    September 9, 2010 at 8:13 am

    I think this is a great piece but I note that some art and some songs are intended to make political statements and under those very limited circumstances, I don’t feel it is necessary or appropriate to “separate art from artist.” When Kathy Mattea sings “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” at an NRDC benefit at The Ryman, she intends for listeners to know that she opposes mountain removal coal mining. Similarly, whenever Steve Earle sings Ellis Unit 1, he intends for listeners to know he opposes the death penalty.

  6. Barry Mazor
    September 9, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Well said and timely, Mr. Neal..Glad to know you’ll be around here.

  7. Thomas
    September 9, 2010 at 8:58 am

    …very enjoyable reading, chris n. couldn’t help picturing the vegetarian caveman’s facial expression, when his buddies would come back to the cave from their hunting trip with a mammoth, letting him know: sorry, broccoli was out, pal.

  8. Mike
    September 9, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I think the reason why political party affilation doesn’t mean as much in today’s country music is because the demographics of the average listener this decade have shifted. Among the new listeners (that the likes of today’s current stars brought in to the format), there are a lot more Democrats listening to today’s country music than there used to be. It may still slightly lean towards the right, but it’s not nearly as much right leaning as it used to be. It might be more like 52% – 48% today. At least among people who care about that stuff. Because 48% is a pretty big number, that’s why an artist like Brad Paisley can get away with boasting about Obama without the country music audience doing much more than blinking an eye towards his popularity. Basically, the listening audience is shifting towards what the Southern Democrats platform used to represent.

  9. tobysooner
    September 9, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Fantastic reading Chris Neal…THANKS!

  10. Waynoe
    September 9, 2010 at 10:02 am

    It appears that the views of artists referenced above are overwqhlemingly liberal. Does the same hold true for outspoken conservatives? Why didn’t names like Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, etc. appear above with names like Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, Chely Wright, McGraw, etc?

  11. Mike Parker
    September 9, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Just like actors aren’t necessarily anything like the parts they play, singers aren’t necessarily anything like the songs they sing. However, for me at least, if I’m interested in an actor or a singer, I think it’s a relevant exercise to try and analyze why the picked a particular role or song.

    Some fall into one-note roles based on whatever controversy they’re neck-deep in. For instance, before Ellen came out of the closet I enjoyed her sitcom. When she came out of the closet, I didn’t enjoy the show anymore- not because she was openly gay, but because every single joke in the show was about her being gay, and it got old. Similarly with the Dixie Chicks. Loved their albums right up to that last one, which seemed to be completely about them and their struggles. It was a one-note album and didn’t speak to me at all.

    Other times, I think when a singer is closer to their song, the PERFORMANCE of that song is what makes it a hit, and then the song and artist can’t/shouldn’t be separated.

    Great topic. Really enjoyed the article.

  12. SamB
    September 9, 2010 at 10:30 am

    One thing I’ll note here is that, not being American, I’m naturally not as exposed to a lot of the parts of a singer’s backstory – the things that come out in the media. For example, until I read this, I had no idea that Charlie Daniels was right-wing (or indeed, that he had any political stance whatsoever).

    What I’m trying to say is that I feel it gives me (and other listeners who aren’t American) a different perspective on the music.

  13. Stormy
    September 9, 2010 at 10:33 am

    One thing I’ll note here is that, not being American, I’m naturally not as exposed to a lot of the parts of a singer’s backstory – the things that come out in the media. For example, until I read this, I had no idea that Charlie Daniels was right-wing (or indeed, that he had any political stance whatsoever).

    You couldn’t figure it out from his songs?

  14. Rick
    September 9, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Chris said: “It wasn’t Natalie Maines’ disrespect toward a sitting president that enraged so many country fans back in March 2003, it was the discovery that she and her bandmates were liberals in a field that discouraged them from saying so openly.” I have to strongly disagree with you about this Chris. It’s what Natalie said, where she said it, and how she said it that pissed a whole lot of country fans off, not the fact she was exposed as a liberal. If country artists keep their politics to temselves and don’t get up on a soapbox in public statements (or on stage), then most country fans don’t care which way the artist leans.

    I agree with Mike’s statement about the change in demographics in the mainstream country realm, ie that the radio audience keeps getting more democrat/liberal. Men tend to be more conservative than women (and especially single women), so as the audience becomes more female dominated the political stance moves leftward. Also Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have brought huge numbers of young, pop culture oriented people into the mainstream country realm that tend to be far more liberal than older listeners. The vast majority of Top 40 country fans under age 30 couldn’t care less if Chely Wright is gay or not, but her current music probably doesn’t appeal to them.

    This is a well written article Chris even if I do disagree on quite a few points made. After having written all those capsule reviews for Country Weekly over the years, it must be nice for you to have the shackles taken off! (lol)

  15. Lewis
    September 9, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Rick: One of Johnny Cash’s “The One On Your Right Is On The Left” lyrics rings true, “and if you have political ambitions, keep them to yourself.” Perhaps many country artists could learn from this especially Charlie Daniels.

  16. Chris N.
    September 9, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Rick, it is indeed a luxury to be allowed to blather on for more than 100 words at a time. Thanks all for the kind words.

  17. Jon
    September 9, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    @Chris N. Nice piece.

    @Waynoe: Did you even bother to read it?! You put the proposition that there are no stupid questions to a pretty severe test.

  18. Leeann
    September 9, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    This is excellent.

  19. J.R. Journey
    September 9, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    This may be my favorite thing I’ve read all year.

    If we could have the experience of hearing an artist’s catalog without knowing anything about their backstory, we might have a different opinion about it. I think SamB has a point that fans (rather American or not) who don’t follow the news, read Country Weekly, or any country blogs, probably do have a different perspective about singers than those of us who do. But then how are these people finding the music if they’re not reading about the artists? Wouldn’t that limit country radio, terrestrial or satellite, to their only source for finding music?

    There are only a handful of men – and even less women – who have put their political views to music. Toby Keith is one of the most recent examples, and even he stayed fairly MOR with his lyrics. Older artists like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard kept mostly to social issues, rather than political ones too.

    But when I hear a new artist I like, it’s just natural for me to go and want to read up about their life, where they come from, etc. I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess it mostly does stem from wanting the singer to be coming from a similar place as me, therefore increasing my chances of relating to the song. Terri Clark is way more interesting to me – and her music is certainly better – since she changed directions to a more mature woman with her indie album. But I have to admit that knowing that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and all Clark went through figured largely in my consumption of the album. Same with Chely Wright. Though she addresses it in one song on the record, her revealing her sexuality (which she did go out of her way to make public, I’ll add) was a major factor in my reaction to songs like ‘Broken’ and ‘Damn Liar’

  20. Waynoe
    September 9, 2010 at 7:57 pm


    Glad to see you escaped from the home again.

  21. Steve Harvey
    September 9, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    I’ve encountered fans who argue that “Remember When” is a great song precisely because it reflects the long history that Alan Jackson has shared with his wife, especially given the couple’s candid admissions about the challenges they faced along the way in keeping their marriage together.

    Remember When was my favourite Alan Jackson tune long before I even knew he was married.

    Fantastic article, by the way.

  22. Lewis
    September 10, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Stormy: Charlie Daniels is all over the place with his politics. In fact, he had some disturbing downright hateful and nasty things to say in Country Weekly a couple of weeks back about what he thinks about this mess we’re in. Won’t get into it much on here on his hate but you could Google the article and see for yourself of how hateful a man he is.

  23. Ace
    September 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Yeah, a man who consistently goes overseas and entertains the U.S. military and who donates time and money to help children with catastrophic diseases at St.Jude’s in Memphis is a HATEFUL person.

    Quit whining, left winger’s see hate in all passionate opposition. You must agree and kowtow or else your an evil bigot. Please.

  24. Cutting the Treacle
    September 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    “Luckily, our ability to separate the art from the artist seems to grow with distance and perspective.”

    Totally disagree. You can’t appreciate Guernica without understanding Picasso’s politics. And outside of political art, one doesn’t view a Van Gogh without thinking of the troubled artist behind it. Trying to separate the art from the artist is to look at the world with one eye closed. You can do it, but to what end?

  25. Barry Mazor
    September 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Treacle Cutter–to me, this finally has something to do with generosity of response.

    “Knowing about the artist,” is the same as having other info and context– good to have, IMHO–for the purpose of increasing what you might be able to respond to, and the depth of your response–rather than to shut possibilities, or artists, down. Life’s too short to “explain” to people why they’re not supposed to like what they respond to, but we can open up some other windows.

    It’s why some of us bother with interviews with artists–and with attempting challenging criticism, not just thumbs up/thumbs down buying guides.

  26. Thomas
    September 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    …i can’t support treacle’s point of view. although often times the encoutner with pieces of art leads to take a closer look at the artist behind the work, i consider this only as additional information, however interesting it may be, on something that i have appreciated for its own merits. even guernica is not a clear cut case in point.

    when it comes to country music in particular, before the internet, it was rather difficult to get hold of much information about country artists, when living here in europe. it didn’t bother me one second. the music itself was enough. everything else was just nice to have.

  27. Joseph
    September 11, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Very good article. What hit me immediately when reading this was Rod Stewarts “If you want my body” lol. I think for the most part (for me at least) to separate the artist’s personal life/story from the song itself. However, sometimes the way the artist acts in public can certainly make some music less stomach-able as well. Thanks for the nice read.


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