The following are excerpts from an article publication in the Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM) by Dr. David Kwon, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Abstract: With the common correlation of the patriotic music community to “America,” country music after 9/11, in many respects, could be seen as a site for the reinforcement and construction of American national identity. This article particularly explores the use of country music in the United States to represent and create a political ideology of “imagined” national identity in the time period between September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in the Spring of 2003. However, the nation, as imagined in these country song lyrics, has very specific dimensions. It is not just any nation. It is perceived (and valued, for that matter) as justifiably aggressive. It is a Christian nation defined in opposition to the Islamic “other.” This targeted racial and religious group is not just an outside foreign “other” but a heavily stigmatized foreigner from within their own country. The mapping of these particular concepts of nation and religion onto mainstream country music constitutes its primary imagined identity.
Political theorist Benedict Anderson, in his study of the rise of nationalism, argued that a nation is an imagined community: “[This community] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” This concept of the imagined community is not limited to a nation and, as such, it can serve as a valuable lens through which to examine other imagined communities of various types and sizes. The goal of this analysis is to examine an imagined community with borders that are less clearly defined than those of a nation. This will illuminate some of the many ways in which this process of imagining actually takes place. The community in question is that of the producers and consumers of mainstream American country music. This analysis will be limited to the time period between the events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) and the early stages of the Iraq War in 2003.
The reasons for choosing this particular time frame are two-fold. First, a major crisis often precedes a time of construction or reformulation of a country’s identity. This crisis is more apparent than the ongoing, daily process of identity construction that occur in times of noncrisis. By focusing on the historical context of 9/11 in particular, many of the specific cultural expressions that facilitate, as well as indicate, the imagining of a community become immediately recognizable in a way that is much less transparent in other situations. Focusing on these expressions will provide insight into the subtler ways in which communities in general are imagined. The second reason for limiting the analysis to this particular time frame is that it relates directly to both the event itself and the subsequent increase in militarism and nationalism. The memory of 9/11 and the Second Gulf War are constructed by many of the songs that will serve as the data for this analysis.
What is being attempted is a sketching of the ambiguous boundaries that defined the mainstream country music industry in the wake of September 11, 2001. This is not an attempt to reify this community; rather, it is an attempt to analyze the country music trends that Americans “created” in the wake of these events. I will provide a general account of how this community imagined itself as indicated by the content of the music that this community produced and consumed. Since this is an analysis of the mainstream country music community, the data will be limited primarily to the lyrics of songs that were “popular” during this time period. Popularity of the songs is determined by airplay time on country music radio stations. For the airplay statistics, I have relied on the Billboard Hot Country and Singles Tracks charts, which are based on a national sample of roughly 150 country music stations that are monitored daily. Limited reference to music sales will also be included. The working assumption is that the popularity of these songs is a legitimate basis to make limited claims about country music’s imagined community.
From the analysis, I found that the country music community has imagined itself primarily in nationalistic terms, though religious identity is also prominent. The collective identity is essentially delineated as staunchly “American” and Christian. In fact, the community is generally imagined as America while those people who hold dissenting views are depicted as un-American. This study exposes some of the ways in which one particular aspect of American country music, one that emerged after 9/11, both reflected and constructed the porous boundaries of an imagined nationalist identity. This community, though existing only as a mental construct, is useful in analyzing and illuminating the complexities of human social constructions. The songs produced and consumed by this imagined community were only one means by which identity was constructed. A more nuanced analysis involving the greater context surrounding these songs would be necessary to understand further the process of collective identity construction.
Country Music: The Imagining of a Community through Popular Music
Music, as a part of popular culture, does not simply reflect reality, but it is an act of identity construction and negotiation. It is an everyday cultural practice to demonstrate, reflect, and provide commentary about the present day, all the while being “the accumulated store” of its relevant cultural products, such as fashion, dance, film, radio, and television. Hence, popular music is given meaning from its cultural context. Further, this music has rhetorical power primarily because ideologies can be easily expressed through its medium, which “are rhetorical, then to the extent that [lyrics] provide audiences with models—or strategies—for managing the meaning of ongoing everyday social struggles.” In analyzing this process, the consumption of particular songs—with particular ideologies—as opposed to others allows one to define their own imagined community. Additionally, there is a unique relationship between the popularity of the content of a song (which will eventually fade from public consumption on a mass scale) and the imagined community that calls for analysis. The continual changing of the material that serves as the basis for the imagined community is central to how this process of identity negotiation and reinforcement is created. As old songs fade from the charts, new songs must continually reappear in order to reinforce the imagined community. With this constant change in consumption material, there develops a certain level of continuity in the content. It is this continuity that allows one to roughly define the community boundaries that remain despite the constant change in consumer products.
There are two spheres that are central to the creation of this imagined community. The first sphere of influence is radio, the second is private music ownership. These spheres, in combination, support the imagined community of producers and consumers. With radio, there is always the knowledge that hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people are listening to the same song at the same time. As Anderson says regarding newspaper reading, “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” Although his statement includes newspapers, the same argument applies to popular music and, further nuanced, country music through radio. This temporal connection of action that can be both public and private simultaneously allows for an imagined community of people to share their common experiences with the same product. Meanwhile, music producers and executives intend to capitalize on this sense of unity by making the product “appeal to the widest possible audience.” Audiences do not require “special” knowledge or disciplined competence in order to engage with the popular country music heard on the radio, as compared to a more specialized genre like jazz.
In a related process, the act of purchasing (or even pirating) music also facilitates the imagining of a community. Sales figures, charts, countdowns, call-in requests, and music videos all provide consumers with the knowledge that a product that they enjoy is also enjoyed by some portion of the general population. Hence, a community of people with similar music preferences is imagined and reinforced based on their relationship to other consumers. As a result, this process creates social meaning and offers opportunities for consumers to connect with the product on both a personal and cultural level. It is the working premise of this essay that one possible way to understand certain aspects of the collective or shared identity of this imagined country music community is to analyze the content of the product that is being shared. As such, the lyrics of popular country songs will be analyzed in an effort to illuminate what this imagined community actually looks like.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso Books, 2006), 6; italics in original.
The American country music industry generally retained a pro-war stance until 2004 when popular opinion turned against the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, the narrative forms and features in these songs changed from the American metanarrative to personal stories about 9/111, patriotism, faith, and healing.
It should be noted that this analysis is only seen as a preliminary step in what has the potential to be a much larger project. Possible avenues for further investigation are enumerated at the end of this analysis.
For similar studies, see Barry Brummett, Rhetoric in Popular Culture, 5th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018); Theodore Matula, “Pow! to the People: The Make‐Up’s Reorganization of Punk Rhetoric,” Popular Music and Society 30, no. 1 (2007): 19‒38, http://doi.org/10.1080/03007760500453127; Michael F. Petracca and Madeleine Sorapure, Common Culture: Reading and Writing about American Popular Culture, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007).
Alan G. Johnson, Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology: A User’s Guide to Sociological Language, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), s.v. “Popular Culture.” Brummett pays particular attention to the rhetorical power of popular media: “If we want to understand how people are influenced on … issues, how public affairs are nudged in one direction or another, we need to look more at what is happening on television than on the Senate floor. The theory of rhetoric today is increasingly recognizing the important business that is done through popular culture” (Brummett, Rhetoric in Popular Culture, 63). Although Brummett’s example is television, the same argument is applicable to popular music, as well.
Matula, “Pow! to the People,” 22.
Johnson, The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, s.v., “Popular Culture.” See also, Rachel D. Godsil, Jessica MacFarlane, and Brian Sheppard, “Pop Culture, Perceptions, and Social Change: A Research Review,” #PopJustice 3, no. 4 (2016): 1‒34; and José van Dijck, “Record and Hold: Popular Music between Personal and Collective Memory,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 23, no. 5 (2006): 357‒74, http://doi.org/10.1080/07393180601046121.
Anderson, Imagined Communities, 35.
Kathleen E. R. Smith, God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 2. See also, Kim L. Purnell, “Listening to Lady Day: An Exploration of the Creative (Re)Negotiation of Identity Revealed in the Life Narratives and Music Lyrics of Billie Holiday,” Communication Quarterly 50, no. 3/4 (2002): 444‒66.
Smith, God Bless America, 2. For example, jazz is a countercultural example that is most appreciated when audiences understand the musical rules of the genre. Country music, on the other hand, as a popular music genre, is widely produced and distributed with a commercial intent for mass consumption.
For similar arguments, see van Dijck, “Record and Hold,” 357‒74 and Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511489433.