David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: What Alexandra Petri Should Have Said in the Washington Post.


Kelly Clarkson’s Inaugural Song Means the Death of Country Music

Inaugural country singer Kelly Clarkson said that her story is America’s story.

If that’s the case, America should be slightly concerned. Ms. Clarkson is a walking example of the American dream — as she eloquently puts it, “the American story is in many ways my story — I even played Brenda Lee in a TV show called “American Dreams.’”

She has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in country western singing, a field that may very well be obsolete.

I say this lovingly as a member of the poetry world and as an expatriate Texan. If country music is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.

Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?

Can a country music singer singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” still change anything?

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy actual country music, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven honky tonk proprietors explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a country music concert, the attendees were almost without exception students of country music who were there in the hopes of extra credit.

One of the songs, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices compared to BBQ joints. I am not saying that it was a bad song. It was a good song, within the constraints of what country music means now. But I think what we mean by country music is a limp and fangless thing.

Country music has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up (I’m saying Johnny Cash, I’m saying Patsy Cline, I’m saying Hank Williams, I’m saying Alison Krauss, I’m saying George Jones, I’m saying Ralph Stanley) to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of American Idol auditions in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily care for.

Or is this too harsh?

We know, we think, from high school, the sort of thing a country music song is. It is generally twangy, although it could be pop-twangy, if it wanted. It describes something very clichély, or it makes a note we did not expect, and it has shallow layers that we have no need to analyze. But we analyze it still. We analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express themselves in this way. Then we put the country music song back in the sleeve and go about our lives.

The kind of country music they sing on the radio and ladle in your direction at the Inaugural even in the form of one of the most recognized American standards ever — well, it’s all very nice, and sounds a lot like a country music song, but — it has changed nothing.

I understand that this is the point when someone stands up on a chair and starts to explain that country music is the strainer through which we glimpse ourselves and hear the true story of our era. But is it? You do not get the news from country music, as I think Woodie Guthrie said. Full stop. You barely get the news from the news.

All the prestige of country music dates back to when it was the way you got the most vital news there is — your people’s stories. “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” “Crazy.” “Ring of Fire.” All music used to be country music.

But then gospel splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded and the words did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did not want to. We have movies now that are capable of presenting images to us with a precision that would have made Bob Wills keel over. All the things that country music used to do, other things do much better.

“Country music is dead,” nobody tweeted Monday because it was unnecessary. “What pretends to be country music now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie music.” There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of song have long been abandoned. What is left? It is a parroting of something that used to be radical. It is about as useful as, well, a poem. There is no “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” possible or “Stand By Your Man.” There is no “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

As someone who loves country western music, I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for country music. It used to be something that you listen to outside of school in your friend’s pickup, nipping a little Jim Beam and Dr. Pepper. It used to be that if you were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Country Western Songs, you darted off and wrote lyrics somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.

These days, country music is institutionalized pop. Everyone can sing it. But if you want a lot of people to read it, or at least the Right Interested Persons, there are a few choked channels of Reputable Labels and TV reality shows.

Or am I being too harsh?

Something similar could be said of the Washinton Post’s treatment of poetry today, after all. The Washington Post that used to honor poetry with its Poets Corner.

And whenever people say this about journalism, they note that people have an insatiable hunger for news. Journalism in its present form may not continue, but journalism will. It will have to. Otherwise where will the news come from? And, is this even news? This, this thing I’m writing right now? Is it? Is it?

And this might be the silver lining for country music. The kind of news you get from country western, as Woodie had it, must come from somewhere. And there is a similar hunger for country music that persists. We get it in diluted doses in poetry. Poetry is incomplete country music, as Sondheim should have noted in the book of his own. But there is still wonderful poetry to be found in that music. Country music, taken back to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.

But after the inaugural, after Kelly Clarkson’s wounding of one of this country’s greatest songs, a true country song if ever there was, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — I wonder what will become of country music now.

I don’t know where the country music that will define us next will come from. Hope may be as fresh on our tongues as it ever was. But is country music? For after all, as the poet said, “Country music makes nothing happen.”

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →