While in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago, I searched fruitlessly for a tolerable radio station on the rental car radio. The only station that came in clearly in our neck of the woods was a pop station from North Georgia that played the same handful of songs over and over. When I heard “So What” for the sixth time in one day (I am not exaggerating), I made a vow right then and there to somehow make life a living hell for Pink. That song (along with “Hot and Cold” and “Disturbia”) was so firmly lodged in my head, on the flight home I considered staging a one-man hijacking so I could seize the controls from the pilot and crash us into a mountain to silence the bubbly pop.
When we drove into town, more stations began to show up. Barb and I noticed a pattern, and she said, “It’s all either Christian stations or country.” I turned off the radio and stated the sad truth: they’ve become the same thing.
First off, let me make my own position clear. As a purveyor of alt-country, that backlash to the overall pussification of popular country music, I like to keep a close eye on the enemy. So I tune in to the two local country stations frequently just to see if there’s any hope that country radio has grown a pair. In the last couple of years or so, I’ve noticed a shift in the focus of these recycled Firefall singles—instead of aiming squarely for the soccer mom demographic, Pop Country is wearing its religion on its sleeve.
Don’t mistake this as a discussion about religion or the existence of God or any of that. It’s about the Christian Right co-opting an entire genre of popular music, shutting out those of us who either don’t subscribe to the Christian doctrine, or do not care to hear it blended so thickly into our country music.
Perhaps it was “Jesus Take the Wheel” that kicked down the chapel door. Maybe it was even Randy Travis’ “Three Crosses” back in 2002 or so. Who knows. But nowadays the rhythm of Top 40 country has become the thumping of a Bible. There’s always been a mostly-unspoken understanding in country music that it’s a God-fearing Christian at the mic, even when it’s some hell raiser like George Jones or Johnny Cash. Today, though, it’s right in your face. You won’t hear more than two or three songs go by without some mention of God or Jesus or praying or angels.
This sickening stream of treacle and pap makes the lightweight confections of mid-90’s stars like Garth Brooks and Sammy Kershaw look absolutely badass in comparison. In the world of modern country, everybody goes to church, everybody prays, and Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven (But Nobody Wants To Go Right Now).
Hey, I’ve got nothing against people singing about their spirituality. Whatever gets you through the night. But I believe in the separation of Church and Station. If I want to listen to Christian rock or hymnals or gospel, I’ll seek it out. I’m trying to get a handle on the zeitgeist of country music, and all this religious pandering is completely gumming up the works.
“Jesus Was a Country Boy,” “Jesus and Mama Always Loved Me,” “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Jesus and Gravity,” “She Left Me For Jesus,” “800 Pound Jesus”—these aren’t church signs announcing this week’s sermon, they are just a few Christ-based songs that have blessed the country charts in the last couple of years. Just as hard rock stations feature songs about death, destruction and dominance, country stations feed their masses with non-secular nuggets of feel-good faith. It’s become so blatant that it’s hard not to imagine that the pendulum is nearing the end of its arc, and a backlash of more traditional country themes—cheating, drinking, lying, screwing, etc.—will begin to emerge.
I’m trying to do my part by writing my own songs about religious hypocrisy (“Jesus In My Heart”) and alternate spirituality (“As For Me”). But my feeble efforts cannot approach the brilliance of Ed Rush and George Cromarty, who wrote the best Jesus-themed country song of all time. You might remember hearing Paul Newman sing it in “Cool Hand Luke.” Bob sez check it out.
“Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
Through all trials and tribulations,
We will travel every nation,
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.”