Driving through the southern United States some months ago, finding something sensible to listen to on the radio was a constant struggle. Thing is, who wants silence on a solo trip? And I quickly tired of the two CDs I had thoughtfully brought—just two, clever me—on this trip. So the radio it had to be. Except …
First, so many religious stations, all in a permanent state of good Christian outrage. “Homosexuality is against God’s word!” exclaimed one righteous talk-show guest. Another spluttered: “I can’t believe I have to make a case for chastity to young Christian women!”
Then, on Saturdays, college basketball sprouts all over the dial. Words like “transition” and “trey,” “Cavs” and “’noles,” “personal foul,” and “free throw”—they float through the air. And you’ll definitely hear that one or the other team is “moving from right to left across your radio dial.”
But god and ball games eventually give way, as they must, to country music.
Why does every male country star sport that deep, slightly nasal twang? Women twang too, but at least there is a deal of variation in their voices. Do the men go through some required course at Country Music University, in which the diligent student learns about belts with huge buckles, stetsons, and the twang? I had ample time to speculate while driving through the heartland of the Dollys and Waylons, Lorettas and Billy Rays, listening to their songs.
What is it about country music? What is it about the southern U.S. in particular that makes the music so popular there when elsewhere people would likely scoff at it? (How many country stations are there in New England?)
I know I’m not the first person to wonder about that. But can we find a parallel to something that people have begun to notice in India?
In his book Being Indian, the writer-bureaucrat Pavan Varma muses about the explosion of interest in Bollywood music over the last several years. It has always been popular, but there’s something new about the way it has captured the imagination of India’s youth especially.
Varma’s theory is that film music used to be based on classical music. Thus it was still just a little bit highbrow. Today, it has come off that pedestal. Popular film songs are simpler both musically and lyrically: basic foot-stomping rhythm, lots of drums and bass, no profound words.
Consider these lines from the title song of the delightful super-hit Lage Raho Munnabhai.
Freewheeling translation from the Hindi:
“If anyone knows the answer then please tell me / Will she be a hifi item, or will she be homely? / Will she touch ma’s feet, or just say ‘hi’? / Tell me, oh tell me, how will things be? / Like this, or like that, how will they be? / Will they be like I just want them to be? / Oh man, oh man … Carry on, Munnabhai!”
No great poetry here, but a catchy, popular tune that touches chords across the land.
The purists snort at all this, nostalgic as they are about past greats—Saigal, Sahir, O.P. Nayyar, Naushad and more. Yet today’s songs are huge hits with the famous “common” man—again, especially the youth. They play incessantly on FM radio. They are the wheels on which shows like “Indian Idol” and “Nach Baliye” rake in millions. They are lip-synced—yes, that peculiarly Indian talent—by hordes of pre-teens prancing suggestively to applause from adoring parents.
Popular classes, even in California, teach “Bollywood dancing” as an art form by itself.
“Dumbed down” is too strong a phrase for what’s happened to Indian film music. But there’s certainly a heightened, widened appeal that’s moved way beyond people who know their ragas.
Does something like this apply to country?
Do New Englanders, say, have more intellectual music tastes than Southerners? Is country simple-minded in comparison? The Talking Heads, with their intense lyrics, for example, came from a funkily highbrow school: RISD in Providence. Could such a band have sprung from the lower Appalachians, or the cotton fields of Alabama? Perhaps in the economically less developed South—that’s a generalization, I know, but I’m casting about for answers—there are less pretensions to intricate chord sequences and meaningful lyrics. Maybe there’s just an appreciation for music you can listen and dance to, even laugh at, without much thought. Maybe that explains the simpler structures, the homespun lyrics, of country. No need to go on about answers that blow in the wind, or sound off silently over softly creeping visions that leave seeds while I’m sleeping.
Take, for example, the hit I heard often enough to have drilled in my head, Rodney Atkins singing “Watching YouWatching You”:
“Driving through town just my boy and me / With a happy meal in his booster seat / Knowing that he couldn’t have the toy / Till his nuggets were gone / Green traffic light turned straight to red / I hit my brakes and mumbled under my breath / As fries went a flying and his orange drink covered his lap / Well then my four year old said a four letter word / That started with ‘s’ and I was concerned / So I said son now where did you learn to talk like that?”
Or consider Pam Tillis’s “Please,” in which a young mother struggles to get ready for a date:
“Babysitter said seven / She’s fifteen minutes late / Jimmy’s still playing in the bath / Cold macaroni on his plate / And I still haven’t done my hair / I hate doin’ my hair / It never comes out right / I must have changed my clothes / A half a dozen times / Ended up in this little black dress / I had to mend the hemline / And now I can’t find my shoes / I can never find my shoes / God I hate this.”
This is not the dreamy airy-fairyness that you have to puzzle over, that may mean something different to the next guy. Nope, these words are about everyday, down-to-earth things, situations we’ve all known.
Nuggets, happy meals, bad hair, and babysitters: straight-ahead stuff, this country music. I mean, all the way to that, “God I hate this.” Imagine Pam grinding her teeth in frustration and understand: you’re not going to find that line in a Talking Heads tune.
Hit the road, Jack, or Pam, or Rodney, and hey, what you see is what you get. That’s the country secret—maybe the Bollywood secret, too—and it works. It grew on me with every song that wafted from my stereo.
Even started to seem sensible.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|