Say what you will about MTV, but they might have been onto something regarding hegemony and subcultures. Back in the day when they were moderately into featuring music, they produced a short “public service announcement” about the life and death of the term “bling bling.” As they represent it, the term derived from the underground rap and hip-hop scene was quickly disseminated through mainstream audiences by way of media influence. In this exaggerated illustration, this continued until the term became something everyone and their grandmother was familiar with it. What started off as a way to describe aspirational luxuries such as an expensive ring or “grills” (pre-Miley, mind you) came to mean every other pair of earrings you could pick out at a department store. This commodification of language and lifestyle meant dilution of the subculture’s original meaning in favor of something more aligned with the dominant ideology, values and way of life.
As sociologist Dick Hebdige explains in his “From Culture to Hegemony,” all forms of culture, music included, are connected to the dominant ideology. Through time, subgroups or ideologies inevitably spring up to challenge the dominant model of order. And while these subcultures might gain traction through its attractive alternative styling, it is ultimately temporary. This temporary creation of semantic disorder only goes as far as the hegemony will allow it before the dominant culture incorporates these values into its own model. The language, values and practices are commodified into a tangible product, which is then distributed in its altered form. A clear example of how this process takes place is through the music sector and the different genres popularized over time.
One particular example is how country music has become popular over the past few decades. The genre originally evolved from traditional forms like gospel and Vaudeville to create narratives about the Southern way of life. Through the years, its appeal has become more prominent specifically with white audiences, but it has also reached mainstream levels. Geoff Mann further examines this in his article “Why does country music sound white? Race and the voice of nostalgia.” In his research, he attempts to answer two questions: 1) why does country music sound white? and 2) how does country music stay white? These two concepts are important, he says, because of the increasing profitability of the genre throughout the years, especially after the 1980s. He also makes note that the genre was used in political discourse throughout the post-WWII era and beyond.
As far as the reasons why country music sounds white, Mann assesses that lyrics of country music appeal to white audiences by focusing on rural life in Southern regions of the U.S. An underlying theme that continues to permeate the country music scene are narratives that represent an idealized past. These selections tend to champion simplicity, moral clarity, social stability, small communities, loyalty and so on. Country music began to evolve into a mainstream genre by the ’60s when teen rock culture hit the scene and “Nashville sound” blended rock ‘n’ roll with country foundations. By the ’70s and ’80s, romantic images of country life re-emerged through movies, TV shows and a more pop-focused musical sound. At this time, we saw previously niche country music become a national past time with celebrations of the genre in the middle of the Gulf War. As Mann puts it, “Country music ‘went to war’ for Bush Sr., as it had for Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, Eisenhower in Korea, and Roosevelt and Truman in World War II.”
Although country music came to the forefront of popular music, it’s still often regarded as one of the more distinct types of music out there. A considerably opposite type of music that has gone through this same process of commodification to mainstream is rap and hip-hop. Jeremy Gordon compared how these two styles are more alike than we might think in his article “I Listen to Everything, Except Rap and Country.” In contrast to Mann’s focus on country music’s growth, Gordon questions that if rap is historically black and country is historically Southern white, how can they co-exist, and why would they want to?
Rap and country collaborations are undeniably popular now. Take Nelly and Florida Georgia Line’s chart-topping “Cruise,” for example, and add it to the collection of mashups between the two genres among the likes of Jason Aldean and Ludacris, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, or Tim McGraw and Nelly. What could bring these two different types of music with niche audiences together?
“It’s not as weird as you might think,” Gordon explains. “They’re both genres that began as regionally-focused outsiders, battled with identity issues of how to be accepted by the greater world while still retaining their heart, and eventually wound up as two unbudging commercial forces.” Music culture is at a place where any kind of subgenre is likely to be swept up into the mainstream in one fell swoop now more than ever before. At this past year’s Grammy awards, Macklemore’s win for Best Rap Album of the Year raised a few eyebrows when the newcomer, who also happens to be caucasian, beat out other contenders such as Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Drake. Drake was even public about his stance on the award show outcome, saying that Macklemore’s win had more to do with his wider appeal across races than a necessarily better artistry. To this, Gordon says,” As much righteous complaints as there’s to be made that the whitewashing of rap — a historically black genre — is bundled with America’s tendency toward doing things how they’ve always been done, it’s inexorably true that rap has become less of a market curio and more of the entrenched norm.” When there’s money to be made taking a subgenre and bringing it into the mainstream, we can take a cue from Hebdige’s subculture to hegemony model instead of looking to the artist themselves selling out to the masses.
“Who can decide what ‘selling out’ means in 2014?” Gordon questions. “It’s much easier to have fun.”