Millennial Country Music Bodes Ill for Civic Virtue

We’ve come a long way from Merle Haggard’s 1969 anthem to Middle America, “Okie from Muskogee.”

As John McGinnis explained in his recent series of posts regarding the Constitution’s design for creating civic virtue (here, here, and here), a free society depends on a responsible citizenry, strong families, and thriving civic associations that foster social cohesion.  According to McGinnis, the success of the Republic depends, not necessarily on religion per se, but on the presence of informal discipline (self-control, deferred gratification, thrift, etc.) and a “morality of self-restraint.”

That, of course, leads to the subject of country music (or it does if you live where I do—Austin, Texas, with one of the nation’s most vibrant music scenes, where I moved after I retired as a lawyer). Country music is a diverse genre, but generally groups aspiring to commercial success celebrate the same type of values that McGinnis identifies—small town community, romance and marriage, patriotism, piety, hard work, and similar bourgeois ideals.  Recall Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (1969) or “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970), or the more recent hits by Brooks & Dunn, George Strait, and Garth Brooks. This makes sense because country music is thought to appeal to “Middle America”—rural and/or southern audiences, living in or near the Bible Belt, who are not estranged from our traditional culture.

Millennials, in contrast, are often regarded as nihilistic, narcissistic, hedonistic, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent—lazy, unmotivated, and preoccupied with immediate gratification.  Conservatives increasingly view these characteristics with alarm, even as a threat to the continued vitality of our country.  I had long assumed that country music was immune to these influences, but I was mistaken; millennial country musicians connect with millennial audiences through their shared worldview.

I realize that traditional (or “classic”) country music tends to be darker than the saccharin formulas common in many Nashville-based Top 40 country hits.  I grew up listening to Johnny Cash bragging that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” but the theme of “Folsom Prison Blues” was sorrow about the poor choices he made (“When I hear that [train] whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry”).  Hank Williams sang about getting drunk and carousing, but in the larger context of lonesomeness, heartbreak, and despair.  His most popular songs were romantic ballads such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).”  Even Merle Haggard, an ex-con turned country star, acknowledged that only he was responsible for his criminal ways, because “mama tried.”  The pathos exhibited in the music of Buck Owens, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnnie Paycheck, and other country music greats was the struggle to overcome the shortcomings of human nature.  Even “outlaws” were mature enough to realize that irresponsible behavior was bad, and that it inevitably had undesirable consequences. In an earlier era, country songs celebrated morality by lamenting man’s occasional lapses into bad behavior.  Today, bad behavior is simply celebrated as fun.

While I was stuck in one of Austin’s notorious rush hour traffic jams recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the Josh Abbott Band, an up-and-coming country group from Lubbock, Texas (home of Buddy Holly) that’s popular with younger listeners.  The music on the band’s “Front Row Seat” CD is quite engaging, with traditional country music instrumentation ( banjo, fiddle, mandolin), but the lyrics are consistently depressing.  If music is a window into a culture’s soul, the disturbing conclusion is that millennial listlessness is evident in contemporary country music.  The lyrics to these songs are saturated with hook-ups, drunkenness, profligacy, idleness, and irresponsibility.  The opening track, “While I’m Young,” is an ode to living paycheck-to-paycheck, casual sex, and drunkenness:

“Got off work counted my tips/Sixty bucks and no cents/And nothing to do/And the rent ain’t due/So I called my friends/Said we’re going out/No worries I got the first/Round tonight/…/Someday I might be worried/About saving all my cash/But tonight all I’m looking for/Are memories that last/There’ll be time enough for serious/When the bars are closed/And all is said and done/So I’m having fun, while I’m young.”

As the evening progresses, the protagonist orders some shots, sees a girl at the bar, approaches her with a proposal:

“It doesn’t matter what we do/No promises or regrets girl one kiss/And we’ll let the night/Take care of the rest.” The protagonist dismisses marriage as something to worry about “someday” in the distant future; in the meantime, “I’m having fun, while I’m young/Gonna live my life while I am young/Full of dreams but I don’t have plans.”

Another song, “Wasn’t That Drunk,” describes what passes for modern courtship: Two people meet in a bar, get drunk, close the bar down, and end up “sharin’ a cab back to your house.”  (I guess Uber didn’t rhyme.) The next morning, the female reflects, without regret, that “last night it happened so fast/I’d do it over, I wouldn’t think twice/Cause lying here sober/It still feels right.” What are we to make of this? The lyrics are not up to Bob Dylan standards, obviously.  The rhymes are banal and the content is puerile.  While the lyrics do not contain the violent imagery and misogyny evident in many rap songs, and are comparable to the salacious fare produced by pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, we understandably expect more from country music popular in the heartland.

The Josh Abbott Band appeals to younger listeners in Texas and elsewhere for the same reason “The Fightin Side of Me” once appealed to its generation of listeners; the songs presumably reflect their shared attitudes and life experiences.  Sadly, “Front Row Seat” is entertainment for millennials exhibiting arrested development, describing an adolescent lifestyle devoid of responsibility.  A generation ago, 20-somethings were pursuing careers, getting married, buying homes, and even raising families—in short, acting like adults.

Not anymore. Today, judging from “Front Row Seat”—and similar themes in music, movies and television shows aimed at the millennial audience—20-somethings have eschewed discipline, civic virtue, and self-restraint.   A free society with limited government requires self-reliant individuals willing and able to act responsibly toward one another.  What happens if a society degenerates into the equivalent of irresponsible teenagers hosting a kegger? Apparently, we will soon find out.