Memo - Oct. 25-27 - Selling Authenticity: The Case of Country Music

As we have seen, in the early twentieth century American society became (a) increasingly urban and (b) increasingly oriented around mass production and mass consumption. With its department stores, amusement parks, and nightlife, this new society could be exciting, but it could also be exhausting, overwhelming, and alienating. Indeed, sometimes people hungered for a sense that they were more than cogs in a machine or anonymous numbers on some company's sales sheet. What's more, not everyone lived in large cities, and those in rural areas often thought about cities with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

It may seem odd that the reading for this week is about country music--Richard Peterson's Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity--but it's not really. While this is, of course, a book about music, it is, more broadly, a book about the complex way that culture is produced in a consumer capitalist economy. In some ways, country music grew out of the deep ambivalence that many people, especially rural people in the South and the West, felt about the rapid and intense commercialization they saw transforming the world around them.
This ambivalence was often shared by many people in cities who were recent migrants from rural areas.

However, if country music was in some ways a reaction against the institions and values of modernity and industrialization, it was at the same time an extension of those very same values. As Peterson shows, country music critiqued some aspects of modern, urban-industrial society, but it was also completely consistent with commercialism and the capitalist impulse to exploit technology, economies of scale, and shrewd marketing to produce and sell a profitable commodity. Central to Peterson's argument is that country music represented for many people something authentic--an expression of real human experiences and emotions--in an age that was otherwise dominated by artificiality and impersonal relationships (e.g., machine-made mass-marketed commodities). Yet he argues that this idea of what was authentic was, in reality, more complicated than it initially appeared.

Below are a few questions to consider. You may wish to draw on them in your response paper.
  • What does Peterson mean by authenticity? What does it have to do with country music?
  • Why did country music emerge when it did? What was its relation to the social and economic conditions of the time?
  • Who were the first important country musicians? How did they become archetypes for the genre and business that developed from the late 1930s through the 1950s?
  • How did country music draw on and extend older, pre-existing ideas about the West, rugged individualism, and traditional virtures in American culture?
  • How did business interests shape the "image" of country music and country music? How did that image change over time? Which people or institutions were most important in shaping that image?
  • Country music seemed to embrace a "simpler," less "electrified" way of life, yet it was very much a twentieth century creation. How were technology and modern business practices imporant to the development of country music?
  • As you read last week in the excerpt from Roland Marchand's Creating the Corporate Soul, even industrialists like Henry Ford and General Motors' Alfred Sloan criticized the dense urban concentrations on which the industrial society was based. How was their critique of industrial society similar to that of country musicians and fans? How was it different?
  • What does Peterson's history of country music suggest about authenticity and cultural production in a capitalist society?
  • How do rock 'n' roll and hip-hop embody ideas of authenticity today? What does Peterson's analysis of country music suggest about how we might think about other types of popular music?