|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.