Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press, 2014) historicizes and challenges dominant narratives in the U.S. that imagine country music as a soundtrack to the supposed bigotry and homophobia of the white working class. Here, Diane Pecknold discusses with Hubbs how class politics relate to discourses around music and sexuality, as well as to the motivations and difficulties surrounding the writing of the book. The Spotify playlists posted here were curated by Hubbs, based on the music discussed in each chapter.
Diane Pecknold: Your first book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound, was about classical music. What prompted you to write about country?
Nadine Hubbs: In Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (RQCM) I wanted to show the crucial differences between the two life-worlds I had experienced and come to know: the working-class world I had grown up in, and the middle-class world I had worked very hard to get into—but that was still in certain ways foreign to me, even as a tenured professor at the University of Michigan.
In two decades working in the university I had found very little discussion of the different worlds of the American working and middle classes and the different logics that governed them. Instead, there was a perspective in the dominant middle-class culture, where I now lived, that saw reasonable and sensible people and others: tacky people; ill-informed and unintelligent people who voted for all the wrong things, even against their own interests; people of uncontrolled habits (in alcohol, food, drugs). People who deserved what they got—undesirable jobs; low status; shorter, lesser lives. And their cultural tastes and choices—what they ate, drank, bought, smoked—served to justify their low social and economic status. Likewise what they listened to, including (at times) country music.
I knew another, very different perspective, another truth. And I wondered how I might convey it to an academic (and broader) audience, and whether I could somehow show, and convince, middle-class readers that American working-class culture was a distinct culture in its own right—not merely the absence or failure of middle-class culture, and not a monolith.
DP: You’ve emphasized how difficult it was to write this book. Why did it seem like an impossible task, and why were you invested enough to keep working on it for more than a decade?
NH: To start with the most obvious difficulty: I had to learn a whole new field. We often do that with new book projects, and it’s usually wise to carry forward our already established skills and knowledges and areas of expertise when we take up new ones. What was new for me here was class studies, and I went into it thinking of a field that I might call “critical class studies”—which doesn’t really exist and I hope we might bring into existence. This is not traditional Marxist class studies. I am grounded in Bourdieusian discourses, in Bourdieu and scholarship that comes after him like that of the British sociologist and social theorist Bev Skeggs and the American anthropologist Sherry Ortner and an array of other scholars who are informed by and critically engaged with Bourdieu. So taking up a new field, and one that didn’t really exist, was one difficulty.
The other difficulty was that I followed my own advice, just stated: I brought forward my established areas of expertise, which meant gender and queer studies and music would somehow be part of my project on class. That was a tough nut to crack, because I knew that I was somehow going to study country music and gender and sexuality and class, but I did not know how the hell that was gonna work.
DP: Before you go on, did you set out thinking “I want to say something about country music” or did you set out thinking “I want to say something about class and gender and sexuality and country music seems like a good vehicle?”
NH: I think both. I had grown up with country music as a working-class kid in the Great Lakes Midwest, where I’ve lived all my life. I was born in Toledo, and I grew up in the cornfields 20 miles southeast. As the locals know, Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Detroit are all close to each other, so I’ve always been in the same area: my first university teaching job was in Detroit, and I had gone to school in Bowling Green, Ohio, and then in Ann Arbor, and now I’ve been teaching in Ann Arbor a long time. I’m a product of what is now the Rust Belt. My dad drove a freight train. I grew up listening to country music and then, in my journey of climbing into, I hoped, middle-class life and actually winding up in the upper-middle-class elite university world, I had disavowed country music. Specifically I had been a student and performer of classical music, and when I was in school in the 1980s there was still the old class-status-taste cultural regime of exclusivity. You didn’t even admit that you were into popular music, let alone country, if you were to be seen as a serious classical musician. As I discussed in Queer Composition, I resided specifically at the intersection of the queer world and the classical music world. And there, sure, we were into disco and dance music and sometimes shamelessly “frothy,” “superficial,” very gay pop music, and it was part of our queer classical musician identity. But with this project, RQCM, I knew I was going to get back into the country music that I had grown up with. I was thus going to get back into the world of my childhood and adolescence and even my undergraduate years. And so I was going to reclaim country music and reclaim a working-class set of knowledges and perspectives that I had disavowed and distanced myself from in order to pass and enter into elite worlds.
DP: So it was a conscious and performative disavowal rather than an emotional one?
NH: It was a mess, as it is for anyone who does that. It’s all of the above—with conscious awareness at times and blind shame and blame at others—because we don’t have a well-developed class discourse in America. And so anyone who figures out their class journey usually does so through hard struggle on their own. It took me many years to sort out what issues were individual or specific to my family, and what issues and discomfitures belonged to class.
DP: Like a wider class culture . . .
NH: Yeah, a larger social issue. So I was working on that for a couple of decades before I finally got to the place where I had the opportunity and felt the readiness. I was still unsure if I was ready emotionally, and certainly I wasn’t ready intellectually until I spent those 10 years creating a bibliography, a historiography, that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere and that I put into this book.
So some of the difficulties were just about the nature of the project, and some of the difficulties were professional and social, and I talked about these in my Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) “Colloquy” contribution, “Country Music, the Queer and the Redneck”—talked about how worried I was when I started this book. Queer Composition came out in fall 2004, and when that book was in press, in 2003–2004, I had begun to cast about in an attempt to produce my first writings for this new project. So I wrote something on country music. It was about the Tammy Wynette and George Jones song “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” and I presented it here at the University of Michigan, and Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and a few places. That’s a great song to start with if you want to think about class and country. And it was a song I knew from growing up. My mom’s twin sister and her husband and their five children owned and ran a little beer joint out in the Northwest Ohio cornfields, and they had a great jukebox that was mostly golden age country. I knew “Jet Set” from that jukebox, as a kid. I started to work on the project, then, in 2003, and I didn’t get the book to press until 10 years later, in 2013. And as I said in that JAMS colloquy, once I had gotten into the project, I was really worried that I was going to destroy myself with it—
DP: Because of other people’s responses, you mean?
NH: Yeah, largely. I was not just being a drama queen, and I wasn’t being merely neurotic. I was writing this at a moment when the white upper middle class had discovered racism and were solving and rescuing as they do, and some of those folks seemed quite certain that if you were interested in class and talking in sympathetic or even neutral terms about the white working class, well, obviously you were racist. At the same time, my friends and colleagues of color understood work on class as important. I didn’t get from them this reaction of suspicion, the either/or formulation whereby if you are interested in the white working class or in class as a topic of study it “reveals” you as a racist.
DP: That seems typical of the way that class is regularly pitted against race, and the idea that you can’t possibly talk about both at once. If you’re talking about class then you’re not acknowledging white privilege and therefore it’s inherently racist. Which is crazy to the degree that racism in this country operates so much through class.
NH: Yeah. And in musicology we had already had a strong statement from Guthrie Ramsey on the “skin trade” in musicology, his well-known Musical Quarterly article “Who Hears Here?” in which, among other things, he exhorted white scholars to write about white people.
So that was a really big problem, and I was quite worried, as someone who had come up from the white working class. I was worried that I was destroying all the good will, whatever status, whatever prestige I had managed to build for myself over many years of work. And I think it really could have been disastrous. But then the global economic crisis intervened in 2008 and saved my neck. Because then even the narrating class, the middle class and the upper middle class, were ready to talk about class in America and ready to acknowledge that class difference existed. Before that, there were a lot of authoritative voices saying, “Oh no, we’ve outgrown that category, it’s no longer a valid category of analysis; class is so twentieth century, doesn’t apply here.” So really, if the economic crisis hadn’t happened, this project—it might have served to get me a promotion, but beyond that, my nightmares could well have come true.
DP: You know I’m really struck as you’re talking, on the one hand you’re talking about this sort of alliance between queers and the working class, but in discussing your motivations so far, you’ve been much more focused on class than on sexuality.
NH: You’re absolutely right. This book has queers in the title, but the analysis and story are less about queers than homophobia—which is, obviously, part of queer studies: we’re very often engaged in the study of homophobia, the mechanisms of homophobia, the history of homophobia, the effects of homophobia, et cetera. I do talk about queers here, and I look at queer history, especially in Chapter 4 where I use David Allan Coe’s underground album track “Fuck Aneta Briant” as a window onto certain aspects of sexuality and politics in the middle and working classes up to 1978. I look at histories of working-class–queer alliance, and recall histories of middle-class institutions viewing homosexuality and gender inversion as working-class conditions, pathologies. So yeah, the book’s sexually queer intervention is largely about homophobia—though Chapter 3, using Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” is about the queerness, or deviance, of working-class gender, femininity in particular. My analysis notes that in America today we think of homophobia very much in relation to the working class. That’s not only the white working class, but the African American working class: when California’s Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage passed in 2008, it was blamed on the black church—in other words, the African American working class (by now political science research has proved that accusation false). So it’s not only the white working class but working-class people of color who are strongly connected in contemporary culture with homophobia. You have Matthew Shepard in rural Wyoming, Brandon Teena, the fictional story Brokeback Mountain: all of these stories of fierce working-class and rural homophobia have become naturalized and very believable within contemporary cultural narratives. So the main argument about homophobia that I put forth in RQCM is, first of all, examining contemporary assumptions that link the working class naturally to homophobia. Second, I historicize these and reveal that, although we have a short memory and therefore think things have always been this way, in fact the notion of homophobia as a working-class issue has risen only since the 1970s. For 100 years before that—from about the 1870s, when the homosexual was invented, until the 1970s—the sin of the working class was not that they were queer haters but that they were queer lovers. Queers were seen by the legal system, the criminal justice system, medical authorities, psychiatry, as having a natural habitat in the working class, and the working class’s receptivity to homosexuality was seen as evidence of moral and psychosocial pathology.
DP: Yeah, you think about Deliverance and the way it brings together a particular brand of homophobia and uses it to brand rural white poor people as deviant.
NH: And the novel, with its depraved queer hillbilly, came out in ’70, so you might infer that the cultural shift had not yet happened.
DP: So, speaking of cultural shifts, you used the term “narrating class” a minute ago. Can you explain what that is and why you think it’s particularly powerful at this moment?
NH: I do think it’s particularly powerful at this moment, and part of it is explained by the fact that in the late twentieth century, our (post-) industrial society shifted to become an information society. Some theorists say that we’re now passing out of the information society into something else, but in any case, in our current hypermediatized environment, information and knowledge and discursive authority are more mobilized and more powerful than ever before. The narrating class formerly would have been people like us—scholars, academic “experts”—and journalists, reporters, media people of various kinds. But now there’s an explosion of the different forms the narrative class can take, and if you have a blog and you get a lot of readers, or if you post on Facebook and get a lot of likes, or something goes viral that you write or produce, then at least for that moment, you may occupy a sort of narrating-class position. But even if we look at those really quotidian, impermanent moments of going viral, they don’t tend to happen except for people of our privileged educational level and our level of social and cultural capital.
DP: Unless it’s as a joke meme, like Bed Intruder.
NH: Or Honey Boo Boo and her mama, yeah. And you know, another thing that’s really interesting that I haven’t seen studies of—and maybe they exist—is of the different classes on the Internet. If I dial in to my extended family on the Internet I see a different working-class world, very different kinds of communications that circulate by comparison to the world of my academic friends.
DP: And it sort of creates an echo chamber, so that partly the power of the narrating class—what you’re talking about—is this escalation of mediatization generally, but also the fact that we are now so culturally segregated from one another because we’re reinforced through mechanisms like Facebook so that we never see anything except what’s being bounced around by us and our like-minded friends.
NH: Right. So, I did have colleagues back when I started this project who really objected and thought the language was too harsh when I borrowed James Scott’s term class apartheid. They winced, but I don’t think the term is too strong. We have ample empirical evidence that class separation is only escalating, as you just said, not only through mediatization but geographically. I cite research in RQCM about the class segregation of neighborhoods and how the upper middle class is more geographically isolated than other classes, and more socially isolated than ever before in that they do not marry or associate outside their class or their professional circles, or outside circles of elite education. So it’s not only through mediatization, although I agree with you that it surely exacerbates and amplifies what’s happening, in multiple realms.
DP: You said that your colleagues thought the term class apartheid was too harsh and I’ve seen the book characterized as “acerbic.”[i] I’m wondering what you think about this sort of hesitancy, about whether you’re being strident, and what that might mean and whether there’s anything in the book that you think would counter such a charge. Is it all just a take-down of middle-class culture and middle-class norms and the narrating class’s practices, or is there something else there?
NH: Good question. So actually, to be honest, I am more struck by the near-total absence of that critique. This is the first published instance—this very recent round-up book review in which a colleague characterized RQCM as “acerbic”—the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has characterized it at all in those terms, and that surprises me. You know, I told you what my fears and my nightmares were, but until then all the other reviewers engaged the book much more substantively. They had not engaged it among a dozen different books or with such a prior axe to grind as that particular critic does—because he has a new book out and his own theory, which he’s primarily promoting through that review. But other reviewers who have reviewed the book on its own merits have been incredibly positive; that has been really satisfying to me. However, as I said, my fears were not simply that people wouldn’t like my book. I feared that I would undo the work I had done—which would be regrettable, because I hoped with RQCM to accomplish things not just for myself but to do some broader good. But I realized that I might end up not even helping the people who I was hoping could get a fairer shake, or the music that I was hoping to reframe and maybe bring into a better light, but that we could all go down in flames together because of my efforts! I could just piss off more people who weren’t even thinking about country music, and now they would remember how much they hate it—and the horse it rode in on! I don’t know if that sounds paranoid to you, but, well, you’ve worked on country music. . . .
DP: But you haven’t gotten that response?
NH: No. I’m really pleased. The critic for TLS, for example, Brian Morton, just gets the book so well. Ian Peddie, the reviewer for Popular Music and Society, does too. Those are two British publications, and the British have long taken class difference and class analysis more seriously. They haven’t been in denial, haven’t assumed “exceptionalism” as Americans have. But other reviewers and critics (like Jewly Hight in Wondering Sound), and my students at Michigan, have also been wonderful and have engaged this material incredibly productively. So I’ve had a lot more positive than negative responses to the book. But I can’t be surprised by a critique in terms of acerbity; after all, the American white middle and upper-middle classes have reason to be thin skinned: they’re not used to criticism. People in the narrating class are used to a lot of Left infighting, but that’s different from class critique. We haven’t had much class critique for decades, and what I’m doing in this book is not the old Marxian class critique. This critique is more granular, and maybe it gets people a bit more where they live. Anyone who knows country music and its reception cannot be surprised that some of our academic colleagues would find this kind of critique, the class critique that I level in my book or that I highlight in anti-bourgeois country songs, that it should make some folks uncomfortable or piss them off.
DP: And part of the frame in which it was called acerbic was a poptimist one that really relies on a conception of all music competing equally in a space of amalgamation and cross-fertilization, which I think your book challenges. Do you think it challenges that position?
NH: I think it challenges any argument that would take that position (though I don’t specifically name poptimism in my book), any argument that imagines a wonderful world of music transcending social difference. People often want to do that with music. We see it with classical music, too, and I engaged critically with some of that in my first book. But I have never subscribed to those notions, in classical or popular music. Sure, music in certain ways is magical; that’s why I dedicated my life to playing and listening to and immersing myself and analyzing it from various angles. I don’t deny that music is magical—but it ain’t that magical!
DP: Right, there are real inequalities out there.
NH: Right: it’s not that music takes us to some happy land beyond social difference and social prejudice where everybody just lays down their burdens and boogies together. So, although I didn’t specifically have poptimism in mind, and I do appreciate the critique of rockist authenticity, I would not subscribe to the sort of theory you described.
DP: One of the things you seem to be doing in the book is positing—especially when you’re talking about David Allan Coe, but I think to some degree when you’re talking about Gretchen Wilson as well—a particularly working-class understanding of queer that goes against middle-class strategies of identity politics or recognition politics. Can you talk a little bit about what you think is unique to the working-class sensibility of queerness and what that sensibility might have to offer the recognition politics upon which most queer activism is based at this point?
NH: Well, it is at loggerheads with recognition politics. Recognition politics, as theorists have pointed out, is based upon and exclusively available to a middle-class subjectivity, by definition a subjectivity of individual distinction. A quick and dirty definition of middle- versus working-class identity is that you become middle class precisely by establishing your distinguished individualism—against the foil of the anonymous working-class masses. Recognition politics, being based on that distinction, is at loggerheads with any politics that would involve the working class in its feminist or queer project. About working-class queer sensibility, I have strong and distinct notions. It’s a sensibility I came up in. I had a sense of myself as queer very young, certainly by age 10, and I was in the working-class world pretty exclusively until I came to graduate school at the University of Michigan, when I was 25. I went to Bowling Green for undergrad, which was such a friendly place for me at that time. It’s a great music school, and there were lots of working-class (and lower-middle-class) Rust Belt kids just like me, so I did not experience culture shock there at all. And some of my professors had come up in the working class or the lower middle class, too. So even though I was in higher education, I was still in a working-class zone, and I was in a queer (social and classical music) world. And at that time I was afraid of middle-class people when it came to being out. I was not afraid of coming out to working-class people. It was because—I’m talking about the beginning of the 1980s, the Reagan years—the middle class had always been the arbiters of moral authority. The working class weren’t arbiters of nothin’. So the people I felt I had to really hide my queerness from, hide my sexual disrespectability from, were those authoritative arbiters of morality in the class above me. It wasn’t just because I was more comfortable around working-class people: although I was, I also knew by then that I wanted to get into the middle class. But one of the scariest things, and indeed the thing I really had to hide when I came to graduate school at Michigan, was my sexual and gender queerness, around those middle-class and upper-middle-class people—if I wanted not to give away that I was not “one of us,” which, I learned, was my principal task. You need to be “one of us,” which is the same problem I’m still writing against throughout this book. The middle class has been a great champion of diversity in recent decades, but class is one kind of diversity they haven’t cared to broach. And this is the same problem that I think anyone who is a country music scholar runs up against. That’s the balancing act that you and I both have dealt with as people who are trying to be legitimate academics, scholars, and people who are somehow advocates of country music: Are you one of us?
The sensibility, though: how did David Allan Coe have the audacity to sing in “Fuck Aneta Briant” about “them goddamn homosexuals,” as he puts it, or to call them “faggots” or “queer” (in ’78, long before that term had been legitimated and re-appropriated by scholars and activists c. 1990)? Where does he come off doing that? Well, my explanation is: he was one disreputable S.O.B., and he knew it. Queers were disreputable people in his world, too, and this was a brotherhood-in-the-margins that he was familiar with from his time in juvie. (David Allan Coe has told a lot of stories in his life, and I don’t know whether or not he was ever in prison per se, but it seems clear he was at least in juvenile detention for some years.) And I grew up familiar with that, too—as a queer and as a working class person I occupied certain neighborhoods, I occupied a certain part of town, the other side of the tracks—in Detroit, it was 8 Mile Road. I caught the tail end of that cultural moment as a young person, the old world where the working class and the queer were in the same boat, marginalized and branded as disrespectable. And I witnessed the transition whereby the middle class increasingly claimed ownership of all things gay, lesbian, and queer and brought them into their realm of moral respectability.
The same is true of middle-class dominance in thinking about feminism. At the close of Chapter 3 on “Redneck Woman,” I cite empirical research by Stewart and Ostrove in which working-class women had by far the clearest, most penetrating perception of gender oppression in heterosexual marriage—working-class, middle-class, and upper-class marriage alike. But we know that the label feminist came from and “belongs to” middle-class, largely white women, and other women have often spurned that label even when they embrace similar politics. Bottom line: there is no working-class approach to queer (or feminist) politics today that is labeled and recognized as such.
DP: You write that part of your goal in the book is to recover “the fast-fading history of queer–working-class alliance.” What is the nature of that alliance? Do you see its history as fading because the alliance itself is dissolving, or because the narrative has been re-written?
NH: That is such a great question. In fact, I’m writing an essay on that now, called “How the White Working Class (Supposedly) Became Homophobic: Anti-Bourgeois Country and the Middle-Classing of the Queer.”[ii] In RQCM I coin the phrase “the middle-classing of the queer.” It’s the process I’m talking about, from the 1970s up to today, where queer becomes more of a middle-class property such that the middle class now claims more and more ownership of the queer. In the book I did not get into the question of whether it’s merely apparent or in fact there has been a shift in the degree to which the U.S. working class is homophobic. I’m still not sure how I might get more information on the question, but I know at the least that I can map out the possibilities. That is, first, as I’ve been saying, the middle class has claimed more ownership of the queer, and in the process has sanitized and euphemized, as it does, and now we’ve reached a state that has been labeled “homonormalized,” in which same-sex marriage and having children have risen to the top of queer politics. As I’ve pointed out, this “homonormal” shift is concurrent with and symptomatic of (what I’m calling) the middle-classing of the queer. But what I’d also point out is that it would be rational for the working class, who are structurally positioned in antagonism to the middle class, to feel at this point more opposition to things queer.
DP: To the degree that queer is represented as middle class, yeah.
NH: Precisely. So first of all, I want to point that out. It would make sense for the working class to become more opposed to this “queer” that has been branded by the middle class, and especially the white upper-middle class. Nevertheless, I’m not at all certain that has happened. I do think, however, that the branding and euphemization themselves are still rejected in working-class contexts. You see this already in David Allan Coe’s song: he’ll be damned if he’s gonna use Anita Bryant’s word. She is a self-avowed queer hater but will never use the word queer; she uses only the proper middle-class clinical term homosexual. She doesn’t even use what was then the everyday term of choice, gay. But David Allan Coe uses his own language, and it’s the disreputable working-class language of “faggot” and “queer,” and that is richly significant. Indeed, I hope at some point in my work to explore questions of euphemism and class more deeply.
DP: Part of what David Allan Coe does so brilliantly is just claim disreputability and decry the kind of suppression of deviance that euphemism accomplishes. Which is why the pairing of redneck and queer makes sense. To some degree redneck is always already queer because it’s non-normative.
NH: Exactly—and abjected. I don’t know if you remember the 1977 song by Johnny Paycheck called “Colorado Kool-Aid,” but I’d say it’s almost an anti-bourgeois fable or allegory. The narrator tells a story of a barroom brawl and makes reference to “my Mexican friend.” His Mexican “buddy” in the bar gets spat on by a huge, drunk, apparently white dude, and the Mexican guy—who is also described as “little”—responds cleverly and wins out. It’s clear if you have any understanding of country music that this is one of those David and Goliath songs. It’s an anti-bourgeois song about the little guy versus the unbeatable big guy (like Alan Jackson’s “Little Man”), packaged here as a barroom brawl. And sometimes when I play the song for my students, in my elite university setting, the fact that Paycheck says “my Mexican friend” and “little Mexican feller” makes them cringe and label it a racist song—until we discuss context and history and word-by-word exegesis, and then they open up interpretively (I love how my undergraduates are open to hearing what’s actually going on). But it’s such a great example of something that’s going on in “Fuck Aneta Briant,” too, which is this alliance-in-the-margins and blatant naming of difference. That linguistic refusal, it’s not just an ignorance of euphemisms, not an ignorance of the officially correct words but an “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll make pretty just to please you.” Of course, talking that way in Coe’s world would be seen as phony. It is precisely an element of class affiliation and formation: to use that euphemistic language is to declare yourself a middle-class person. And to be a working-class person is often, and certainly in much hard country, to disidentify with middle-classness. Now, we know as country music scholars that there are country songs, too, that aspire—often they are soft country songs—to middle-class status and middle-class norms. But that ain’t David Allan Coe.
DP: You talk in the book about the general declaration among your students that they like “anything but country.” Can you talk a little bit about how you read that phrase and what you see as the relationship between a judgment like that, an aesthetic judgment like that, and political marginalization or even violence, which is the word you use?
NH: I’m drawing on Bourdieu when I speak of aesthetic violence. He talked about aesthetic intolerance and underscored the capacity for “terrible violence” in the workings of taste. This is very important. We often see taste in popular music or popular music engagements as a utopic realm, a transcendent happy sphere, as we discussed earlier. But Steph Lawler, building on Bourdieu’s work in Distinction, draws a clear link between the cultural construction of taste and the cultural construction of moral value.[iii] That, of course, is what Bourdieu was talking about, and how taste works in society. Again, think of Honey Boo Boo; think of her mother especially: if that show isn’t inviting moral judgment, whether through laughter or criticism on the part of the viewers . . . of course, it’s all about that. So, as Lawler points out, taste works in tandem with its other, disgust, as part of the project of class formation. As I mentioned, middle-class individuals must distinguish themselves from the working-class masses. How do they do that? In very large part they do that through declarations and demonstrations of middle-class—that is to say “good”—taste. Taste then works to police moral boundaries by establishing who can legitimately claim to be human, because to be disgusting makes it possible to cross over the boundary into abjectness.
This is what we see in Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” when she disavows the label trash: “You might think I’m trashy,” she tells her bourgeois critics, and then corrects their outsider perception. “Trash” is a boundary that is policed by working-class people because once you fall over that ledge, nobody gives a damn whether you live or die. As Bourdieu pointed out, the class system compels each of us to police the boundary of the adjacent group below. So the middle class stringently polices the next-door boundary of the working class. And the working class anxiously polices the “trash” boundary, trying to hold on to some moral worth. That boundary is the cliff you can fall over and then be left for dead, because you have no human value. Taste functions centrally in these mechanisms. Debates here are not about individual taste or a harmless realm of popular music. As the minister-theologian and sociologist Tex Sample points out, elitist taste legitimates inequality: y’all deserve the shitty life you’ve got. Forgetting about music for a second, we can see that in terms of other consumption habits. People who are willing to feed themselves or feed their kids that don’t deserve better. If they’re willing to drink this, smoke that, ingest those things, they deserve what they get. So taste is a class-formation business, and a high-stakes proposition.
DP: And the book is a compelling reminder of that. Thanks for talking about it with me.
NH: My pleasure. Thank you for your excellent questions and engagement.
Nadine Hubbs is professor of Women’s Studies and Music, faculty affiliate in American Culture, and director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative at the University of Michigan. Her first book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (University of California Press, 2004), won recognition from the American Musicological Society’s Philip Brett Award, the American Historical Association’s John Boswell Prize, and the Society for American Music’s Irving Lowens Award. Her current work builds on the frameworks set forth in Rednecks to pursue further questions of class and gender and sexuality in relation to country music.
Diane Pecknold is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Duke UP, 2013) and The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Duke UP, 2007), as well as editor (with Kristine M. McCusker) of A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (UP of Mississippi, 2004).
[i] Eric Weisbard, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Mainstream? Charting the Musical Middle,” American Quarterly 67/1 (2015), 253–65. DOI: 10.1353/aq.2015.0004
[ii] The essay is a proposed chapter in an edited collection on country music currently under review.
[iii] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); and Stephanie Lawler, “Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities,” Sociological Review 53/3 (2005): 429–46. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X. 2005.00560.x