Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Know Shit About Country Music
Well, here we are. I talked shit on Malcolm Gladwell and you’ve asked me about it. Many people have, so I’ve composed this standard reply that I hope will cover enough ground to give you the answers you’re hoping to find. The confusion is to be expected. Not wanting to specifically address every element of Cocaine & Rhinestones’ first season which could and should be seen as a refutation of Gladwell’s little detour into country music (lest my work be viewed as some personal vendetta against Gladwell, which it is not, as I was deep into production of my podcast when his episode came out), I chose to take one occasion and explicitly state that my intention, above entertainment, above pushing my own theories as fact, is toward documenting the actual history of country music and that this intention is in direct contrast to much of the coverage country music has been subject to throughout history and is still being subjected to on some of the most popular and widely heard platforms that exist. My intention was to draw attention to this and allow listeners to compare the information given to them in the entire first season of Cocaine & Rhinestones with the information given to them in Gladwell’s one episode on country music. For instance, a listen to the intro of my Wynonna Judd episode throws a lot of information at you that simply can not be true if what Malcolm Gladwell says about country music is true. Namely, he states that you must be from one of several states in the US in order to become a country music star. If he knew what he was talking about, he would know that Shania Twain is the single best-selling female artist in country music history. Shania and Malcolm are both Canadian. He literally says it’s “impossible” to be a successful singer or songwriter in country music if you are not from the south. This is simply not true. To state otherwise is unacceptable.
Right now is probably a good place to mention that I was a fan of the Revisionist History podcast before he made this episode. When I listened to the episode, it was as a subscriber to the podcast and I heard it the day it came out. As someone who is deeply and seriously familiar with the territory, I was immediately appalled at what I heard. I got online to find out more about Malcolm Gladwell. Why is this guy respected as an authority on the topics he chooses? What is his reputation among professionals in these various fields? It turns out, his reputation is not great among educated specialists and he’s generally not respected by them as anything but a storyteller. (example 1, example 2, example 3)
It turns out that very little of what he says is fact-based. He seems to simply decide what he wants to be true and then cherrypick data to support that decision. This is how and why he feels comfortable saying it’s “impossible” to be a success in country music if you are not from the south. Only someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about would say this. Further, only someone who’s decided that is true without trying to find out whether or not it is true would say this. Using Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the Top 50 Songs of All Time as being representative of other genres besides country is a great example of selecting and presenting only information that aligns with his predetermined conclusion. These “best of” lists are notoriously disputed and using one of them as “evidence” to back up his theory is patently ridiculous. (Especially Rolling Stone, of all places…) However, even if we were to allow him this indulgence, he does not find and use a similar list of Top 50 Country Songs of All Time to back up his point. What he does is draw attention to some arbitrary list of pop/rock music, then say, “See? Very few sad songs. Now, let’s talk about country music.” Are we to assume some such similar list of country music would be composed entirely of deep, meaningful songs of tragedy and not, say, “Ring of Fire” or “The Race Is On” or any of countless other monolithic country hits that are not remotely sad or trying to be? This is the assumption he would have us make. This is a foolish and fetishizing assumption. We can not assume the ratio of sad to trite songs would be any different across genres and we certainly can’t accept it as truth from Malcolm when he doesn’t even bother to cherrypick some list based on a group of music critics’ subjective opinions.
Believing Malcolm about where country music has to come from and about what he’d have us believe is some glaring contrast in emotional themes sets us up to buy into an authenticity fallacy which presents a fetishized view of country music common to academic studies of the genre. It also misrepresents fans of country music as holding views and priorities which they quite simply do not. This authenticity fetish carries over to Malcolm’s theory of what constitutes effective evocation of sadness in songwriting. He thinks autobiographical specificity is what makes sad songs sad. He thinks a song like Emmylou Harris’ “From Boulder to Birmingham” is sadder than a song like “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones. He says this is because Gram Parsons died. For one thing, there’s nothing in the lyrics of Emmylou Harris’ song to let you know that Gram Parsons died. There’s nothing in the song that even tells us it’s about death. It seems like there would be some talk about death if autobiographical specificity is what makes the song sad. If autobiographical specificity is what makes songs sad, we wouldn’t need to read a book about Gram Parsons or an interview with Emmylou Harris to know what inspired this song because the song itself would tell us. (Like how the lyrics of “Okie from Muskogee” let us know, without needing any extra information, the song is satire.) Keep in mind, we’re talking about songs. We’re specifically not talking about the singer of the song because Malcolm says Bobby Braddock is the true “king of tears,” being the songwriter. We’re not talking about the various ways a song could be performed, either, or else we’d be focusing on how absolutely devastating Gram Parsons’ recording of “Wild Horses” (with the Flying Burrito Brothers) is. So, since we’re talking about judging songs on their own, why do we need all of this bonus material to get the most out of these songs? Why do I need someone to say “Hey, did you know…” before I can really taste the sadness in the song? This is not how art works. If we need the bonus material to get it, it’s a failure. Country songs are not issued with pamphlets giving us the backstory.
Of course, autobiographical specificity isn’t what makes sad songs sad. Great songwriters know this. The writer starts with whatever they have to start with in order to emotionally connect with what’s being written. Maybe this is something that happened to the writer, maybe not. Maybe they just got done watching a really good movie or even a life insurance commercial. Whatever they start with, the writer must sustain that emotional connection throughout the song, creating enough space in the words for the listener to project their own experiences into the song and relate to it, thereby triggering the emotional response. In other words, let’s say the writer composes a song inspired by the death of their very own father. Is the song more likely to be selected by a producer for Tammy Wynette’s next recording session if the writer places the first name of the writer’s father in the song? Or is the song more likely to be selected if a general term like “daddy” is used? The answer here should be obvious and apparent to you. “Daddy” will be chosen because it’s exceedingly more likely that the listener has lost a “daddy” or a “daddy”-like figure and can therefore relate more closely to the song than if it was a “Richard” or “Jerry” that was lost. The more autobiographically specific this song is, the less likely it is to even be recorded in the first place, let alone resonate with the audience. If autobiographical specificity is what made sad art sad, then every local amateur poetry night would be slam-packed with audience members hoping to achieve vicarious catharsis. Amateur poetry is a perfect example of how horrible autobiographical specificity can be and often is in art. Can autobiographical and specific be sad? Obviously, yes. Is it, as Malcolm Gladwell proposes, inherently more sad to whatever degree the art is more autobiographical and specific than art that is not? To quote Mr. Gladwell, please…
I have more questions.
Has Malcolm Gladwell ever written a song? Why are we listening to Malcolm Gladwell tell us about what makes sad songs sad instead of, say, a real songwriter? How about a master songwriter, someone like Bobby Braddock? Malcolm Gladwell talked to Bobby, of course. He even proposed his great theory about autobiographical specificity being what makes country songwriting so dang good and effective at being sad. If you listen, you’ll hear that Bobby is non-commital to this theory, at best. Malcolm has to push him repeatedly just to get a “probably” out of him. “I can’t say that for certainty,” is an exact quote from Braddock. It sounds to me like he’s trying to be polite in an obnoxious situation. Because I’ve got to think that if Malcolm Gladwell’s grand autobiographical specificity theory was so dead on here, it wouldn’t take much for Bobby to say, “Yes. That is exactly correct. I have made a living doing this for decades and that is precisely what I do when I want to write a sad song.” Bobby doesn’t say anything remotely like this.
And this is my biggest problem with Malcolm Gladwell’s little country music podcast episode. He’s pretending to tell a story about country music and he’s not listening to the people he chose to represent that culture. When I tweeted some brief points about Gladwell’s episode, one of the responses I got was from a person whose father was interviewed by Gladwell. “Gladwell interviewed my dad doing research for one of his books once. He said it was as though Gladwell was not hearing the words he said,” is what this person said to me. This is exactly what I hear when I listen to Gladwell interviewing Bobby Braddock and it is not acceptable in cultural reporting. It is deeply offensive to listen to this man bring his ideas into the country music community, ask for feedback from the specific people who made the specific country music this man is talking about, disregard their answers, insisting his perspective is the one that is true and then go use his gigantic platform to spread this inanity. I’ve got to hope he lacks any self-awareness about what he’s doing when he twists and distorts the voices he’s using, when he fails to let them speak for themselves. Because if it is an intentional act, I do not know how he can sleep at night.
Am I happy Malcolm Gladwell likes country music? Yes. Am I happy he wants to tell the world about it? Yes. Am I happy to hold my tongue when he says country music is good while carrying on the long tradition of misrepresenting the genre and its surrounding communities? I hope you know by now that I am not.
If it seems I’m “taking this too seriously,” I would invite you to remember that the only reason we’re talking about this is because of how seriously I take this. My podcast would not exist if I took it any less seriously. This matters to me. It matters to me a lot, maybe more than anything. I hope that it shows in the work and I will continue to do it the best I’m able to amplify the voices I’d have the world hear, rather than misrepresent them for my own financial or ideological gain. I’ll not shy away from calling out those who get it wrong, as that is part of the process of finally getting it right. Carry on listening to Malcolm Gladwell, if you like. I wouldn’t presume to dictate what another person should do with their time. But I do hope you’ll continue listening to me, too. I hope you’ll doubt certain things that I say and look into them for yourself. I hope you’ll be satisfied with the integrity of my work after doing so. More importantly, I hope to continue giving country music the respectful and accurate history that it deserves, while demonstrating that caricatures and lies are not necessary to make it entertaining in the process.