One of my more tedious online acquaintances is the sort of person who complains about the fate of hiphop music despite the fact that it remains vastly overrepresented on the charts in the United States. In listening to him complain about the fate of the genre he personally identifies with to the exclusion of all others, I was struck by the desire to compare the fate that he sees for his own genre of choice as an urban black male with other genres that have not fared well in the mainstream listening public but which have a healthy amount of support from a group of devoted fans who enjoy what they listen to even if it seldom crosses into the mainstream.
Let’s talk about country music. I consider myself to be a moderate fan of the genre, and have been for almost my entire life. If it is not one of the genres I listen to most, it is something I enjoy listening to from time to time and one whose accomplishments I cheer on and enjoy reading and watching from a moderate distance. Yet for most of its history, country music has been a form of music that has been considered to be in the ghetto, an insular world of music that few people cross into but that is passionately loved by many, as I can attest to from my own concert-going experience. In its beginning, country music was formed by the union of the Western music tradition with the Hillbilly music genre, creating something called Country & Western, or more often these days, just country. Until songs that were only played on the radio were eligible to chart many country hits never even hit the mainstream charts at all, and even to this day there are patterns of radio play, including dropping songs like a hot potato as soon as they hit #1 in airplay, that hinder the genre’s success in metrics like Year-End hits.
What does it mean for a genre to be in the ghetto? By this we mean that it lives in an insular world where what is enjoyed by those inside is scarcely known to those on the outside. It is by no means a bad thing to have a somewhat insular culture that is little known by outsiders. There are a vast number of genre worlds that I only have very slight acquaintance with but which are perfectly healthy within themselves, including the world of contemporary classical music, Christian music, jazz, and so on. All of these genres very rarely have someone within them that is popular or even known by mainstream audiences but which have very devoted followings and robust infrastructures that include live music shows, prestigious awards, and the like. No one who listens to such genres needs to feel apologetic about people not being familiar with what is enjoyed by those inside, it is simply that the mainstream does not always go looking for a lot of the culture that is being produced in out of the way places.
Is it a bad thing for a genre to be in the ghetto? Not at all. There is often little that such a genre can do on its own to be a part of the mainstream. Sometimes, as is the case with country music, changes in the rules can reveal the genuine popularity of a given genre and thus bring some people who are at least a bit curious about it in contact with its most popular offerings. This can be both a good and a bad thing. For the most part, though, people generally do not seek out genres they are not familiar with. Unless someone who is on the inside acquaints them with it, they will remain outsiders. And familiarity with some genres does not always mean that we extrapolate our own experience with ghettoized genres to other genres that are suffering the same fate. It regrettable that we are not always as empathetic as we could be, but such is the way life works often.
There was a very definitive line between contemporary and country music when I was growing up. At that time, country music was mostly defined by its twangy, beer-ladened, she-done-left-me-fer-another themes. Things began to change as country music took on a more middle-of-the-road approach, but it never left its storytelling roots. I’ve found it much easier to listen to in my adult life as it has evolved.
By the time I was growing up there was a pretty strong area where contemporary country and adult contemporary and pop were starting to blend, but where the story-telling tradition remained strong, which meant I liked country from the start.