BY DOMINICK MAYER
Were you to roll your eyes at the invocation of the phrase “hick-hop,” you couldn’t really be faulted. But it’s here, and it’s happening as we speak. Country music, in the latest incarnation of its ongoing identity crisis at the mainstream level, has started to adopt ever more traits of the radio-friendly branches of American hip-hop as time goes on. At least, if not the political implications or street-level social awareness, then certainly the parts that get people to enthusiastically turn up the music when it comes over the airwaves.
A recent article in The Atlantic observed this phenomenon in closer detail, in the form of a conversation with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom about the genre’s increasing dalliances with the vestiges of hip-hop. Cottom, while an admitted fan, acknowledges that embracing the tropes of hip-hop sooner or later has to involve some contemplation of country music’s checkered history as racial representation goes and how that carries over into hick-hop. As she observes:
I think it goes back to country being fundamentally about a better, simpler time. And that’s always a nostalgic feeling, about a better past. So even when the music is about fun, and isn’t on the surface about the past, the genre is about that. And for white people a lot of talking about the good old times is talking about a pre-integration time a pre-Civil Rights time, a time before interracial dating was common. So they’ve got to walk a fine line there between holding up the nostalgia of the genre and tapping into the youth culture.
The landscape of American culture may be changing, and all music with it, but it doesn’t eradicate country’s long history as an almost exclusively white medium. To look closer, the two most prominent people of color in country music right now are ex-Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, and Nelly. Yes, that Nelly. If you haven’t kept up on recent country music, Nelly joined up-and-coming act Florida Georgia Line on a remix of their hit “Cruise” last year, and catapulted it to even greater prominence:
The video starts off with Nelly informing the act via phone call that they have to “turn up” the remix—to illustrate that country is straying from the norm. Hip-hop and country would appear at a casual glance to be diametrically opposed in ethos, but as genres begin to bleed together in the time of the Internet, hip-hop is ever more absorbed into broader American culture; they’ve come together, as much a savvy marketing approach as anything. Florida Georgia Line aren’t the only ones, either; nearly five years ago, Ludacris joined Jason Aldean on the track “Dirt Road Anthem,” and Billy Ray Cyrus joined forces with rapper Buck 22 for the updated “Achy Breaky 2.”
“Achy Breaky 2” is illustrative of a larger issue with country’s foray into rap music. In trying to gain viral cred, something that’s largely eluded the country genre even in a time where virtually anything can go viral with the right following, country’s pulled it off for all the wrong reasons. In addition to “Achy Breaky 2” making the rounds as a “worst song of 2014” candidate earlier in the year, there was the sad, short life of Brad Paisley’s LL Cool J-assisted “Accidental Racist,” a woefully point-missing ballad for interracial tolerance that was largely pulled from the Internet in the wake of its rapid ascent to national punchline status. Even if Paisley’s heart was in the right place, the song was such an overwhelming testament to country’s out-of-touch standing that the blogosphere voraciously lit into it.
That’s the trouble with country assuming the skin of hip-hop: to do so means inevitably revoking much of hip-hop’s origins as a black medium of performance. That doesn’t mean necessarily that hip-hop can’t evolve from that, but that it has inherent roots in the struggles of being an ethnic minority in an overwhelmingly Caucasian society. And to utilize it for the sake of party music (as in the case of “Achy Breaky 2”) is to eradicate those roots.
But this has already been happening within the genre for years. Cottom notes elsewhere in her discussion of hick-hop that it exists “because youth culture right now happens to be a hip-hop culture.” She explains, “You have a generation of young people for whom some hip-hop was part of their sonic landscape growing up. So I think it’s about being young and being hip and being modern without being entirely hip-hop. It’s just enough hip-hop; there’s some sort of intuitive threshold of much hip-hop there can be in hick hop.”
The notion of an intuitive threshold can probably be illustrated best by “Achy Breaky 2,” filled with twerking and the decadence, but none of the message. But there are more commonalities between the two than one might realize at a casual glance. The near-decade and a half since the turn of the millennium has seen both genres flirted with mainstream acceptance; in both cases, this was due largely to the genres’ embraces of pop music stylings, watering down the most regionally/ethnically specific component of the culture. And given Southern rap’s importance to this process by way of artists like Ludacris or Outkast, or even the early hick-hop approach of a pre-“Ms. New Booty” Bubba Sparxxx, it stands to reason that some synthesis of the genres was probably inevitable at some point.
But hick-hop isn’t just a byproduct of cultural integration. Again, it’s not integration or even appropriation as much as it’s a marketing strategy. As Rolling Stone notes in their brief history of the subgenre, it’s not only a new phenomenon, but one that’s had roots in novelty value since its inception. But it could well be that country artists, particularly the spate of white males that largely still constitute country musicians, are looking to distinguish themselves from the increasing homogeneity of their own genre. In the same way that hip-hop has struggled to retain its authenticity (however you want to parse meaning out of that complex and loaded phrase), country music has watched as pop-country explodes, revoking much of the genre’s regionality in order to appear to a wider audience.
Country’s identity crisis isn’t just illustrated by disastrous “Accidental Racist”-style experiments. It’s best found in just how much country music is starting to sound alike. Another country-related viral hit, perhaps the most notable in recent memory, is a YouTube video illustrating just how much most recent country music has started to sound alike:
While country returned to mass prominence on the heels of Toby Keith and Alan Jackson’s 9/11-fueled bursts of nationalism, it was arguably country’s aboutface against the Dixie Chicks that most prominently spurred this departure. Country music became synonymous with American Southern nationalism, and it was a mode that was never going to play well on a broad public level. So, country embraced the pop trends of the mid-aughts, a mixture of singer-songwriter material and hip-hop’s burgeoning prominence.
Even then, hick-hop was a novelty, the domain of acts like Big & Rich, who briefly accomplished both of their goals promised by their act’s name through the goofy “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” Now, hip-hop has adopted rappers (albeit less relevant ones) for maximum authenticity. But as hip-hop itself struggles with how to situate white rappers attempting to reach traditionally black standards of authenticity, country will eventually have to deal with co-opting of a culture it doesn’t not, not to mention a genre that many within country’s traditional target demographic have treated with either indifference or active disdain.
Hick-hop may or may not end up being a flash in the pan, but it says a lot about how the Internet has helped to eradicate music’s generic boundaries.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer is the co-editor of The Kelly Affair, and a staff writer at Consequence of Sound. He also hosts an open-mic at Uncharted Books in Chicago called Permanent Records, dedicated to the live sharing of embarrassing detritus from audience members’ younger selves.
Photo via Achy Breaky 2/YouTube