Friday, October 28, 2005

Family Values: Rap vs. Country

Today I looked at the top five rap songs versus the top five country songs, according to the Billboard singles charts. I was looking for what they had to say about love, sex, marriage, and children.

The rap songs are:
Soul Survivor, by Young Jeezy Featuring Akon
Gold Digger, by Kanye West Featuring Jamie Foxx
Like You, by Bow Wow Featuring Ciara
Girl Tonite, by Twista Featuring Trey Songz
Play, by David Banner

The country songs are:
Better Life, by Keith Urban
Skin (Sarabeth), by Rascal Flatts
Probably Wouldn't Be This Way, by LeAnn Rimes
Who You'd Be Today, by Kenny Chesney
Redneck Yacht Club, by Craig Morgan

All the rap songs are sung by, and from the perspective of, men, though one is an unbalanced duet.

“Soul Survivor” is about unrepentant armed drug dealers. There is nothing about love, or even sex, in this one, but it portrays a very bleak world.

“Like You” is a straight love song, though the marks of his care for her are not a promise of marriage and children, but letting her drive his Benz and go on shopping sprees. Still, this is the most hopeful of the bunch.

“Girl Tonite” is an extremely vulgar sex song. “Play” is a pornographic sex song, including an invitation to group sex with her friends. He calls himself a pimp and the other women hoes. This one is truly disgusting.

The most interesting rap song is Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” which Maggie Gallagher wrote about recently. This is a gold mine (so to speak) of relational disaster and ambivalence. The woman he describes is a gold digger, though he says he won’t call her that. She has four children, some by other named stars. She wants him to pay for them, too. He offers as general advice that if a woman has your child you have to pay her child support for 18 years. He has a friend, an NFL star, who paid child support, but the woman spent the money on herself – and after 18 years he discovered that the child is not his, anyway. Yet the singer claims that he loves her anyway.

The key lines are:
“If you ain’t no punk holla We Want Prenup
It's something that you need to have
Cause when she leave yo ass she gone leave with half”

Note that he says when she leaves, not if.

He urges another woman to stick with a poor but ambitious young man who will make it one day – but then the punch line is “But when you get on he leave yo ass for a white girl”

This is a tragic view of the relations of men and women, and truly horrid for the children they casually and incidentally produce.

The country songs are, not surprisingly, a different story altogether.

“Better Life,” like “Like You,” is a man promising a woman to stay with her and provide a better life for her – with none of the ambivalence of “Gold Digger.”

“Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way,” and “Who’d You Be Today,” are both about grieving for a dead loved one, the first by a widow, the second by, I think, a father. They are tender and straightforwardly grateful for the loving relationship that they had, before the early death of the other person.

“Redneck Yacht Club” is just a genial, working class hoot. Whereas the rappers brag about how expensive their things are, the country singers emphasize how modest their lives are materially. The good ol’ boys who tie their houseboats together for some low-key summer fun suggest nothing more risqué than “than checking out the girls on the upper deck.”

The most interesting song of this set is Rascal Flatts’ “Skin.” A teenage girl with cancer, supported by mom and dad, worries about the embarrassment of going to the prom bald, and thus disappointing her first love. When he picks her up for the dance, however, he has shaved his head in solidarity with her.

I read both sets of top-selling songs as telling us more about the audience than the performers. The audience for country songs wants a world of married parents taking care of their kids, and encouraging young love, in a life in which material things are secondary. The rap audience, on the other hand, wants to feel the feeling of a bleak world of sex, money, and impermanence in all relationships.

Both audiences, we know from other research, are predominantly white. The country singers, though, are popular because they reflect the lives and aspirations of an audience that is like the singers themselves. The appeal of rap songs about brutal, criminal, misogynist black men to the white boys who buy most rap music is that rap portrays a life they don’t live, but are darkly attracted to. Most of them will get over it, and live a life more like a country song. Still, the rap world, as portrayed in its best-selling songs, is all threat to marriage and family life, and no help.

But it is an effective way to annoy your parents. And that may be the main point.


Mike James said...

Sorry, came across this blog by pure accident and was intruiged.

I am reminded by your comments of a recent country song by Big & Rich (I think, I'm no expert) in which the lyrics mentioned to the listener that they should "save a horse, ride a cowboy." I'm not trying to insinuate that rap is in some how saintly, indeed some of it can be overly graphic, especially when it comes to sexual practices. I just wanted to remind people that...I dunno, that everything isn't so "clean."

redante said...


I think that limiting your analysis to the mainstream top ten artists can present a skewed representation of the genres. There are rap artists out there whose lyrics do not deal with misogyny and are more philosophical, political, and socially conscious. I respond mainly to defend rap against the sterotype that it is all all about thuggery and misogyny. I grew up listening to postive rap like Public Enemy, Arrested Development, the Fugees, Jeru the Damaja, and I know there are contemporary positive rap artists out there like The Roots, Mos Def, etc.

Anonymous said...

One thing to consider, though, is that women aren't portrayed all too positively in country songs, either. The rosy images and smooth voices often mask male singers who patronize women just as much as rappers objectify them. What do women do in country songs, besides act as high school sweethearts or wives? Not much.

Although these top five songs don't provide stellar support for the case in point, one example can be found in Keith Urban's song:

"And I promise you you're gonna have/More than just the things that you need"

He seems to imply that he is not only the sole breadwinner but her hope for a happy and fulfilled life (which is achieved monetarily). This is all too common in country songs, and although not as graphic as the sexuality and violence of rap songs, can be just as damaging, in my opinon.

As a side note, I'll admit that I listen to and enjoy some rap, just because it's funny and loud and isn't really meant to be taken seriously. It's performed by top 40 artists who have almost certainly never been in a gang, killed anyone, beaten their wife, or engaged in half of the sex they sing about. Just like the country artists who sing about rednecking and drinking beer out on a lake probably arrive at their concerts in limos and record in big cities and haven't lived on a farm in Texas, ever. I think mainstream music is so set on selling images that songs cannot be seen as reflections of their performers, and here you're right--that the music reflects more importantly on its audiences. My argument is that the country-listening audience is just as (if not more) likely to disrespect women as the rap audience.

Whew. That's was longer than I intended. ;P

Gruntled said...

To Yossarian:
Sure, there is a whole honky tonk subculture in country (Trace Adkins' new song, "Honky Tonk Ba Donk a Donk" represents an interesting cross-over example) that has more sex and drinking in it. Still, "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" is a novelty song precisely because its message is a novelty in the current country pop. Its message would be mild, though, in rap.

To Liberal Arts Dude:
I agree that there is much better rap (Kanye West has written some of it, for example), starting with "The Message." I think the fact that the best-selling rap is heavy on the horrible reflects more on the audience than the full scope of the genre. The same could be said of each of Billboard's charts: the best-selling stuff reflects a middle-brow taste.

To Annie Maggard:
I just don't see how patronizing sexism, even more than what this sample of songs shows, is just as bad as "Play," or the moral vision behind a much better song, "Gold Digger." Husbands wanting to take care of their wives is, I think, a good thing; a pimp wanting to have sex with his hoe, and all her friends, on the other hand, is loathsome. Don't you think?

Anonymous said...

i guess my argument is that more country listeners are likely to grow up to be actual patronizing sexists than rap listeners are likely to grow up to be actual abusive misogynists. And like you said, this is more a reflection on the audience than the performers or genres.

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. Do you think that it is better for men to think that they should take care of their wives and children, or not? It seems to me that the social risks of chivalry are greater than the risks of too much independence, too little solidarity. This is the marital version of the "bowling alone" problem.

Anonymous said...

I think it is alright for a man to think he should take care of his wife and children, just so long as it is socially acceptable for the woman to also want to take care of her husband and children, be it financially or otherwise.

Gruntled said...

Sure -- do you see anything in these country songs, or other ones, that would oppose a woman taking care of her family?

I have noticed that sometimes people get themselves into tangles when they say one bad thing is just as bad as another, in an attempt to avoid making discriminating judgments.

Sweetjame said...

Art reflecting culture, my favorite! Interesting snapshot experiment comparing the genres. I agree with several Gruntled points. One point I'd like to second and supplement is that chart topping songs do cater to an ever-slipping middle. Internet sales are not yet reflected in most pop sales ratings so there is a distinct class/tech. bias (with all the sociological punch that carries) due to the revolutionary exchange/purchase of music online.

That said, HollaBack Girl by Gwen Stefani recently became the first song commercially downloaded over a million times (virtual platinum). It's a rap/hip-hop song with vocals delivered by an attractive white woman, back beats courtesy of hip-hip icon Dr. Dre. The lyrics vaguely empower young women not to respond to booty calls.

Gruntled said...

I have been puzzling over the lyrics of Hollaback Girl. One might think from the word itself that a "hollaback girl" is one who gives as good as she gets to catcalls. Yet the singer says, emphatically, that she is not one. So perhaps what a hollaback girl hollers back is, "yes, I will." Puzzling. Enlightenment would be welcome.

Anonymous said...

What is wrong about a man wanting to care for his wife and children? I would rather listen to that than the "Gold Digger" where the husband or lover, has no clue who his wife or lover has children with. And for those of you who claim it is sexist for the man to take care of the woman, you are wrong. The man is not telling the woman to stay at home to be a housewife, he is stating that he will be true to his marital word and honor and support her. For example the song that goes "And i'll stand in a shadow so you'll shine, just ask it will be done..." which is a man singing to the woman he loves whereas in rap you would hear i'll be nice to you till i screw you..

Gruntled said...

Yes, I have to say that I don't find much objectionable sexism in the actual lyrics of country songs. They do talk about men taking care of women and women seeking men who will take care of them, but they don't actually say that that is the full extent of the relationship.

Anonymous said...

Hollerback Girl, literal definition: A Cheerleader who hollers in the background which most people ignore. Since you can't ignore Gwen Stefani, she ain't no 'hollaback girl'.

hollaback girl - someone who just echoes the opinions of those who are popular and has no real opinions of their own; someone who rides the wave of someone else's popularity
Vickie and Carla are just hollaback girls for Lisa

a girl who will not stand for a verbal fight( throwin words back and forth) but instead will fight phsyically not taking any shit verbally. basically a badass girl who doesnt use words but fights instead

Gwen Stefani's hollaback girl lyrics:

I heard that you were talking shit
And you didn't think that I would hear it
People hear you talking like that, getting everybody fired up
So I'm ready to attack, gonna lead the pack
Gonna get a touchdown, gonna take you out
That's right, put your pom-poms downs, getting everybody fired up

It seems as though Ms. Stefani has had some incidents in which another young, presumably female, individual has made some disparaging remarks about her character. Upon learning of the situation, Ms. Stefani is informing this “culprit” that she intends to handle this matter physically. Ms. Stefani’s character is such that she is not the type of person who counters verbal attacks with verbal attacks, or “hollering back.” Using terminology that is commonplace among today’s youth, this is shortened to “hollaback.” Additionally, it appears as though this altercation will take place somewhere near the bleachers.

Anonymous said...

Also I wanted to add that as much thought as you guys have put into analyzing lyrical content, you have to realize that most people don't REALLY listen to the words in a song and that they just like the beat or melody or whatever.

I can't tell you how many times I've asked someone who says, "This is my FAVORITE song!" what the song's about where they tell me, "oh, I don't know. I just like the way it *sounds*"

I think most of mainstream America, regardless of genre, listen to music because they think they're supposed to like it because they're friends listen to it or because they see it on MTV and/or hear it on the radio, etc. I don't think most people put as much thought into it as what was said in this blog.

Just something to think about. :)

Gruntled said...

So why is the "me, too" woman, echoing the thoughts of others, also the one to lead the physical attack? These would seem, psychologically, like two different roles.

And, yes, I know that many people do not listen to the words of songs they "like." I don't understand this, but I acknowledge the fact. But I don't think that those of us who do listen to and think about the lyrics should be swayed by that fact -- quite the contrary. Ideas are more interesting than the beat, fun though the beat might be.

Anonymous said...

I don't listen to enough rap to compare it to country and I am sure it is much more vulgar. However, I do listen to a lot of country and I think the songs you selected are disproportionately virtuous.

County music has a long tradition of giving a mixed message on adultery. The message on alcohol is generally pretty postive - Margaritaville, It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere, etc. Even the song "Alcohol" while pointing out some of alcohol's dangers ends up sounding fairly affectionate.

And while Save A Horse, Ride a Cowboy is a little more explicit than most, it's certainly not an anomaly: I may be a real bad boy, but baby I'm a real good man; I love how you love me; Nothing On But the Radio; Hot Mama; I may not be as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was; and from the past - Don't Call Him a Cowboy 'Till You've Seen Him Ride.

Gruntled said...

Hey, I didn't pick 'em, the country fans of that week did.

I have to partly take issue with your case, though. Yes, country music is probably more positive about alcohol than negative. Adultery, on the other hand, is often sung about, but rarely is it treated positively.

As to your last set, let's take them one by one:

And while Save A Horse, Ride a Cowboy is a little more explicit than most,
- yes, that is a vulgar novelty song about sex, but it is more euphemistic, at least, than most rap songs about sex.

I may be a real bad boy, but baby I'm a real good man;
- there are many songs about bad boys being tamed by love and marriage.

I love how you love me;
- there is no reason to think that this is not about married love and sex.

Nothing On But the Radio; Hot Mama;
- same deal

I may not be as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was;
- this phrase doesn't even make sense.

and from the past - Don't Call Him a Cowboy 'Till You've Seen Him Ride.
- good advice, mixed with a mild double entendre.

Anonymous said...

rap defanitly isn't the best to listen to but neither is country. just because rap is worse than country doesn't make country ok. if you beleive something is wrong you should'nt make exceptions.especially if you are ignorant to the culture or topic. simply evaluating the top 5 is pure jugemental. try hey mama by kayne west it wasn't top 5 but they still play it on the radio.

Anonymous said...

rap is better than country and no one can change that

wangsta said...

country is like rap b/c country singers rime when they sing and i call that rap but i dont like country i like rap but i grew up listening to country but then i got into rap and never when back to country and thats how i am staying

Unknown said...

Country-rap is a genre of popular music blending country music with hip hop music-style rapping. The genre has been identified as a genre for about twenty years.[1] The style is also known as hick-hop, hill hop, hip hopry, and country hop-hop.

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Unknown said...

Certain individual country music songs show a rap influence, such as Toby Keith's 2001 single "I Wanna Talk About Me", which features spoken-word verses recited over an insistent rhythm. The same style applies to The Bellamy Brothers' 1987 single "Country Rap".[1] Neal McCoy has also recorded a rap version of the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies called "Hillbilly Rap," which includes samples from other rap songs.

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Volker from Germany said...
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Anonymous said...

Obviously you idiots have no taste for classic music. Country music is by far the greatest genre it's been around longer than any of your so called "rappers". Country music deals with real life, something people can relate to and understand opposed to noise and nothing that makes sense when some idiot screams into a microphone. Rap deals with disgusting topics and low lives. Country stands for everything America was and still is today, great cowboys such as Glen Cambell, Willie Nelson, George Straight and many other great artists Chris Young,Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and so on.

Rap is just plain C.R.A.P, it's in the name and it's part of the genre. And that about raps it up!

Anonymous said...

Obviously you idiots have no taste for classic music. Country music is by far the greatest genre it's been around longer than any of your so called "rappers". Country music deals with real life, something people can relate to and understand opposed to noise and nothing that makes sense when some idiot screams into a microphone. Rap deals with disgusting topics and low lives. Country stands for everything America was and still is today, great cowboys such as Glen Cambell, Willie Nelson, George Straight and many other great artists Chris Young,Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and so on.

Rap is just plain C.R.A.P, it's in the name and it's part of the genre. And that about raps it up!

1000 Knives said...

I think modern country is pretty much the same as rap music. Classic country I like much better. Basically, both types of music are about repping eachother's "hoods" just in country music's case, it's about repping The South/Texas/Oklahoma/whatever, and how everyone else is inferior to their much superior more manly lifestyle of doing cowboy things.

That said, I will agree that rap music is worse as far as it's bad themes of sexism and whatnot. But, the conclusion of "and so country music is much morally superior and that's the reason that white people have less unwed motherhood rates" (at least I think that's what you're trying to push in your article) is absurd, because the whites are FAST approaching the blacks in this regard, especially in poorer communities where country music would be listened to predominantly.

That said, older rap and R&B used to be a ton better, and much more wholesome. Just better music in general. I think instead of life imitating art, it's more a circular cycle, they feed off eachother.