by Chris Willman
Country music was once a hotbed of anti-gun fervor—for about five minutes, anyway, when Johnny Cash released his 1958 chart-topper Don't Take Your Guns to Town.
Cash's "young cowboy named Billy Joe" ignored his mama's advice to disarm before heading into the city, insisting that "I wouldn't shoot without a cause / I'd gun nobody down."
But a gun that's introduced in the first verse is bound to go off in the fifth, and after drinking and drawing, poor Bill repeats the title admonition to himself as he bleeds to death at song's end. Has there ever been a more compelling gun-control anthem?
Cut to today.
New country, meet Newtown.
Two years ago, when Staind singer Aaron Lewis successfully crossed over to country, he established his rural cred by recording a song called Country Boy in which he bragged that he never goes to town without some serious firepower.
"Hank taught me just how to stay alive," he sang (referring, of course, to Junior, not Senior).
"You'll never catch me out the house without my 9 or .45."
You could write this off as the grunge frontman being an overcompensating carpetbagger.
But he's got plenty of company among country music's homegrown heroes.
There is a reason that the National Rifle Association has in recent years undertaken a Nashville-supported initiative called NRA Country, and that there is no concurrent NRA Indie or NRA Dubstep program.
The most popular male country singer, and reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, is Blake Shelton, a poster boy for loud 'n' proud gun ownership.
Last March, the day before he hosted the annual ACM Awards in Las Vegas, he also hosted the second annual NRA Country "celebrity shoot" at a skeet range just outside of town.
Shelton's publicist points out that the event was for charity and that the star is not officially an "NRA Country artist," a monthly designation that entails a sponsorship by the gun lobby. (Like nearly all the artists contacted for this story, Shelton declined comment.)
But Shelton hasn't exactly been shy about his views, taking on anti-gun types in his Twitter feed almost as enthusiastically as he takes on vegetarians.
In 2011, Shelton cheerfully invoked the great divide between gun enthusiasts and detractors to an audience at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
"I had mentioned to a couple tree-huggers out there [in L.A.] that I was gonna come out here and do an NRA Country skeet shoot," he told the crowd of soldiers and their families.
"They said, 'Man, you're gonna go out and shoot guns? You're a celebrity now. Don't you think that's a little irresponsible to be shooting guns? You're supposed to be a role model.'
"I want to dedicate this song to that person. Because if you don't think that I ought to be shooting guns and bragging about my right to keep and bear arms, then you can"—here comes the song title—kiss my country ass, man.
In the wake of December's Sandy Hook school massacre, and the subsequent calls for comprehensive gun-control reform, most country singers have been silent on the issue.
Shelton, though, tapped out a tweet upon first hearing the news, only to retract it later.
"The killing of defenseless people and innocent children. I'm sad and sickened. This is why we all should be prepared to defend and guard," wrote the breakout star of the hit reality-TV series The Voice. He soon deleted the tweet, but not before it became a newsmaking screen cap.
More recently, another famous Nashvillian, John Rich, has taken up the gauntlet of defending the Second Amendment against possible proscriptions. The Big and Rich co-frontman and reality-TV regular was initially quiet after the Sandy Hook massacre, perhaps not wanting a reprise of the controversy following the Aurora, Co. theater killings in July, which prompted Rich to tweet, "Shooting in CO is why people should have their carry permits. Had I been there I would have unloaded on that maniac till he stopped breathing."
But Rich came out of his shell in a big way last week, now that sensitivity has cooled and President Obama has put gun legislation on the table. Parroting the NRA talking points, Rich tweeted, "The kids of many high ranking Govt officials have armed guards at their schools. Why are their kids more important than ours? #hypocrisy." And: "My two small sons lived with an armed guard in the house. ME." And, in a slightly more jocular mode: "Glad Granny Rich doesn't live in NY state. She'd have to give up her .22 squirrel gun due to it having a 10 round clip. BAD GRANNY! BAD!!" Responding to an antagonist who said "You don't need assault weapons to protect your family!," Rich replied, "In your 'expert' opinion, what weapon SHOULD I use to protect them?" And, finally, tellingly, "Pretty cool when you get a random call from TED NUGENT and he wants to jam with you in VEGAS!"
The far-right Nugent is an odd man out in the liberal confines of rock'n'roll. On Music Row, though, few would bat an eye at Shelton and Rich's pro-gun stance, and even fewer would loudly lobby on behalf of gun control. This may make the genre seem hopelessly outré to some blue staters. But if it's true, as a New York Times poll recently stated, that 47 percent of Americans have a gun in the household, then country music may be a valuable window for gun-control advocates into how the other half lives.
Through most of the history of country music since the 1930s, guns have rarely figured into songs, except, in an anachronistic way, during the resurgence of Western-themed gunslinger ballads in the '50s and '60s. Certainly, a geographic overlay of the country audience would have revealed that most fans owned a gun for either hunting or self-protection—but it didn't occur to many Music Row tunesmiths to write songs about it.
But as the music itself has become more cosmopolitan, infiltrated by pop and '70s rock elements, the lyrics have taken a turn towards a more entrenched, sometimes cartooonish ruralism. Country is no longer so much about a sound as a lifestyle. Pickup trucks have been the main beneficiary of the music's move to position itself as regional and recreational, but along with mud on the tires, there is also sometimes a gun rack mounted on the rear window.
Multiplatinum artist Brad Paisley—a hunting enthusiast, like most country stars—has been an unofficial ambassador for guns as grist for humor and wholesomeness. Last year, he released "Camouflage" as a single, getting several minutes' worth of fun out of the idea that ladies can't resist a guy in leafy green. And then there was his inoffensively anti-metrosexual anthem "I'm Still a Guy," which had the memorable couplet, "Oh, my eyebrows ain't plucked / There's a gun in my truck / Oh thank God, I'm still a guy."
On the still-a-girl side, acclaimed singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert–better known to tabloid readers as Mrs. Blake Shelton–bragged about using "Gunpowder and Lead" to deal with a woman-beater on her breakthrough 2008 single. It's gunpower as girl-power, and probably nothing that anyone on either side of the gun divide takes too seriously, although the imagery certainly resonates in a way it wouldn't in pop.
There is crossover between lightheartedness and belligerence, as in Rodney Atkins' 2006 No. 1 country single "Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy)," which explores the tradition of fathers intimidating their daughters' suitors: "Hey y'all run along and have some fun / I'll see you when you get back / Bet I'll be up all night / Still cleanin' this gun." Think Ward-Cleaver-with-a-musket—the best of all possible country worlds, where fatherly devotion and male cantankerousness collide.
But there's less of a Leave It to Beaver vibe to the recent streak of don't-tread-on-me anthems. These owe a huge debt to Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive"—an anomaly when it came out in 1982 but one of the genre's most influential songs to a new generation of out-and-proud redneck stars. Hank Jr. described a friend in New York who "was killed by a man with a switchblade knife / For 43 dollars my friend lost his life / I'd love to spit some beechnut in that dude's eyes / And shoot him with my old .45." Thirty years of unhinged public outbursts have made the idea of Hank Jr. being within grabbing distance of a child's slingshot cause for alarm, but in country, the man remains a grandfathered-in cultural hero.
Fast forward three decades and budding stars Justin Moore and Josh Thompson are taking up the Hank Jr. policy position in a very single-minded way. "Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun / And you might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome, son," sings Thompson on his top 20 hit "Way Out Here." Moore's bluntly titled (and racially charged) "Guns," meanwhile, takes the cold-dead-hands approach to gun control. "When I was eight I used a muzzle loader to kill my first doe / These days I go down to Wal-Mart and they set 'em in the back / Some people wanna take 'em away, why don't you go bust them boys that sellin' crack," sings Moore—perhaps the first celebrity to berate Wal-Mart for not promoting guns enough. "Guns, whether Remingtons and Glocks / Come on man, it ain't like I'm a slingin' 'em on the block / I'm gonna tell you once and listen, son / As long as I'm alive and breathing / You won't take my guns."
The song "is a little bit in your face," Moore said when I talked with him about it on the eve of its release. Moore is no fringe act; he was nominated for Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2012 ACM Awards, and records for an imprint of Big Machine, best known as label home to Taylor Swift. "I remember my grandpa telling me one time that as long as he was alive and breathing, nobody was gonna take his guns. That's just the way they were back in the old school, and I still respect that day and time."
But how much of this strain of country is about relishing the culture war? One label head in Nashville, who requested not to be identified, believes that "much of the dark part of gun ownership, especially in the deep South, stems back to [an opposition to] sneering elites, a government that no longer resembles them, and—yes, I'm going to go there—the loss of the Civil War... and frankly arming up not to lose another."
Southern-rock icon Charlie Daniels, like Hank Jr., couldn't get on country radio anymore if the Second Amendment depended on it, but he's still a revered figure among many country fans, politically as well as musically. And he surely spoke for many when he blogged two weeks ago: "The president and the anti-gun crowd claim they do not want to do away with private ownership, that they only want to modify the existing laws having to do with assault... I submit to you that what is going on here is the first assault on private gun ownership. They will take whatever they can get now and continue to chip away until all you can legally own to protect your family with is a baseball bat... America, no matter what Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Reid and the rest of the far left in America say, they want your guns. They want them all. Don't just wait and see."
Many in the Nashville music business are worried that country may get caught in the middle of this brewing battle, and that Second Amendment fundamentalists such as Rich and Daniels could define the genre's position on gun rights.
"I would say the community is conflicted," says one of the most powerful executives in Nashville, who also requested that his name be withheld. "Only the extreme right has stepped out on this. And that will never be Nashville. That will never be Lady Antebellum or even Jason Aldean. It's too touchy. Most of our artists will stay quiet and appropriately solemn. But you never know.
"If I could do anything," the executive continued, "I'd push the NRA out of it. I resent the incursion of the gun lobby into this music, and I think I'm not the only one. NRA Country is subversive. It's like The 700 Club sponsoring country music artists. In fairness, I wouldn't want anybody buying up our artists who is trying to counter the view of the NRA, either. I wouldn't want there to be Anti-NRA country—as if you could recruit for that!"
NRA Country was launched two years ago as a program for participating artists—or "NRA Country family members"—to promote the firearms org, and, of course, vice versa. NRA Country has its own "fan club" that encourages the rank-and-file to vote for current and previous "NRA Artists of the Month" at awards shows and enter contests to win their merch. There's even a This Is NRA Country compilation CD that includes Atkins' "Cleaning My Gun," Montgomery Gentry's "My Town," and Craig Morgan's "I'm Country." Not all of these songs explicitly mention guns, but then, neither does NRA Country's website, which describes "a celebration of American values" that's "powered by pride, freedom, love of country, respect for the military, and the responsibilities of protecting the great American life."
Although NRA Country hadn't drawn much attention prior to Newtown, the program caught caught some heat when observers noticed that the last tweets the NRA sent out the day of the school massacre were reminders that country rapper Colt Ford was about to do an online NRA event, followed by a furtive "apologies for the inconvenience" addendum that Ford's gun-themed "tweet & greet" would need to be rescheduled.
For this story, I approached for comment more than a dozen artists who'd either received NRA Country sponsorships or attended NRA-sponsored events. All but one declined to be interviewed. But after being on the red carpet at NRA Country's celebrity shoot last March, I already knew that most would say the NRA is primarily an organization devoted to safety, not lobbying.
"They teach children how to be safe with guns," Justin Moore had told me. "They said that the accidental deaths caused by guns is one-tenth the amount of what it was I think 20 or 30 years ago. So they're doing a lot of really great things." (Moore is enough of a flagship artist for the cause that he was drafted to create a title track for the This Is NRA Country CD. His lyrics, interestingly, never outrightly mention guns: "There's a boy down the road on a bridge with his fishing pole / There's a soldier huggin' his dad after gettin' home / There's a man in his overalls plowin' across his piece of ground / You don't have to look far all you gotta do is look around / This is NRA Country.")
The NRA's celebrity-shoot events have drawn acts not normally associated with the more aggressive side of country, like lite-rock trio Edens Edge, the Band Perry and Rascal Flatts. "What I learned, which is really cool," said Dean Berner of Edens Edge on the red carpet last spring, "is that only 15 percent of the NRA's budget is the political side. The political side is where all of the controversy is. Most of what NRA does is safety and training for policemen and military and for kids."
Within an hour of all this apolitical talk, Academy of Country Music CEO Bob Romero was standing at the podium in front of the participating artists, shaking hands with NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and mentioning the need to work together to turn Obama out of office. Then Romero chuckled and added that maybe he shouldn't be saying that.
If you go to the front page of NRA Country website, virtually all the text is about shared American values, with hardly a mention of guns. It's country = outdoorsy lifestyle = ideology. Even that weaponless verbiage bothers one Music Row exec, who says, "As a guy who's had to go to New York, L.A. and Chicago and be in a bunch of ad agency conference rooms describing why country music is popular, I don't like to see the clichés about country music flashed back at you on the NRA Country site."
The one NRA Country artist who is willing to go on the record is Heidi Newfield, formerly the lead singer of Trick Pony, now a solo artist. Newfield will defend the right to bear arms, but not the right to bear assault weapons.
"I'm from northern California," says Newfield, "and we hunted for our food until I was a teenager and we moved to Nashville. I am a proud member of the NRA. I want the right to defend myself in my own home responsibly, and to hunt game and eat what I kill. But there's a fundamental difference between our right to defend ourselves, and [the right to own] these types of rifles that people are getting a hold of and walking into buildings and schools and gunning people down with. I don't know of a deer hunter on the planet who needs a semiautomatic rifle. Owning an assault rifle, to me, it's simply unnecessary. I differ from the NRA on that stance and I make no qualms about that."
Some in Nashville object to the prospect of country getting tarred with the gung-ho-for-glocks reputation when violent imagery is rife in hip-hop, video games, and Hollywood. And the primary face of country in the 21st century isn't likely to rep the right to bare anything but occasional cleavage and her feelings about Harry Styles.
But, crossover queens notwithstanding, there will likely to continue to be a war for the soul of country's more regionally specific side. Are the genre's millions of well-armed fans best represented by hunting-themed novelty songs like Luke Bryan's light-hearted "Drinkin' Beer and Wastin' Bullets" (which, with its mixture of alcohol and firearms, isn't likely to show up on the next NRA compilation)? Or by the chest-puffing, anti-government paranoia and protectionism of Charlie Daniels' unapologetically rightist blogs?
One thing for sure: In today's country music, taking your guns to town isn't just a turn of phrase in a hit song.
Give us your best meme of Kamala destroying Pence at the debates: GO!
After months of deliberation, Joe Biden has picked Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Harris became nationally recognized after she surged to prominence in the 2020 Democratic primary season. Notoriously, she called Biden out about racial issues during the first Democratic debate. "There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she bused to school every day," she said in a speech that has now become famous. "And that little girl was me."
55-year-old Harris is currently the only Black woman in the Senate. She served as California's Attorney General prior to being elected in 2016.
Harris was born in Oakland, California; her father is from Jamaica and her mother from India. She studied at Howard University and then at University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She worked as a prosecutor in Alameda County and San Francisco before running for district attorney and then attorney general.
As a Senator, Harris was on the Intelligence Committee which interrogated Trump about Russia, and she also made waves through her interrogations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Attorney General William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh.
This is how Kamala Harris handled Barr. Now imagine how she’ll handle Pence. #BidenHarris2020 https://t.co/UbRcW4vzpy— Rantt Media (@Rantt Media)1597179179.0
Since her 2020 presidential campaign concluded, Harris has focused on the Senate's response to the coronavirus crisis, as well as their response to systemic police brutality and racist violence. In the past, Harris worked closely with Joe Biden's late son, Beau, on challenging big banks in the wake of the housing crisis.
Biden announced the decision via email and text messages to his supporters. "You make a lot of important decisions as president. But the first one is who you select to be your Vice President," he wrote Tuesday afternoon. "I've decided that Kamala Harris is the best person to help me take this fight to Donald Trump and Mike Pence and then to lead this nation starting in January 2021. These aren't normal times. I need someone working alongside me who is smart, tough, and ready to lead. Kamala is that person."
If elected, Harris would be the first vice president to be female or a person of color. "I think that she will help bring a strong voice on issues of immigration and racial justice," said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Fremont Democrat who backed Harris' opponent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries. "Given her life story, to see someone like her selected ... it will be encouraging to so many young people of different backgrounds."
Harris's mixed record as a prosecutor and her vacillation on progressive policies like Medicare for All has come under fire from many progressives' but in this scenario, even the most radical progressives seem to agree that Biden must be elected in order to oust Trump.
Immediate reactions to the Biden-Harris ticket on social media indicated how much supporters were looking forward to seeing Harris face off with Pence during the debates: The match-up seems to be made in meme-heaven.
I will take EXTREME pleasure watching Kamala Harris eat Mike Pence alive in a debate. JUST SAYING.— Adam Rippon (@Adam Rippon)1597180224.0
Kamala Harris waving goodbye to Mike Pence’s wig after the first VP debate https://t.co/ZYplRfTG4E— Joey Nolfi (@Joey Nolfi)1597178245.0
mike pence on his way to the first debate against kamala harris https://t.co/A1PBV94fiI— chase (@chase)1597177622.0
Perhaps meme culture is the best response to the Biden-Harris ticket, as Democrats must support Biden as the only way to oust Trump–though Biden is far from ideal. "Biden is very problematic in many ways, not only in terms of his past and the role that he played in pushing toward mass incarceration, but he has indicated that he is opposed to disbanding the police, and this is definitely what we need," said civil rights activist Angela Davis.
Davis continued, "The election will not so much be about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power. And I don't think there's a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold."
We ranked the worst parts of Internet fandom in no particular order—since they're all terrible.
As harmless hobbies, most fandoms are predicated on the universal ideal that most media is entertainment, liking things feels good, and you don't get to be an asshole if all don't appreciate your favorite thing.
But at the heart of every Internet dumpster fire, there's an ardent fanbase trolling forums and picking fights about their terrible opinions. While it's one thing to be overly-invested in the love lives of the Kardashians or easily excitable over Lady Gaga's burgeoning film career, some people's dedication to their fandoms can shape their identities.
An obnoxious fandom may simply take every opportunity to flood the Internet with memes, but toxic fandoms can turn into bullying communities, with some circulating intolerant, even harmful, rhetoric. From misogyny and racism to calls for violence and public doxxing, these out-of-control fan bases are some of the worst one's active today. Thanks to the return of Rick & Morty season 4 last night, we're reminded of these insufferable fanbases now more than ever.
1. "The Real Ricks" - Rick & Morty
In 2013, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon's adult animation about an anti-hero mad scientist and his meek grandson began as an innocuous half-hour comedy. Soon, its niche appeal to speculative fiction geeks with irreverent senses of humor garnered a cult following. But a small fraction of the fanbase latched onto Rick's nihilistic and hyper-intelligent misanthropy and basically took it way too seriously. On Facebook, a private group of like-minded "Real Ricks" identified with the character so much that they focused the fandom on defending Rick's narcissism and lack of compassion. Their serious devotion is mocked by the highly circulated "copypasta" post: "To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty. The humor is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical physics most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer's head."
"Real Ricks" radicalize Rick's tongue-in-cheek quips ("I don't do adventures with chicks") into actual misogyny (including harassing the show's female writers). They elevate Rick's worldview as a guiding pseudo-philosophy that recognizes and even pities "superior" men for their lonely existences as the smartest and most capable humans alive. Although it's a small fraction of the fanbase, it's among the loudest online, which is enough to sour the show's actual merits of unique comedic timing and sharp commentary.
Despite the Internet "canceling" Dan Harmon every few years, it seems that Rick & Morty and its fans will never die.
2. "BTS Army" - BTS
Twitter User: JooniesBoop
Aside from the fact that BTS is not a unique pop group and have no appeal if you're not a fan of K-pop, the fan base's zealotry is annoying, at best, and alarming, at worst. People's most common interactions with the "BTS Army" involve their obsessive gate-keeping of how the Internet talks about its members. The value of its boys (if we dare to speak their names), Namjoon, Hoseok, Jimin, Yoongi, Jungkook, Jin and Taehyung, knows no bounds. But that over-protective doting on the band results in vicious bullying of anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion, from name-calling to racially charged abuse.
Many black BTS fans have shared their experiences with racism from the BTS community. Some fans have received comments on their user pictures that black people aren't "worthy" to be fans of BTS, while another shared, "I've been called ni**** and also told to go pick cotton and it's always anonymous. But they always let me know that they're Armys because they always end the message [with] 'we don't claim you in Army.'" While the Internet always hosts hateful posts, toxic fandoms can unite bullies under a common cause and attempt to justify the harassment of others with their love for their idols.
3. Elon Musk
The cult of personality surrounding Elon Musk is a mix of celebrity worship, self-righteousness, and buying into the man's own savior complex. His core fanbase clings to the notion that Musk's tech-savvy can save humanity. While the group's moral superiority and defensiveness make them insufferable, their willful ignorance of his companies' environmental downsides and disregard for worker safety makes them stubbornly blind. To justify (if not outright deny) Musk's unsound, erratic behavior, many claim that journalists are actively sabotaging his vision of the future. Again, not every supporter of Elon Musk is a devout fan, bordering on worshipper, but those who elevate the problematic billionaire to icon status just muddy the waters of progressive change.
Musk's acolytes were even named the "Worst Dedicated Fan Base" in a March-Madness-style tournament, cynically hosted by The Onion's Michelle Spies. "Elon Musk is their masculine technologic messiah, sent to bring them into a new era," she explained. "They will defend their billionaire Lord to the death."
4. Jordan Peterson
As a clinical psychology professor-turned-YouTuber philosopher, Jordan Peterson appeals to mostly male, disaffected twenty-something-year-olds who cling to his paternalistic self-help advice in place of real guidance. His best-selling nonfiction book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos matches the interests of his 1.9 million YouTube subscribers.
Namely, Peterson offers rudimentary tips for self-improvement and a sympathetic attitude that claims progressivism and Leftist politics have made it harder for young men to reach their full potential. His insular fanbase clings to Peterson's theories that "the masculine spirit is under assault" and feminists have "an unconscious wish for brutal male domination." The mix of personal insecurities and finding scapegoats for one's dissatisfaction with life leads a faction of fans to circulate misogynist and transphobic ideas couched in conservative politics.
5. "Bro Army" - PewDiePie
Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie) tops the YouTube playground with 106 million subscribers to his gaming vlog, but his controversial satire of Nazi salutes, racial slurs, and alt-right beliefs attracts a loyal fan base that has no clear understanding of irony. With a majority of his followers skewing younger than 24-years-old (11% being younger than 17), PewDiePie's fanbase is active in the meme-culture of recycled imagery that blurs whether the intention is satirical or genuine. When the shooter of two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand quoted a popular meme about the YouTuber before opening fire, Kjellberg publicly clarified that he was "absolutely sickened having [his] name uttered by this person" and in no way condoned the action. Still, PewDiePie's blunt, unsophisticated riffing on anti-Semitic and alt-right sentiments risks "normalizing hatred" rather than mocking it.
In August 2020, PewDiePie's playlist was leaked, and his fans began leaving transphobic and homophobic comments en masse on some of the artists' pages. Some music artists have even openly asked, "Pewdiepie please don’t listen to my music" because his fans are so toxic.
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