- “Redneck Woman” and the Gendered Poetics of Class Rebellion
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In 2004 Gretchen Wilson exploded onto the country music scene with “Redneck Woman.” The blockbuster single led to the early release of her first CD, Here for the Party, and propelled it to triple platinum sales that year, the highest for a debut in any musical category. “Redneck Woman” shot to No. 1 faster than any country track in the previous decade and held the top spot for five weeks. Wilson garnered a raft of distinctions, including a Grammy for best country song and best female vocalist honors from both the Country Music and American Music Awards. (See the video at http://www.cmt.com/videos/gretchen-wilson/30774/redneck-woman.jhtml.)
The record was a milestone in country music and in the career of Wilson, who went in a few weeks from struggling Nashville unknown to top-selling Nashville star. In the process, the “Redneck Woman” she had created with co-writer and MuzikMafia crewmate John Rich became not only her signature song but her star persona. Redneck Woman was the tag line that served to introduce Wilson in public appearances and media features. The neck of her guitar even proclaimed “redneck” in mother of pearl inlay. More than a nickname, the handle keyed to a network of images, attributes, and attitudes that Wilson represented and that, for fans, represented her in an essential way. Loretta Lynn was the Coal Miner’s Daughter, Johnny Cash the Man in Black, and now Gretchen Wilson was the Redneck Woman. Anyone curious about the meaning of any of these monikers could simply listen to the eponymous song.
All three songs have served as identity totems for their singers and the fans who have embraced them. All are first-person narrations on themes that have been prevalent in postwar country music, including an identification with humble folk—both the materially impoverished and the socially scorned. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (#1 1970) poignantly chronicles the singer’s hardscrabble family origins in a Kentucky holler. Its message is familiar to country fans: We were poor, but we had love—of God and each other.1 The narrator in “Man in Black” (#3 1971) explains that he shuns color in his dress to protest poverty, hopelessness, and lives lost to war and imprisonment. That song’s lyrics invoke another champion of the downtrodden, Jesus. The persona in “Redneck Woman” acknowledges her own scorned status but frames it with neither poignancy nor righteous protest. Her statement is a defiant apologia for herself and her redneck sisters and their “trashy” social position.
Wilson’s breakthrough single and its extraordinary reception remakes white working-class female identity through language, sound, and images and in relation to middle-class/working-class, male/female, and individual/communal affiliations. It is an identity bereft of cachet, or “cultural exchange-value,” according to Beverley Skeggs, a British sociologist whose work powerfully illuminates the cultural terrain on which the song is produced and received. [End Page 45]
Skeggs offers a theory on the workings of the contemporary Western political and symbolic economy—a cultural system that elevates stories of individual “subjects” and rewards those who can access, use, and display the right identity attributes. The winners here are those who are positioned to access other subjects’ “properties.” These powerful actors can “use the classifications and characteristics of race, sexuality, class, and gender as resources” by borrowing them, fluidly and according to the circumstances, from the subject positions to which they are seen to belong. Such self-resourcing takes place in a modern neoliberal context of “propertized personhood.” Here, exchange-value attaches, not only to objects or the labor that transforms them into possessions (as in Marx), but to “the cultures, experiences, and...