- Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music by Nadine Hubbs
This readable and thought-provoking volume makes an important contribution to the emerging body of research on queer working-class America. Drawing from several scholarly fields, Nadine Hubbs explores links between working-class folks and country music, and between working-class culture and queers. Her central historical argument is that until the 1970s, sexual and gender-role variance were linked to working-class culture and devalued, while since the 1970s, they have been linked to middle-class culture and tolerated or valued. What has remained constant is that whatever is linked to working-class folks is scorned. Her central sociological argument is that working-class codes and values go unrecognized by what she calls “the narrator class” (meaning middle-class academics, media, etc.), partly because the middle class defines itself by imagining itself as separate from the working class, which then must be stigmatized in order for status to accrue to the middle class. Since the middle class thus gets to set the terms, one of the few means by which working-class culture can name and honor its own experience is via country music, whose themes and tropes “afford listeners the opportunity to reflect on the significance of ordinary lives, and ordinary, utterly precedented patterns in their own lives. From a perspective sympathetic to working-class experience, this reveling in shared ordinariness can reflect a rich sociality and humble humanity” (100). She concludes that in failing to attend to and describe working-class culture accurately, the narrating class does working people a disservice that harms everyone.
The three terms of the book’s title come together in several ways. One connection is Hubbs’s argument that queers have been “middle-classed.” Queers have achieved distance from our previous association with working and poor folks via becoming attached to a rights-based discourse while simultaneously striving for status by moving away from gender-role violations and toward a more Mattachine Society definition of gay life as about sexual object choice (read: “We’re just like you, only we desire those of our own sex”). Accomplishing this shift necessitated “demonizing the white working class as homophobic and erasing and depoliticizing their deep historical relations to queer culture” (30). Much of this cultural work parallels country music and the negative valence attributed to it and to its fans. As the middle class began to identify itself with tolerance, global tastes, and antiracist metropolitan multiculturalism, it imagined itself as embracing all musical and cultural styles except country. Just a few notes of pedal steel guitar or banjo are enough to call to mind bigotry, sexism, and homophobia. But this equation exists only in the mind of the middle class, which uses it to reward itself for tolerance and correct thinking.
Country music is here a flashpoint or symbol—it invokes a particular, politically motivated stereotype. Hubbs also interprets country music as an expression of working-class culture and values. Though most of her argument here concerns how each class [End Page 116] understands subjectivity and agency (drawing on accounts of classed child rearing practices and on a communications study of interactions at a cement pour), she applies these to questions of queer involvement and lack thereof in country music discourse and production. For example, can we understand country music as anti-queer because it makes no mention of gender or sex deviance? Does silence about a topic imply lack of comfort or acceptance? Hubbs responds by explaining that working-class culture values silence, particularly in areas of political or emotive contention, and that the Christianity described in the country songs she discusses is not fundamentalist or antigay but rather humanitarian and accepting. Both these conclusions derive from her contention that rather than emphasize individual achievement and creative expression of a unique self, working-class subjects “hope to withstand the world’s pressures without changing or compromising their integrity” (51). Constancy is valued over innovation, and the music is not trying to be original, nor are its listeners. The middle...