Others have written about the deep conservatism of most country music. Not just the flag-waving, “these colors don’t run,” “Okie from Muskogee” political conservatism (although I’ve always suspected Merle Haggard started out meaning “Okie” to be received at least a little sarcastically), but the general resistance to change and acceptance of the status quo, the nostalgia for an (often imaginary) past where things were better. People in country songs wallow, often spectacularly. Even when expressing dissatisfaction they do it in a way that challenges outside criticism: yeah, that’s what it’s like, but you think you’re any better off?
In this jaunty bit of fatalism, singer-songwriter Brandy Clark sings from the point of view of people who “live in trailers and apartments too,”who “love to complain about what we can’t fix.” They struggle to make ends meet, they struggle to make their second marriage work out better than their first, they struggle with the realization that whatever youthful ambitions they might have had they have not significantly improved upon their parent’s lot in life. Religion and chance are the tools they use to reconcile themselves to these struggles:
So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto
Cause there ain’t but two ways
We can change tomorrow..
I find myself asking: really? Those are the only two paths to self-improvement? How about education, hard work, connections, other types of luck both good and bad? Isn’t it misguided to completely locate your potential for change externally?
But then I think: well, poverty certainly does dull our sense of options, and scraping by doesn’t leave much space to look at the big picture. Whose life wouldn’t be different with 200 million dollars? And although not inclined myself toward an interventionist God, can’t prayer sometimes be motivating? You can after all only act on the possibilities you can articulate.
But then again: you can also pray and think your job and is done and if you don’t get what you prayed for consider it God’s will and continue to go passively through the motions of your life. You can make the time between when you buy your Lotto ticket and when the wrong numbers come up a kind of numbing drug that helps you accept things you should be working to change.
Where does Brandy Clark herself come down? Is she endorsing the point of view she sings from, or criticizing it? I personally can’t tell, and maybe she’s not sure either. Which is I think a good thing. A work of art should contain contradictions. We should be suspicious if it doesn’t.
(Is craft itself a sign of conservatism? As opposed to say the “my lyrics are ripped from my soul, it’s dishonest to polish them too much” approach of many rock songwriters? Maybe, but I sort of like craft. In this song, I especially like the slant rhyme of “lotto” and “tomorrow” and “bottle,” and I like how Clark later brings in “motto” and “borrowed” to extend the scheme. I generally like the precise way the words sit on the melody. It lends itself well to singing along in the car. I hope it become a bit hit on country radio, though I’m not holding my breath.)