american girl country music

Image by Carrie O'Brien.

When the going gets tough, country music gets going. This might seem obvious to you—country music is good at helping you cope with life's hardships. But if you look a little deeper, the reason why will surprise you. A group of researchers looked back on the cultural industry of music and uncovered interesting results about how country music and pop music differ in the face of troublesome and uncertain times. Find out what is unique about country music fans and why country artists prefer to comfort their fans rather than join them in sharing the negatives during hard times.

Playboy playmates are heavier in hard times

It is almost universally accepted that media has the power to direct and reflect prevalent cultural trends. Much of the focus on this type of research looks to the relationships between media and the socioeconomic context of a given time period. For example, many complain that the media portrays a false image of the ideal female body type and such beauty icons have been steadily thinning over time. However, this is not the full story. Rather, research has shown that Playboy Playmates of the Year are older and heavier (i.e., more mature) in difficult social and economic times (Webster, 2008).

The idea is this: when there is an increase in the perceived threats facing humanity, people look to cultural icons that are perceived to be more mature and comforting. This research has been conducted in different areas as well. In the TV context, preferences for types of shows also vary depending on the social and economic conditions. Research shows that when there is an increase in the cost of living and higher rates of unemployment, viewers prefer "more meaningful, more real, and more complex" TV shows with actresses that are more likely to have comforting mature facial features (McIntosh, Schwegler,& Terry-Murray, 2000; Pettijohn & Tesser, 1999).

People seek out cultural media that they can both (i) identify with the characters and (ii) obtain a temporary period of escape from the hard times. Does the same thing go for pop and country music? Yes and no.

Country music is different

Imagine it's 1991. Operation Desert Storm begins war against Iraq, the early 1990s recession begins, Rodney King is beaten, Mike Tyson is arrested for rape, Jeffery Dahmer is arrested after remains of 11 people are found in his home, and a school shooting occurs at the University of Iowa—it was a bad year. What was country music like in the in 1991? The Billboar country song of the year was "Don't Rock the Jukebox" by Alan Jackson (Listen Here). It's a song about a heartbroken guy at a bar that doesn't want to hear rock 'n' roll, but rather some country music to ease his heartache. Country music often offers temporary relief from the inescapable stress and anxiety of life. The key to this theme is that stress and anxiety is viewed as inevitable and inescapable. It is to be endured, not confronted.

In their 2015 study, Eastman and Pettijohn (2015) predicted that they would find in their study that Billboard country song of the year would be more positive in threatening social and economic times. This was a stark contrast to pop music which was thought to match the mood of its listeners: meaning the worse the times, the more somber the tunes.

country music categories

Why would the music enjoyed by country music fans and pop music fans be so contrasting during difficult social and economic times? The answer is in the audience. There is no question that country music artists and pop music artists (i.e., their respective industries) pander to their fan base and specifically target their needs. Who is the primary fan base of each? According to Eastman and Pettijohn (2015),

  1. POP MUSIC FANS- middle-class individuals socialized to take charge of their lives and their emotions (with songs about sex appeal, reputation, short-term strategies, and fidelity assurance).
  2. COUNTRY MUSIC FANS- working-class individuals socialized to seek comfort in social traditions with faith and family to overcome challenges and despair (with songs about commitment, home, religion, working and winning love).

People generally gravitate towards specific music that helps them define their place and purpose in the world. However, are the themes in country music really an authentic expression of its fan base or just a clever economic strategy of the music marketers in Nashville?

Music moms and wives relieve stress

Now imagine you live in a world where you are not in control of your destiny and things will not get better for you (and you've accepted this). What would you prefer to hear? Music that matches your despair and gets you excited to take charge of your life. Or music that is happier and more comforting coming from a woman that resembles your mother or wife. In other words, would you prefer Wynonna Judd's "I Saw The Light" or Michael Jackson's "Black or White"?

According to Eastman & Pettijohn's (2015) findings, if you country music fan, you would be more likely to be working-class and more likely to prefer Wynonna Judd. The top country songs in difficult and threatening social and economic times are more likely to use a larger portion of happy-sounding major chords and by performed by women portrayed as mothers and wives (Eastman & Pettijohn, 2015). It all comes down to socialization of each of their target fan bases. Middle-class parents (pop music targets) emotionally socialize their children to take control and master their environment. Pop music in hard times reflects this idea. Working-class (country music targets) parents are less financially secure because of lack of power and resources, and, as a result, emotionally socialize their children to be accepting of life's hardships and cope. There are several examples of country songs that are great for coping with hardship.

music playlists in woods

Image by Jenelle Ball.

Put simpler

Music can motivate you to aggressively change your life in the face of hardship, and music can also help you accept the inevitable hardships of life and cope. You've likely been socialized by your parents to address life's hardships in a particular way, for good or bad. The key is to know your own strategy to stay emotionally balanced in hard times. If you know your tendencies well enough:

Make a "Safe Zone" playlist and add some songs to help you deal with life's challengesTweet: Make a Safe Zone playlist and add some songs to help you deal with life's challengesShare this

-Clay for SndControl-

See Eastman, J.T., & Pettijohn II, T.F. (April 2015). Gone country: An investigation of Billboard country songs of the year across social and economic conditions in the United States.. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(2), 155-171.

See McIntosh, W.D., Schwegler, A.F., & Terry-Murray, R.M. (2000). Threat and television viewing in the United States, 1960-1990. Media Psychology, 2, 35-46.

See Pettijohn II, T.F. & Tesser, A. (1999). Popularity in environment context: Facial features of American movie actresses. Media Psychology, 1, 229-247.

See Webster, G.D. (2008). Playboy playmates, the Dow Jones, consumer sentiment, 9/11, and the Doomsday Clock: A critical examination of the Environmental Security Hypothesis. The Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2, 23-42.

For question or comments, email me at clay@sndcontrol.com.