You’re not supposed to say the word “cancer” in a song. And tellin’ folks Jesus is the answer can rub ‘em wrong.
It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and mama,
yeah that might be true.
But this is country music
and we do
Indeed they do. An examination of the sixty most popular country songs of 2010 reveals that faith and family are recurring themes within the musical genre: Fathers are mentioned in ten of the songs, mothers in seven, and children in five; six of the songs allude to marriage; mentions of prayer, preachers, church, heaven, and God are heard discussed in three songs; and the Bible is named in one. Altogether, twenty-three of the sixty songs include at least one of these themes.
One of my favorites from the list, the #5 song of the year, is Chris Young’s “The Man I Want to Be.” The song, which takes the form of an extended prayer, includes the lines:
If there's any way for her and me to make another start
Could you see what you could do
To put some love back in her heart
Cause it gonna to take a miracle
After all I've done to really make her see
That I wanna be a stay man
I wanna be a brave man
I wanna be the kind of man she sees in her dreams
God I wanna be your man
And I wanna be her man
God I only hope she still believes
In the man I wanna be
While I’ve probably heard the song a hundred times, it only occurred to me recently that it might be considered “religious.” Instead, it just seems, well, normal. Most men I know can relate to the desire to be a more Godly man and to be a better man for the woman in their life. Considering that we live in a country in which eighty million men identify as Christians, is shouldn’t be surprising to find that many can appreciate the sentiments expressed in this song and others like it.
And yet, the music world still considers it peculiar. The willingness of country musicians to talk about God, family, and other topics counted among the most important in people’s lives, is considered aberrant.
Compared to other pop music genres, this strain of country is definitely eccentric. Out of the five-dozen songs that topped the pop chart last year, none of them mentioned mothers. Or children. And while there are a few “daddys,” they aren’t referring to fathers.
There are, of course, endless references to the union of bodies in sexual intercourse, though not a single mention of the union of souls in marriage. In pop songs, sex never leads to babies or matrimony.
Faith is also wholly absent. You’ll search in vain for a single reference to terms related to religious belief. However, the word “God” does make a few appearances—as an interjection, an expletive, or, in one song, a being who does not exist. (“Break Even,” the twenty-seventh most popular song on the charts, includes the line: “Just prayed to a god I don’t believe in . . .”)
The situation is similar on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Not even a single mention of moms, dads, kids, or marriage can be found. God’s name does come up, slipping into the last song on the list. While religious terms and themes can’t be found in any of the top fifty-nine songs, the number sixty slot is filled by “God in Me,” a crossover hit by the gospel music duo Mary Mary.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of demographics. Pop and R&B listeners tend to be younger while the majority of country fans (sixty-four percent) are between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four. So what happens when we look at the Adult Contemporary charts?
Same thing. Out of the sixty top songs for 2010, not a single verse includes a reference to a mother, father, child, or marriage—much less a line talking about God, or about Jesus. If you judged contemporary music by this genre, you might soundly conclude that contemporary adult life has no place for such trivialities.
If you don’t find this surprising (and I confess I didn’t), consider other pop-culture media. Can you think of any other form where these themes are completely absent?
On television, families have been a fixture since the days of Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymooners. In film, marriage is such a frequent theme that there is practically a subgenre dedicated just to weddings (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding, Father of the Bride, The Wedding Singer, The Wedding Planner, et al.). Even in comic books, superheroes get married and have children. And religion is mentioned in comics so often that fans can tell you the denominational affiliations of characters like Superman (he was raised Methodist) or The Hulk (rumored to be Catholic).
If you took a random sampling of all other forms of pop media produced in the history of America, you wouldn’t find sixty artifacts that lacked any mention of families or religion. How, then, is it even possible that they are missing from pop music?
We cultural conservatives often lament the content of pop culture. Perhaps it's time we became as concerned about the content that is missing.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.
Listen to Brad Paisley's "This is Country Music"