One Man's Trash, That's Another Man's Come-Up

Mike Eagle I got into alternative country in college. After growing up on mainstream country, I was still in love with the root of the sound — open and rangy, purely American — but less invested in artists or songs that felt, well, dumb. Mainstream country radio seemed to be all about picnics, first love, and a determination to equate patriotism with evangelical Christianity, but alt-country took the elements of the sound I loved and married them with great songwriting that embraced nuance. I remember the moment a friend pressed Wilco’s Being There into my hand and said “You need to own this,” and how that sent me back to A.M. and then into Uncle Tupelo. I remember burning a copy of Strangers Almanac from my roommate, and the first time I heard “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” What I really remember, though, is the lesson that genre and message are not the same thing. I’d grouped all country music together, when the truth was that a certain type of music could actually be used in a variety of different ways.

That’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from hip-hop, too. It can be so easy to confuse the part for the whole, and to assume that the entire genre is dedicated to songs about sex or the glorification of certain persona, if that persona is being flaunted satirically. The easy stuff gets airplay, just like it does in any genre (and that stuff can still be great), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other stories out there. Black Star talks about social issues. KRS-One started Stop the Violence. Macklemore likes thrift shops and loves gay people.

Alternative hip-hop artist recently appeared on WTF With Marc Maron to talk about all this, and he’s probably the best note to end on.

Eagle on music:

Maron: “You’re literally trying to integrate life as you’re living it, which is not the rap life, which is not the hackneyed idea, but it’s just a guy who’s getting older, who’s dealing with family responsibilities, who’s dealing with questions about identity issues as a 30- to 40-year-old dude, and you’re just laying that out.”

Eagle: “Right. I mean, a lot of the guys I’m grouped with in terms of sound, that’s what we attempt to do. Just kind of elevate the art form. That sounds kind of weird to say. But, you know, to me there’s a legitimacy in what rap music is in terms of expression, and there’s room for all of our individual experiences in it.”

Maron: “To have a record called Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes — it’s a counterintuitive cultural idea. And there’s a conscious attempt to stand alone outside of cultural expectations and also slightly racist expectations of what rappers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. So that’s sort of the defining tone of what alternative rap is.”

Eagle: “Right.”

Eagle on bias and music journalism:

Eagle: “The journalism is so dominated by that intention, that want for a nerdy guy to feel like he’s …”

Maron: “On the pulse of it.”

Eagle: “Yeah. It seems like they try to elevate a lot of things that are really crude.”

Maron: “Are you talking about the alternative music press in general?”

Eagle: “Yeah, and maybe even the mainstream music press, too. There’s this cultural voyeurism that happens in journalism that weirds me out sometimes.”

Maron: “It’s actually anti-journalism. It’s [...] their version of courting controversy to get some juice. Right?”

Eagle: “I don’t know. I feel like a lot of them genuinely feel the way they do about the music, but I think a lot of times they don’t understand how those racial and cultural expectations that we talked about inform their point of view on things. They don’t take that into account. You’ll get a guy saying that somebody sounds more ‘authentic’ than somebody else if it’s more hood or more gangster, and I don’t think they understand how dangerous of an assertion that is.”

Maron: “ ‘He’s authentic in that he’s exactly what we always expected out of the Negro!’ ”

Eagle: “Exactly, exactly. And you could put that in there and it would make perfect sense. I think a lot of times they don’t step back and realize that they’re helping to perpetuate shit when they do that.”

Maron: “They’re not seeing the artist as an artist. Their opinion is overshadowed by their own stereotype.”

Eagle: “Right. And they’re buried in the context and don’t realize they’re helping to create it, as well. That’s where it gets annoying to me. And that’s what I feel is the obstacle between guys who, like I said, are trying to make this a more substantial — we’re trying to give it the value that art has.”