Working class hero?

Last year Toby Keith made $45 million— no wonder he’s Republican

Keith provides the soundtrack for America’s right-wing hoedown

Keith provides the soundtrack for America’s right-wing hoedown

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Jaime O’Neill teaches English at Butte College and is a frequent contributor to the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle.

I’ve spent my share of time listening to country music in bars, honkytonks, saloons, pubs and taverns, but I haven’t been paying those dues since I quit drinking about a decade ago. That has left me a bit out of the loop when it comes to my knowledge of country music. From what I can tell from the radio stations and my occasional cruises by the country music channels, there’s a great deal of uniformity to the product these days, and it doesn’t sound much like country to my ears. Sounds more like twangy, mainstream rock ‘n’ roll sung by guys wearing cowboy hats or similarly test-marketed women in sexy apparel, all of it stamped out in cookie cutter fashion.

My taste for country music was founded on my romantic sense that it was the people’s music, the songs of blue-collar balladeers. It came down to us from people like Jimmy Rodgers, the Carter family and Woody Guthrie, then got translated and transmitted generationally through such voices as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, singers and songwriters who took the hardscrabble lives and struggles of working class people and turned those lives into prole poetry. It celebrated family, the virtues of hard work, loyalty and love of the land while lamenting life’s assaults upon the heart and the struggles of working people to feed their kids.

Since the music was usually fairly simple, its main virtue was to be found in its authenticity, the sense that it was, indeed, the vox populi, the bubbling up of the sentiments of otherwise voiceless working class folks.

Toby Keith is currently about as hot a country music star as they make. A few weeks ago, he won a passel of Country Music Association awards. He’s been the subject of a profile on 60 Minutes II, interviewed by Dan Rather, and his picture adorns the covers of Sunday supplements in newspapers throughout the country. The full marketing machine press is in gear, and Keith is awash in money, having made $45 million last year and expected to make a good deal more in the year to come.

Much of his current popularity can be traced to his redneck hymns of belligerence toward enemies of America, both real and imagined. Toby Keith is the soundtrack to the nation’s coast-to-coast Right Wing Talk Radio Hoedown.

Not surprisingly, Keith’s a Republican, like many of the startlingly wealthy country music people. In a recent interview, here is what Toby Keith had to say about his political affiliation: “My dad and granddad would roll over in their graves if they knew I voted Republican. My dad used to say, ‘We don’t have enough money to be Republicans.’ Well, I do have enough.”

Toby Keith is an Oklahoman, a descendant of the Dust Bowl refugees driven off the land by bad weather and banks. These were the people whose struggles John Steinbeck celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath, the salt-of-the-earth Americans embodied in Henry Fonda’s unforgettable performance as Tom Joad in the movie version of that novel. When those people went west to California, they were routinely exploited and harassed by fat-cat Republicans, by growers and xenophobes who kept them moving, kept them poor, and fought all legislation that would have brought them relief from their rather considerable suffering. Kind of the way Republicans today can be found standing steadfast against increases in the minimum wage, against social-welfare programs, and for every kind of tax giveaway to the already obscenely rich.

Now, I always thought of country music as “roots” music, but Keith apparently doesn’t see it that way. Like lots of people who listen to the stuff currently being mass-produced by big corporations to feed the myth of rugged American individualism, Keith identifies with the monied interests, those corporate types who run the companies that market him. They’ve pretty much bought up the political process, and with the percentage of wealth flowing into ever fewer hands, they could buy the people’s music, too, out of petty cash.

It’s sort of like Tom Joad being co-opted and paid to sing the praises of Archer-Daniel-Midlands. All those people who buy Keith’s music—those clerks at Wal-Mart from Tampa to Topeka to Tacoma who are forced to work overtime off the clock, or the long-haul truckers who drive from Bangor to Bakersfield on methamphetamine because they literally can’t pay the freight on straight time—are not just sold music; they are sold an image of a man who is a lone wolf, a straight-talkin', rough ridin’ cowboy individualist who goes his own way and doesn’t take crap from anyone and doesn’t ask anyone for anything, either.

That idea always carries with it the notion that if you haven’t made it in this country, it’s your own damn fault. You just weren’t good enough, like your betters with all the money. It’s a fairly good philosophy if the objective is to keep people from banding together to maximize their power. It’s a fairly good philosophy if you want to keep people in the honkytonks, alternately crying in their beer or taking out their frustrations on each other with pool cues.

But here’s Tom Joad, a different kind of Okie from a different time, saying farewell to his mother as the novel draws to a close:

“Ma, I’ve been thinkin’ a hell of a lot, thinkin’ about our people livin’ like pigs an’ the good rich lan’ layin’ fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd thousan’ good farmers is starvin'.”

And what conclusions does Tom Joad come to with all that thinking he’s been doing? Does he conclude that we need massive tax breaks for the richest 1 percent of the population? Does he arrive at the idea that standing alone against powerful forces that would bring working people down is the best way to go? Or that blocking minimum wage increases for working people and allowing the exportation of more jobs overseas will solve the nation’s problems? Does he come to think that offshore tax shelters, mega-corporations, deregulation and monopolies are good for Okies, and the rest of the country, too? Does he come to think that government exists merely to serve Enron and other corporate political donors? Does he reach the conclusion that only the children of working people should fight our wars, and pay for them, too, by passing on the debt for those wars to their children? Does Tom Joad figure out that, when it comes to the greatest good for the greatest number, the Republicans have it all figured out?

Not exactly. What Tom Joad comes up with is this:

“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. … I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an'—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there.”

Somehow, those just don’t sound like words that are ever going to find their way into the platform of the Republican Party. And, with big money buying up more and more of the political process, it’s getting harder and harder to expect such sentiments to turn up in the Democratic Party platform, either.

Last year, Toby Keith was a paid pitchman for AT&T. Now he works for Dreamworks, which is owned by Disney, and what he’s selling is, quite literally, a dream. It’s the dream that we can all kick ass and take names, that independence is achieved by plopping cowboy hats on our heads, and that foreign policy can be conducted like a brawl in a honkytonk. Simple stuff, at 18 bucks a copy.

Ever wonder why there are so many awards shows showering recognition on actors and singers like Toby Keith? Those award shows are big commercials presented by the TV networks that are subsidiaries of the cable companies that are connected to the music publishing companies that cross-fertilize the movie studios that sell the soundtracks that mention the marketing tie-ins for the special deals at the fast-food franchises that are under the same corporate umbrella as the TV network that brought you the awards show in the first place—and charged you a cable fee and made you watch commercials, to boot.

And surely you’ve noticed how much of TV, even TV news, is devoted to product promotion? Surely you’ve noted the synergistic timing of book and movie releases with guest appearances on the kinds of “shows” that are really no more than marketing devices for other subsidiaries within the corporate structure. Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns NBC (not to mention Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster and a tidal wave of media outlets), and no matter how much hard news might be taking place in the world, there will always be time in the 20 minutes devoted to national news each night to report on soaring box office grosses for the latest Disney film, or a soft feature that draws a connection between some trumped-up story in “real life” and the theme in some book or movie currently in release.

Michael Powell, FCC chairman and famous son of a famous general, is, theoretically, the people’s watchdog over the public airwaves, but he is untroubled by all that corporate incest. He thinks we can afford even more consolidation, even fewer voices. As a Republican appointee, his priorities seem to lie with the 10 multinational corporate entities that control nearly all our information, that shape our culture, define our values, and determine more and more exclusively just what movies we see, what books we read and what songs we hear. And ultimately, of course, that equates to control over which thoughts it is possible for us to think.

Like Powell and others who have taken advantage of their associations with the rich and powerful, Toby Keith is merely looking out for his own well-being. It’s always been a good idea to hook up with the winning side.

But it’s surely no wonder why their granddads might be turning over in the good American earth.