BY JEWLY HIGHT
For the sake of research, I recently got my hands on a copy of Bill Anderson’s out-of-print country disco album Ladies Choice. It’d been on top of my turntable for about a week, throughout which time the cover photo of Anderson laid there, coming on strong with those bedroom eyes and ardently attentive expression, and that wide open collar revealing a thin gold chain and patch of chest hair.
For no good reason, one night I found myself with the LP in hand, shimmying around the living room in suggestively silly fashion.
“Is that supposed to turn me on?” my husband deadpanned from his seat on the couch. “Because it doesn’t.”
Of course, the real target of the album’s seduction was the lady listener of 1979, a grown woman who’d (theoretically) thrill to pillow talk half-whispered over sweeping strings and danceable beats. Anderson happens to be one of the all-time greatest songwriters in the history of country music, and as he’d no doubt tell you himself, this soft-score schlock doesn’t number among his loftiest artistic achievements. But at least the guy went all out in his woman-pleasing celebration of sensuality and intimacy, and for that he deserves credit.
Now that country music has once again absorbed rhythm-driven, club-friendly outside influences — electronic dance music and Southern hip-hop this time — I’ve been pondering how the new stuff squares with the discofied excursions of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it’s helped me put a finger on what it is about current club-country tracks that makes me feel left out as a listener.
Right now, the pickup-truck pickup line is by far the reigning template. It’s been all over the country charts, and it typically includes some catcalling at a nice ass, long legs or ”painted-on jeans.” It’s usually followed by an invitation to climb on in for an off-road ride with the radio rattling the speakers, beer and/or booze to imbibe once you’ve parked — so as not to violate open container laws — and a truckbed make-out sesh. The tracks sound aggressively juiced, and the singer-rappers are pretty damn confident that they don’t run any risk of getting shot down.
I’d be lying if I said that some parts of backwoods partying don’t sound fun, even if only in an escape-from-adulthood sort of way. But now that I’ve heard this scenario play out over and over and over, my impression is that a girl — er, woman — is pretty much just a prop in these fantasies. The plan requires as little effort, imagination or expenditure as possible on his part, and she’s expected to accompany the guy onto his turf and go along with what he feels like doing.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that what was historically working-class music — and once a place for marginalized people to express upwardly mobile aspirations — ought to be all about buttoned-up, break-the-bank wining and dining. And it’s a plan that wouldn’t change much, except for the hooking up, if he were to substitute his bros for her. But you can’t tell me it’s all about the girl, or even about the girl at all, when she’s treated as a truck-sexify-ing accessory, like custom wheels.
Musically, too, this feels to me like guys’ turf, in a stereotypical sense — meaty, muscular and bluntly masculine. So far, the only female performers I’ve heard venture in are an on-trend, dub-step-riffing Taylor Swift and clever-devil diva Laura Bell Bundy, who even performs dance routines in her (lately) self-produced music videos. (Confession: I’ve learned more than one clogging routine choreographed to Bundy’s single “Giddy On Up,” but that’s a topic for another column.)
I never spent five minutes thinking about disco until I read Alice Echols’ excellent critical reconsideration of the genre, “Hot Stuff.” In it, she argues that the popular notion that disco sucks since it’s entirely plastic music doesn’t hold up, and that disco did, in some ways, offer a space of queer, black and female dance-floor liberation. I’m too young to remember those Saturday night fevers, but I’ve discovered that Anderson wasn’t the only country act who dipped a toe into disco and treated women’s sexual desires like they mattered.
I mean, Dolly Parton spent close to five minutes proclaiming her arousal during the disco remix of “Baby I’m Burning” (a track that really could’ve done without unnervingly loud sci-fi phaser sounds). And her funky dance-club cut “Sure Thing” was all about exercising an independent woman’s right to dress up, go out, have a good time and choose who she wants to dance with or bring home. And damn if that — or really anything other than being fed the same line — doesn’t sound like an attractive listening alternative right about now.