First order of business: the new Taylor Swift song, “Shake it Off,” is my new favorite song, and it should be yours, too.
Second order of business: this is not a country song, as YouTube commenters are all too eager to point out:
You should stop this and go back to your normal county self. Your going to end up like miley crius. Please go back. Please.
I think she’s trying to hard you should go back to her country thing
But what exactly makes a country song? In a recent episode of the Overthinking It podcast, we talked about some of the commonly recognized musical signifiers of the genre–banjos, fiddles, and twanging electric guitars–but after the show I thought about the lyrical signifiers of the genre.
Specifically, the truck:
This is not a new observation; even casual observers of the genre are aware that country songs often reference trucks. But how often?
In 2013, both Entertainment Weekly and country music critic Grady Smith made convincing cases that truck references in the top country songs of 2013 were exceedingly common. Me being me, I wanted to dig a little deeper and get a more quantified sense of the prevalence of trucks in country music. I assembled a dataset of all 232 songs that ever made it onto the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart between 2005 and 2014 (the idea being that the most popular country songs should serve as a representative sample of the overall genre) and searched each song’s lyrics for mention of “truck” or truck-related terms such as “4×4,” “flatbed,” and “SUV.”
First, the overall state of truck-ness of country music from 2005-2014:
Only 18% of the 232 songs make an explicit mention of “truck,” with another 4% contain truck-related references. That was a lot lower than I was expecting, especially given the way the above two pieces presented modern country music as being entirely trucked out, and the way outsiders to country music tend to stereotype the genre.
But looking at the data longitudinally presents a slightly different story:
Truck references in country songs from 2012-2014 appear to be more prevalent than songs from the 2005-2012. As of September 2014, almost half of the songs on the 2014 Billboard Hot Country chart include a reference to a truck.
What’s behind the recent increase in truck references? Is it the market for truck sales in the United States during this time period?
Truck sales as a percent of total automobile sales in the United States have remained remarkably consistent since 2000, hovering around 50% for each year since then. But in absolute numbers, truck sales dipped during the 2008 recession before rebounding in 2011 (along with the rest of the automobile market). Either way, there’s no consistent correlation with truck sales during the 2005-2013 period.
So if not the truck market, then what? I haven’t examined the data closely, but I might offer up the increased polarization of American politics during the Obama presidency as a possibility. The hypothesis would be that, as Americans’ partisanship intensifies, they strive to differentiate themselves further from their political and cultural counterparts. One easy way to do so is to listen to country music that references trucks, which are powerful cultural signifiers of rural and blue-collar life, with an implicit opposition to urban, white-collar life.
But a more in-depth analysis of this idea will have to wait for another article, as will further analysis of the dataset. I have a rough sense that gender plays a significant role in the likelihood of referencing trucks, but still need to crunch the numbers on that. In the meantime, though, offer up your own theories as to the rise of trucks in country songs. Or feel free to counter the premise itself! I tried to create a representative sample of country songs over time, but there may be better ways to do so. Either way, get some inspiration from the sweet trucks in this country music video:
I have a little theory. Let’s call it “Search Bar Spillover”
Hear a song in a freinds car and like it enough to ask the name of the performer. She says “Bear Hands”
Few hours pass, you get home and open up your favorite music streamer. “what was that band? ‘Bear’ something.”
So you pucnh in bear. Suddenly, you’re listening to Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Bear Hands, Minus the Bear”
A song about a truck hits the charts > people start googling songs about trucks > song writers see truck songs are popular > we get a truckload of truck songs.
I like this idea. It explains a lot of things. A simple feedback loop.
I wonder if Taylor Swift is trying to break a loop by “Shaking it off”…. or playing into a different loop.
In his brilliantly incisive essay of this topic nearly four decades prior, D. A. Coe (1975) developed the thesis that “trucks” are merely one of the quintet of necessary elements for a perfect Country and Western song, the others being “momma”, “trains”, “prison”, and “gettin’ drunk”. His extremely convincing argument is presented in its entirety below:
Re: getting drunk, this is a whole other area of research. I’m pretty sure country songs reference alcohol far more frequently than they do trucks, beer in particular. Though this would call for a cross-genre analysis, as plenty of pop/rap/r&b songs reference hitting the bottle as well.
Shake It Off is not my new favorite song. It is not even my favorite Taylor Swift song. And that’s not because I need her to go back to country music but because I feel like she can write songs that are more lyrically complex and have something more to say and this song feels very generic and like it should be performed by a pop starlet capable of producing stronger vocals.
“One easy way to do so is to listen to country music that references trucks, which are powerful cultural signifiers of rural and blue-collar life, with an implicit opposition to urban, white-collar life.”
As part of the podcast mentioned in this article you brought up the fact that a lot of country singers do not write their own music and that songwriting isn’t key to authenticity. Perhaps another interesting thing to investigate would be who feels the need to claim trucks as “cultural signifiers of rural and blue-collar life.” Is it the people writing songs for performers who don’t write their own music? Is there a split along gender lines? Does age make a difference?
I think you would reach significantly different conclusions if you expanded your search to other truck related words, specifically brand names.
I point your attention to the work of Brad Paisley who’s song “Mud on the Tires” only references a “Brand New Chevrolet” as a nice example of how this happens.
Without getting into a debate about authenticity, the “Nashville” music industry puts a pretty heavy emphasis on the industry part, and product placement is a part of that. Why settle for using the generic when someone might pay you for the specific? And if that is too cynical for you, let’s just say that truck culture creates loyalties, and it is important to declare loyalties to be authentic.
Either way, I think the analysis you are launching into might be significantly altered were you to include truck make and model names in your search, and perhaps more songs would, in fact, be “truck mentions” as indicated in your pie chart.
Couldn’t speak to their increase over time, but I will say it would be fascinating to know if brand mentions versus generic mentions go up over time.
Keep on keepin’ on, good stuff.
I went back and checked my data, and I actually coded this song as a positive truck reference, given the additional references to “four-wheel drive” and “mud on the tires.” Other times when car names like “Chevy” were mentioned, I coded those a “Sort of,” my grey area of might be a truck reference, might not be.
There aren’t a ton of these mentions, though, as you’ll see in a soon-to-be-released Part 2. Stay tuned…er, keep on truckin’.
I would simply like to present a song on this theme that has not made the charts written and performed by my good friend Ben https://archive.org/download/PsycomediaMusic/Actually%20Too%20Much%20Truck.mp3 which is based on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqevtsi9sqA – maybe Truck appearances are increasing simply because you cannot have too much truck.
This is awesome. Tim, not to essentialize you or anything, but I must ask, how popular is country music in the UK?