When Different Equals Popular: Musical Outliers Today

In a recent episode of PBS’s YouTube series Idea Channel, Mike Rugnetta analyzes country music and its transformation over the decades. From its origins in the blues, European folk, and Appalachian music styles, the past century or so has seen it transition from primarily being about the struggles of loners and outcasts in the working underclasses of society to the third-most popular genre in America. Now, country is one of the most pop-influenced genres there is, being based in America’s “music city” of Nashville, where myriad record companies have stood behind innumerable artists. For the sake of popularity and profitability, modern country music has distanced itself from its downcast “hillbilly” elements, ditching the dirges of banjos and mandolins for acoustic guitars and upbeat chords. Likewise, the subject matter of songs tends to be more about life’s pleasures and American pride – see tracks like “Drunk on a Plane,” “Summertime,” “Chicken Fried,” “American Child,” and countless others.

The trend of capitalizing on what was once the music of the marginalized expressing their frustrations is nothing new. The same thing happened to alternative rock. The genre’s name, after all, conveyed its intentions: to be a countercultural alternative to mainstream music. But today, few bands with such intentions can rival supposedly “alternative” groups like U2, The Foo Fighters, Muse, and Coldplay. Maybe there was something in the punk vibe of rebellion and loner mentality that carried a mass appeal for Americans. But even in purposely trying to move away from the mainstream, outcast music keeps becoming popular again. It sells radio time, concert tickets, and merchandise.


So what’s a music-lover to do if they want to get away from all this? Indie music might not seem like a promising alternative in a social media age where anyone can be a blogger and everyone wants to be on top of the next obscure artist. The solution might not be in the hands of any one group of artists or even with a single genre, but with a certain kind of artist. When so many artists today can’t be defined by single genre, it may not be the style of music or lyrical content that is necessary to attract audiences. Just as cinema audiences are longing for independent films that aren’t simply recycled franchises and reboots, music audiences want more authentic and original artists. Especially with millions of artists (past and present) vying for our attention, so many five-star musicians can be ignored simply because they lack major record deals. But at the same time, online music platforms offer an unprecedented opportunity to access unlimited songs. Instead of trying to avoid mainstream music altogether or stay within the boundaries of preferred genres, we as listeners have the choice and the chance to dig through the unexplored ocean of music that’s right at our fingertips. Now more than ever, we can seek out music that’s authentic and reflects true craftsmanship. Rather than letting companies dictate what music is heard and loved by the public, we have the ability to craft our own music profiles from any number of stylistic backgrounds.

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Richard Lyne

Richard is an ACU graduate who was graduated summa cum laude from Abilene Christian University's honors college with a major in English and a minor in business administration. He hopes to return to school for an MA degree at some point, but is currently managing a coffee kiosk at the local grocery store in Denton, Texas. He has written for the Appetizer since spring 2015.

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