“We Got Both Kinds – We Got Country and Western”: A Film Theorist’s Approach to Music Genre
Genres are messy things. Some will argue that generic classification is an arbitrary or irrelevant process, but it simply can’t be denied that genres are all around us, used everyday by people everywhere. Genres are how we understand the culture we consume, everything from literature to film, music, fashion, food, and more.
There are countless approaches to genre categorisation and genre theory. One that has proven particularly applicable to film studies is the Semantic/Syntactic model. This model, developed by film theorist Rick Altman, holds that film genre is understood on two levels: Semantic, the more physical elements of a text; and Syntactic, the more abstract aspects. Both sides work together – syntactic elements give structure and meaning to the semantic, while the semantic gives the syntactic its location, appearance and other physical references. Where these aspects dominate a text, we find its generic category. When a genre is identified we are more thoroughly able to understand a text, how it is constructed and how it might function in a cultural or social sense, or maybe just whether or not we’ll like something new.
Altman’s model functions quite well for film studies but is also useful for studying other media. By looking at country music, I’m proposing Altman’s model is in practice actually more useful for studying music genre than it is for studying film.
The Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre
Genre is a slippery beast with all sorts of subgenres, categorical nuances and few clearly defined boundaries. The Altman model attempts to grasp that slipperiness.
The semantic contains all of the tangible elements within the genre. With film this covers set and location, costumes, character types, the props, the soundtrack. For the western movie genre, this includes things like horses and cowboy costumes, guns, saloons, rural towns, stock characters, usually all set in the pioneering era of US history. Familiar actors can also function as semantic elements, John Wayne for example.
The syntactic elements are all of the intangible aspects of a film. This includes themes, feelings, plots, metaphors, as well as cultural relevance. In a western, this might include the relationship the honourable loner cowboy has with his wife or family; the sense of isolation in a lawless town; the spirit of the frontier and the romance of opportunity juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the struggle.
If a character in a movie wears a hat and rides a horse, is that movie automatically a western? In Down in the Valley (dir. David Jacobson, 2005), Edward Norton’s character tries to be an old-fashioned cowboy despite living in modern day San Fernando Valley. This film has numerous semantics of a western film – costume is the biggest one – but the syntactic elements, the story of the wannabe cowboy actually being a deluded man denies Down in the Valley status as a western. The syntactic elements of plot, the drama, the tension, the romance overshadow the semantic element of the cowboy costume, the horse other western elements. While most texts have some overlap of genre, classification is formed where the semantic and syntactic is the most predominant. As such, Down in the Valley is a dramatic thriller, not a western.
The Difference Between Music and Film Genre
Genre works differently across different media but there are comparable factors. Films and books easily share genres because they are both storytelling mediums. Film and music on the other hand are different mediums, so genre works differently within each, but there are still certain similarities. In a film, semantic generic elements are visual as well as audible and this is also the case for musical genre. Generic classification of music is predominantly based on the sound of the music, but visual elements including album covers, music videos and performer’s appearance are also factors. Western films and country music do share a lot of the same visual semantics, which is why they were chosen together for this study. Overall, music genre is a lot more nuanced than film genre and far more open to variation. Add in a random electronic dubstep to a bluegrass song and you’ve just made an entirely new genre with its own new set of rules and subcategories. Add in a random spaceship to a western film without context, and you’ve got something that can’t be categorised as it doesn’t make sense.
Some musical genre categorisation is quite straight forward. Hip-Hop for instance is clearly distinct from other genres based on its sound alone, but also has a strong visual element in the fashion of the performers, dance moves and video clips. Country music might seem like an easily identified genre, and in many ways it is, but there are still a great many nuances to complicate matters. How can a modern country artist like Keith Urban be generically categorised alongside Hank Williams, Taylor Swift, The Meat Puppets or even perhaps, Madonna? Through Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic model.
What is Country Music?
Country music (I’m using the term interchangeably with ‘country and western’) is one of the most popularly maligned music genres, arguably more so from the perspective of alternative rock as well as pop music fans. However, by understanding how music genre works, even the most staunch rock fan may find something able to be classified as country in his or her collection.
Country music had a complex evolution, stemming not only from gospel and blues, but also the folk music of Europe and Africa. For the most part it can be said that country music, as we know it today, originated as a style growing out of the Southern Appalachian regions of North America. We now have an entire world of country music, Australian, English and Asian artists have all contributed their own uniqueness to the genre.
AllMusic.com lists eighteen subgenres of country music, and within those eighteen subgenres, a staggering eighty sub-subgenres. How is one meant to discern the difference between alternative country rock, alt country and neo-traditional folk? Or what is the difference between contemporary bluegrass and progressive bluegrass? Urban cowboy or countrypolitan? And more importantly, what does any of this have to do with Madonna?
The Country Music Image
Hank Williams is considered by many commentators to be the father of country music. Williams, more often than not, wore a cowboy hat when he performed. Further, like many performers of his era, Hank Williams wore a suit, but there is a big difference between Williams’ country suit and Bill Haley’s rock and roll suit, for instance. With his cowboy hat, a string tie and cowboy boots, Hank Williams’ country style suit became a costume, a visual semantic that allowed Williams to embody a syntactic of country music. Country fashions are all connected to the lifestyle of the region where country music came from – a rural setting populated with ranchers, farmers and the like. This connection with the land is a common syntactic of the wide country genre which is given meaning through the visual semantic of the country music costume. Costuming was also important for country icon Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. Cash’s image of all black clothes, often featuring a typical country fashion (semantic), was deeply connected to the style of music he was playing (semantic) and the troubling stories he told with his songs (syntactic). Cash was a subgenre of country unto himself, and his appearance was a major part of that. Contemporary country musicians also have their own unique costumes. Kenny Chesney’s muscle shirts and cowboy hats, Keith Urban’s tight jeans and t-shirts, and occasional hat, all signify a particular image that connects to their styles of rock tinged urban country music.
The visual semantics of country music are also represented on album covers. In this age of digital music, album art is not as prevalent as it once was, however artists continue to use album art even for digital only releases underlining the importance of visual semantics in musical identification. A quick flick through the country section of any music store, or a click through iTunes, will reveal common images. Cowboys and cowgirls, guitars and other iconic country instruments feature heavily. Rural landscapes are common, horses, tractors and so on. A lot of semantic imagery from the western film genre has made its way to the semantics of country music, connected of course through the shared syntactics of geographical location and history. All of these visual elements are a part of the artist’s performance of country music, and their performance and embodiment of the genre. Not all country album covers are going to look like posters from a John Wayne film. For instance, Taylor Swift’s music identifies her as a contemporary country artist yet her album covers are largely unidentifiable to the country genre. In semantic terms, they’re arguably more pop oriented, even her guitar wielding cover of World Tour Live, 2011. Despite her pop oriented visual semantics, Swift though is not a pop artist as her audio semantics and syntactics are predominantly country.
The Country Music Sound
Audio semantics define musical genre more than anything else. While used in the vast majority of modern music, guitars – particularly acoustic varieties as well as the steel and slide guitars – are especially important to country music. Classic country artists like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, contemporary country like The Dixie Chicks or Keith Urban, and even country inspired alternative rock bands like The Meat Puppets or The White Stripes are all guitar based.
Guitars are also connected to the syntactic meaning of country music. The guitar, a very old instrument, was crucial to the folk and rural roots of country music as it was easily transported and required no special equipment or facilities to play. While guitars are not exclusive to country music, particular combinations of semantics and syntactics enable the guitar to be a generic marker. Country guitar semantics have a very particular twang, and often an easily identifiable picking pattern left over from country’s folk and blues roots. Audio semantics alone though, are sometimes not enough. The twang of the steel guitar, for instance is instrumental in defining Hawaiian music as well as country but it is not the steel guitar semantic alone that enables either generic classification. It is an overlap of all sorts of other elements including tempo, performer appearance and accompanying instruments. The banjo is another example. If the banjo, a traditional African instrument used widely in country music, is combined with an acoustic guitar, perhaps a fiddle and other traditional stringed instruments, a rapid tempo and a drawn out vocal style, a clearly identifiable subgenre of country music is defined – bluegrass. Bluegrass and all of the sub-subgenres inherent in that label is made of these semantics. All country music subgenres have their own semantics and syntactics. A driving rock rhythm and a lament for the lost connection to the land, for example are common markers of a variety of urban country styles.
Lyrics as Semantic and Syntactic Elements of Country Music
In all lyric music, lyrics are both semantic in the actual words used and the style of singing, and syntactic in the meaning they communicate. Love, home, nostalgia, landscapes, nationhood, heartbreak – these are all common syntactic and semantic elements of country music lyrics. Christian themes are also widely present in country music, arguably due to the predominance of the Christian faith in rural America where country music began and still has a firm hold.
There are millions of pop songs about love going right and or wrong, just as there are country songs. Is Madonna a country musician? Of course not. What about when she dons a cowboy hat and a chequered shirt, starts line dancing amidst hay bails, singing about the challenges of romance? No matter how many cowboy hats she wears, the semiotic and syntactic intersection of Madonna’s long career is too heavily pop to ever be anything else. ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ is a popular country song written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, and made famous by Tammy Wynette in 1968 and also famously covered by Dolly Parton. Wynette and Parton both brought their own unique country semiotics and syntactics to the song and it has been firmly established as a hallmark country song. What if Madonna covered ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’? It would be likely that Madonna would bring her own genre of music into her interpretation of the song, as she did with her pop cover of Don McClean’s ‘American Pie’ in 2000. A Madonna version of ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ may stretch to be a pop-country song, unless the sound was altered to an unrecognisable state in melody and rhythm, but this still wouldn’t be enough to make Madonna a country artist. The semiotics Madonna would bring into the equation, as a pop music icon, would outweigh the song’s country music status. Even if her performance ticks all of the semiotic boxes of country music, a country syntax is entirely absent.
The Meat Puppets – Alternative Rock and Country Subgenres
The Meat Puppets are an American alternative rock band known for their hybrid style of country punk music and raw garage inspired rock. What genre do The Meat Puppets belong to? The Meat Puppets might be labelled as alternative pop/rock, a generally applicable term considering some their audio semantics. However this labels the band on a par with any other alternative pop rock bands, The Cure for instance, or Oasis; all vastly different artists. The label then, while still applicable, is less than useful. Cowpunk, used on Allmusic.com, might be more appropriate generic definition as it encompasses The Meat Puppets’ punk style as well as referencing their country elements. True cowpunk, however was a product of the 1980s and as The Meat Puppets, in one line up or another continued to make their country punk into the 2000s, it’s still not accurate enough. In terms of audio semantics, The Meat Puppets are very country. Traditional bluegrass picking rhythms are sped up and distorted into a punk tempo (listen to ‘Magic Toy Missing’, 1982 for a prime example), but the country sound dominates the punk stylings. Syntactically, The Meat Puppets are less country, but country elements are still present in, for example some of their lyrics. The Meat Puppets have famously covered a number of traditional country tracks including Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’, but they’re still not a straight out country band. Equally, The Meat Puppets are not a punk band because of their varied country semantics. Nor are they a rock band, or any other clearly defined genre. The Meat Puppets will always be subgeneric and further to this, as there are so many different semantics going on in their music they can never belong to just one subgenre. Alternative country? Hillbilly rock? Postmodern country punk? Whatever the label arrived at, listening to The Meat Puppets through Altman’s model we can at least attempt to grasp an applicable and useful categorisation. Even if that’s just to explain to our friends whether or not they might like to listen to the band, or why it’s sometimes ok for a rock fan to like country music.
We see with the Meat Puppets and Madonna how variations of the interplay of generic semantics and syntactics make for essentially countless subgenres of music. Music is more sensitive to changes in genre than film, arguably because the elements of music genre are more fluid than they are in film, as well as being more open to individual interpretation of the consumer. Not only are there a lot more variations in music genre than film, genre is arguably more significant for a musician to work with than it is for a filmmaker, as music is more closely tied to its genre than film. In film or literature, the story is more often than not at the forefront. In music, the sound comes first and as such generic semantics are the first thing we interact with when listening to or performing music. Music may be more bound to its genre, but it is much more able to cross generic boundaries and does so with enormous levels of complexity, and that’s not just a reference to the arguable differences between country and western. This increased complexity makes Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic model far more useful to music studies than film.
While genre theory may never make Kenny Chesney acceptable listening to a serious rock fan, understanding the fluidity of genre certainly makes country music a far more accessible genre to a whole range of music fans.
Altman, Rick. ‘A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.’ Cinema
Journal, Vol.23, No. 3 (Spring, 1984), pp. 6-18.
Down in the Valley. Jacobson, David. Element Films, Class 5 Films, 2005.
‘Country Music.’ AllMusic.
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. ‘Hank Williams.’ AllMusic.
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas, ‘The Meat Puppets.’ AllMusic.
The title of this essay is borrowed from The Blues Brothers (1980)
Suggested Further Reading
Frow, John. Genre. London: Routledge, 2006.
Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity.
Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999.
Unterberger, Richie. ‘Country Albums by Rock Artists.’ AllMusic.
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