Thursday, April 14, 2011

Southern Gothic

It's interesting to me how genres can split in countless ways over time. It wasn't fifty years ago that you bought a record, and it was classified as "this." Now, we by albums that are more likely to be classified as "this, this, this, and that, and a little of that." Some people like this, some don't. There's no such thing as "rock music" anymore. It has to be classified as alternative, experimental, art rock, grunge, heavy metal, instrumental, progressive, punk, southern rock....

We have come a long way since the time of The Beatles. Life is not so simple anymore. We are genre-less.

My favorite band changes every few years, and of course this is because of what I'm drawn to in other areas of life, and of course that has to do with where I am at the time. As a writer, I'm drawn to the rawness and honesty in the stories around me, the books I read, the friends I make in my writing classes, the burnt coffee, the hidden family secrets, the struggles of my neighbors. The things I am drawn to in my personal life and the situations I find myself in when I study for my degree strangely seem to coincide with each other.

I've been a Joy Williams fan since I was 12 years old. The first CD I bought with my own money was her debut. I was sad when she disappeared for a couple years after she released her third album. Then in fall 2007, I ran across an article online that stated she had created another Myspace profile in addition to the one she maintained for personal and what little musical activity she had been sharing at the time. This one would be for her songwriting activities. So for several months, I visited these two sites to see what she had been producing. She released a few EP's, wrote for some pop artists here and there, did a handful of shows, then in early 2009, she announced that she was teaming up with some guy I'd never heard of. Two years later, almost every show of theirs is sold out. Can you put them into one category? No. The best one can do is: folk, Americana, singer/songwriter, country? We are all being influenced by so many, and so the art we produce in these times will exude traces of the many, and there rarely exists these days a musician or a singer who falls strictly into one style of music. And these beautiful artists don't care where they're put. They just want to play. And they're always sold out.

I believe that this is largely due to the fact that so many people are realizing how malnourished they are musically. For the past several years, pop radio has ruled people's ears, and sugar, though delicious and loverly, eventually makes you sick. So when someone comes along with something so organic and pure and unglistened, it pierces needs we didn't even realize we had.

These are artists who realize that the stories we tell should be honest, the tension in our relationships should not be brushed under the rug. And that's what people need to hear. We need to be okay with the fact that our stories can't be put into one box or one category or one section of the music store.

This comes as a relief to those of us who grew up in the setting that inspires many of these songs. But honestly, we're just glad that more people are starting to realize this. Some of us have already been familiar with these concepts because we have Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Gay, Harper Lee. Writers who defined what has come to be known as "Southern Gothic". This is basically defined as stories that reject the common stereotypes of the South in the form of the happy slave, the southern belle, the God-fearing preacher, and the chivalrous gentleman, and instead write stories about what life in this environment is really like for some people. It's okay if you had an uncle who did nothing but drink his family into depression and lifelong therapy. You can tell that story. It's okay if your parents never had enough money to buy you a pair of shoes without holes in it. It's okay if you never married like your family wanted you to. Life is hard regardless of the region you call home. But at least some regions have those who are willing to advertise it on the paint-chipped front porch if it will put others at ease and make them sigh in relief that they're not the only ones, even though not all will go so far as to admit it.

My favorite quote on this literature is by Flannery herself, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." This can be explained by another quote of hers: "I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it."

little girl

Be thrilled, little girl
And smack your lips
From the fruitsy pops,
Lick every drip
Be frilled, little girl
Not with laces and things
With giggles and smiles
And summers and springs
Be blithe, little girl
The sun is still there
Behind the grey puffs
And the drab, dingy air
Be at ease, little girl
With tears, fears, and burns
Make a mess, if you must
Think not of your concerns
Be soft, little girl
And love all you make
Be proud of your hands
And eat lots of cake
And live, little girl
Make a splash in your world
Always keep a piece
Of the once little girl