#478: Loretta Lynn, "All Time Greatest Hits" (2002)

Over the last few months it's gotten harder to write about pop music, not least of all because I weary of the very genre that "writing about pop music" has transformed into. Fetishisms of immediacy, attempts to recapture the unrecapturable populisms of the 30's and 70's, elitist destructions of elitism which evacuate all content but preserve the structure of elitism itself, that unavoidable sense that I as a listener and reader who might disagree with a writer am the very image of the "square" who is not "with it" enough to understand why this or that song is the radical ground of some new collectivity—listed this way it's pretty hard to imagine anyone enjoying it, but O, gentle reader, spend some time on the internet, and among poets, and you'll see. More important than this, however, is my sense that writing about anything—to say nothing of pop!—feels like a pointless endeavor in the face of our present global catastrophe. Isn't it barbaric? I'm not Adorno, though I think he's right. But here I am, and I'm listening to "Fist City."

To open as I have, with a pointed collection of well nigh apocalyptic negations of the task at hand, seems at very least self-defeating, and yet totally appropriate for writing about Loretta Lynn, and country pop from before the 1980s in general. I don't know at what point the historical amnesia sets in, but somewhere along the line "everything but country and rap," that adolescent apothegm, congealed around the idea that these two generic modes—not all that incidentally originating in working class and black communities!—were not quite "legitimate" enough even for the grandstanding I made much of above to take notice of, or include in their various endeavors. Which is not to say that I think, over against other pop music, country and/or rap is, in fact, "legitimate," indeed the privileged scene of a sincere engagement—far from it! All culture is degraded and makes us complicit in our own domination. But as far as crisis goes, there might be something historically of interest that these otherwise easily derided (or, worse, blissfully ignored) genres have got to say to us.

What I mean by this is not to champion Loretta Lynn's accomplishment—which is great, lasting, and for us today urgent—as some liberal propaganda in which she introduces into the backwardness of the agrarian working classes of the second half of the twentieth century certain enlightened ideals we (my we, a geographic we) of the northeastern metropoles have already got under our belt. In fact it is exactly that liberalism that Lynn upbraids for its exclusion of the question of class itself. Thus a song like "One's on the Way," Lynn's masterpiece, should occupy a more prominent place in her oeuvre than the equally brilliant but somehow easier to digest "Fist City" and "Rated X"—although to separate all these songs seems unfair. Loretta Lynn has written us an extended treatise on immaterial labor, along with which we can tap our toes. But dare we? Or will we?

  Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

When I say it's hard to write about pop music I mean that I find the overwhelming tendency to have to be positive—lest one divulge one's secret "rockist," totally "elitist" background, by not liking what one is supposed to like. But I am writing about pop music, I am writing specifically about Loretta Lynn, and I find it not only easy but necessary; Lynn herself is the very killjoy that I as a critic am afraid of being, am often made out to be by the contours of this kind of discourse. To have an All Time Greatest Hits from her is to have a collection of 21, 3-minute full stops, each of which demands of its listener: now hold on a minute, what was that you said? It is this negativity—one that is not emotional but rather formal, which takes as the project of the catchy pop tune the destruction of the sunny pop feeling-tone—that I think we should pay close attention to, especially since it is the great legacy of country music, especially (if not exclusively) by women, to examine the contours of negation in all of its aesthetic valences. That is what bites so sharply and so excellently about the obliterating "One's on the Way": it is by juxtaposing the social fact of being a working class woman in the south that Lynn throws into relief the limits of the protests and marches for women's rights in New York City, rather than by way of spelling it out for us. It hinges on this opposition, rather than on the direct statement of the truth.

Thus I have to open a parenthesis, and write the paragraph that lies behind this entire essay, about an album that is not Loretta Lynn's All Time Greatest Hits, but which throws this latter into relief. It is my own little negation perhaps. I don't like the new Taylor Swift album, 1989. That's not all I have to say; there are songs I think are OK, and in general I am pro-Taylor Swift. What I don't like about her album is that she seems specifically to have expunged negativity itself from the very project of her pop music, and sought to create, broadly speaking, a triumphant self-actualization scheme very similar to the one that Lynn pillories in "One's on the Way," right down to the geographical specifics (it's an album "about" New York and living there—which fewer and fewer of us can afford to do, these days). Swift's album is not a "happy" one, tonally, in that its subject matter is the ambivalence and hurt that comes with changing locations and relations. But, to my ears, it is without the same tension, on the level of form (not content) that inheres in Loretta Lynn's best songs—and Swift's!—that tension that a song like "Woman of the World" can create by concretizing a sentimental jealousy, making philandering about what it's really about, that is, sex, rather than the muddy abstractions of love. That's an uncomfortable thing to have to confront, as a listener! Especially in a pop song! And yet it makes the song the stronger for it, involving the listener as strongly as it does in the production of feeling therein, and making of pop a more acutely material enterprise, one that runs up against its own degradation (O Adorno!) and tries to negate it at the same time (Richard Dyer! is that you!).

  Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

But I have said the "h" word above, that fateful thing, History, and so now better say something about it. Loretta Lynn's music is interesting as a counterpoint to the history of gendered power dynamics that we are used to hearing about—the liberation of women who can now vote and (sometimes) have a right to bodily autonomy. Lynn writes about structures, not subjects, if I can be so hyperbolic. She uses narrative and the first person to offer up a personification of social dynamics, so that we are Brechtianly asked to reflect on the dynamic between the speaker and her lover in "Don't Come Home A Drinkin'," a dynamic that is humorous by dint of its being so palpable and omnipresent as a normal thing we find. It is an expectation, which she makes new and strange by singing about it as something that is not just "the way things are." And is this not the meaning of "As Soon as I Hang up the Phone," in which Lynn's speaker does not allow her interlocutor to end their relationship until she has said what she had to say? Even as the man gets the final say in that song, Lynn does not allow the inevitability of the dissolution of the couple to be a determination which silences everything that might take place between the beginning and the end of the phone call. It is not quite her most Utopian moment—that would be "Fist City," with glorious overtones of genuine agency even where and when it seems most impossible: within the heterosexual couple—but it is a melancholy tune that uplifts as it upbraids, chastising the notion that something so fragile as heterosexuality, or as masculinity, could take the shape of an eternal constant in the world.

So it is that Loretta Lynn is not just writing about feelings, although hers is a feelingful art; so it is that she receives tropes, but not without transforming them into her own brand of acerbity; so it is, finally, that we write, not about an "album" which has all the trappings of studiously wrought autonomy, but a "greatest hits" collection, on which songs merely invite us to go looking for where they first came into being. I'm here, insist the gaps in the history we have, if you want to find me. I can't imagine how anyone listening wouldn't pack up shop and go looking for all that they could manage to see.

—David W. Pritchard