It feels correct to watch Toby Keith as one of Donald Trump’s inauguration concert performers. Or at least it does for anyone who has ever heard his post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which we might as well just go ahead and call “Make America Great Again.”
For anyone who grew up in the heart of Red State America, Toby was pretty much inescapable from high school dances to country radio, where he dominated with 20 number one hits and an additional 20 top ten hits during his career. You’d be hard pressed to find someone between Nevada and Nashville who can’t belt out the chorus to “How Do You Like Me Now?” If Bruce Springsteen represents working class struggle, Keith is farmland fury.
Yet for those of us who love country music’s roots, Toby is the ultimate manifestation of the dumbing-down of the art form, sucked dry of its wit and pumped full of tribalistic nationalism. While Keith called himself a Democrat for several years before eventually switching to being an Independent, his actions show a lack of conviction at best and a transparent opportunism at worst. The lyrics to “Courtesy” are like a European parody of the worst American stereotype. “We’ll put a boot in your a**, it’s the American way” is probably the most memorable line, but the most cringe-inducing has to be “We lit up your world like the fourth of July;” a line that gloats about killing people as a point of American pride.
At the time of its release, “Courtesy” generated a fair amount of controversy, perhaps best remembered by the feud between Toby and fellow country music superstars, the Dixie Chicks. In an interview, band member Natalie Maines said that the song “makes country music look ignorant.” Keith responded by displaying a doctored photo of Maines standing with Saddam Hussein behind her at concerts. There could be no better representation of his black and white foolishness; you’re either with America or with the terrorists.
But while some may take this position as an affront to America’s heartland, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Few records were as touching last year as Margo Price’s stunning debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter; a gorgeous collection of the best of country music. Its single “Hands of Time” spoke to the kind of economic hardship faced by middle America; a situation that many blame for the the rise of Trump.
“Because all I want to do is make a little cash/because I’ve worked all the bad jobs busting my a**/I’m gonna buy back the farm/And bring my momma home some wine/And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
It’s a sentiment that bleeds across the greatest of what country music has to offer, a sort of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for the 21st century. It serves as a great example that there’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you’re from, but that there is something very wrong with thinking that where you come from makes you exceptional.
There is also something very wrong with the hard-line patriotism offered by Toby Keith, and there’s something completely unacceptable about him performing at the Make America Great Again concert today. The country music superstar says that he “won’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” citing previous events held for Barack Obama and George W. Bush. A quote from Theodore Roosevelt perhaps best summarizes the major flaws in his logic.
“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
You have no moral high ground, Toby Keith. Your decision to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration event or more specifically his Make America Great Again! concert is neither patriotic nor commendable. The incoming president has taken advantage of the same animalistic foolishness that you have used to sell records. Just as the Dixie Chicks said about you years ago, “You make country music look ignorant.” We have the lyrics that came from your soul to prove it, no matter how much you try to justify it with blind allegiance to the Commander-in-Chief.
[Featured Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for dcp]