31 August 2012

Grown Men Don't Cry: Mitt Romney's Real Audience

The lead single in the Spring of 2001 for Tim McGraw's Set This Circus Down album was "Grown Men Don't Cry." It was written by Al Anderson, Jeffrey Steele and Craig Wiseman. The narrator is out one day, feeling kinda down for reasons never given, when he happens to see a woman and her son. They're "wearing everything they own, living in a car." Our narrator "wanted to tell them it would be okay, but I just got in my Suburban and I drove away." He goes off and cries, upset at the encounter, then we follow him home to a nice dinner with his family. His daughter tells him she loves him "as she climbs the stairs" to go to bed and he cries again, moved by the moment.

It took me several listens before I cottoned onto what it was about the song that didn't set right with me. Then I realized: It was a paradigm shift.

Prior to "Grown Men Don't Cry," a country song about a mother and son living in a car would have been about the mother and son living in a car. You say to yourself, "A country song...mother and son living in a car..." and automatically you're rummaging through the jukebox in your mind, certain Loretta Lynn or Merle Haggard recorded such a song and you just can't think of the title. But by 2001, country's target demographic had changed. Country had become the sanitized soundtrack for soccer moms, heard in minivans in the suburbs even more than in pickups in the sticks. And the new target demographic related to a narrator who found it depressing to see a mother and son living in a car more than the were going to relate to a mother and son living in a car.

The country music of Haggard and Jones, Conway and Loretta, Johnny and June, Waylon and Willie, George and Tammy...that country music was for and about the downtrodden. By 2001, though, the downtrodden were, y'know, icky in the minds of the people whose money was courted by Nashville. So we get "Grown Men Don't Cry," pitched not to the mothers living in cars with their sons, but to the families who would find their pity party hijacked by seeing a mother and son living in a car.

I was reminded of this song recently when Kevin John Coyne wrote about it for Country Universe, by far the most thoughtful country music blog I've found. It's particularly curious because it was from the twilight of our pre-9/11 world, but that's a subject for another time.

I thought again about "Grown Men Don't Cry" during Mitt Romney's speech tonight at the Republican National Convention. The song was immediately conjured in my mind when Mr. Romney made the following remarks:
Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. Look around you. These are not strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.
Those impoverished Americans, living in their cars with their sons...it's just so sad. We should care about them because we know some of them.

It's subtle. I may not have even caught it myself, if I hadn't been recently reminded of "Grown Men Don't Cry" to such specific language and sensitivity to audience, but it's there. Romney's constituency - his real constituency - is comprised of the big money players. He's speaking to the guy who's going to drive off in his Suburban; not to the mother.

Romney's real audience tonight were the Haves, not the Have Nots. Sure, he spoke about the Have Nots, but he spoke to the Haves. Given that kind of an audience, someone might make the connection that was the time to plead for those with the resources to put Americans back to work to do so. To forego their obsessive quest to horde all the money in the world, and pay real living wages to their workers so that their workers could afford to at least rent their own apartments. To bring home their fortunes from off-shore accounts and pay their fair share. You know, if you really wanted to help the Have Nots, you do it by appealing to the Haves because they're the only ones with the resources to make a difference.

Instead, Romney made the argument that what has hurt the Have Nots has been President Barack Obama and his policies. Sorry, Guv'nor, but President Obama hasn't pushed through a single piece of legislation capping worker pay to beneath a living wage. He hasn't urged businesses to replace their full-time employees with part-timers who aren't eligible for benefits; they've done that all on their own.

Hours from now, around the country, there will be plenty of Have Nots who will insist that Mitt Romney spoke to them last night in much the same way that Tim McGraw and country music continued to enjoy their reputation for speaking for the downtrodden even when the paradigm shifted to the suburbs.

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