Monday, July 27, 2015

How much 'dirty laundry' should artists air about their hometowns in their art?

The work of country singer Kacey Musgraves and novelist Harper Lee, who wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the current chart-topping best-selling sequel "Go Set a Watchman," brings up an important question: how much of one's hometown's "dirty laundry" should an artist bring to light in his or her work? Allen Tate, a poet born in Kentucky, wrote that the dilemma of writing Southern literature is that it will be "read curiously as travel literature by Northern people alone," Andrew Marantz writes for The New Yorker. (Kacey Musgraves has released two albums and is currently touring in support of "Pageant Material")

Musgraves's 2013 debut album, "Same Trailer Different Park" includes songs such as "Merry-Go-Round" that include ideas and phrases that some say criticize rather than celebrate small-town life. One particularly clever phrase is "Just like dust, we settle in this town." Although country songs are often depressing, "the flaws they recount—inebriation, infidelity, depraved-heart murder—tend to be personal, not systemic," Marantz writes. "It's almost definitional that country music should celebrate small-town American life, not skewer it." 

Musgraves told Marantz that after "Merry-Go-Round" came out, "I had one guy say, 'This is the anti-country song,' And I had to say, 'Sorry, no, it's just an anti-small-mind song.'" In an interview, it was mentioned that she had "a love-hate relationship with the town you grew up in. Oh, no, it's all love. I mean, it's just—there's a lot of truth, though."

In Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the author portrays Maycomb as a pleasant rural town, in spite of its flaws, but in "Go Set a Watchman" the town is "overrun with conformists and hypocrites," Marantz writes. Character Jean Louise Finch says, "There's not place for me in Maycomb, and I'll never be entirely at home any place else." Lee actually wrote "Go Set a Watchman" first, and Marantz suggests that her first attempt to write about her hometown came out too judgmental, and her second attempt—"To Kill a Mockingbird"—portrayed her hometown as too idyllic.

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