I’m an authority on small town living and big city living. I spent years in big cities like Seattle and Salt Lake City and Philadelphia (also in the in-between kind of place, like Eugene, Oregon), and I’ve been living in a small town with a population of 5,000 for the last 20 years. I know them all. I know without doubt that there are good people and bad people in all of them, and that small towns do not have a lock on virtue.
So I tried listening to this new country song by Jason Aldean called “Try that in a Small Town.” It is so much bullshit. It’s popular among right-wing jerks who think urban is a synonym for un-American violence — you know, the same people who think the January 6 Insurrection was just a few tourists visiting an architectural attraction. The people who like it are the kind who want to roll back progress to 1950, when white people could use a firehose on black people, and occasionally lynch one as a lesson.
Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
You think it’s cool, well, act a fool if you like
Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, you think you’re tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far you make it down the road
‘Round here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town
Hey! Why is your paean to the bucolic pleasures of simple country life so violent? It’s all about retribution, and about an imaginary city where carjacking and liquor store robberies are common. Liquor stores get held up in small towns, too, and when they happen in big cities the cops will probably shoot you. Don’t try it in a big city, either.
I live in a small town, and I could tell you stories about the chronic alcoholism here, about people who hate gay and trans kids, about church sermons that tell women to be subservient, about confederate flags flying on trucks, about ugly attitudes towards diversity and large cities (but then, the song tells you that), about Latin laborers treated with contempt, about Trump voters who want civil rights revoked for everyone but them. Of course, I’d also tell you that those hateful people are a vocal minority; there are also good people here. But small towns are not the model of kindness and self-reliance that that song makes them out to be.
In fact, they are dependent on the economic surpluses of the big cities. There’s a reason you can’t keep the kids down on the farm — the farms are dead boring, and are run by people who hate change and excitement and novelty. Our kids here can’t wait to grow up and move somewhere, anywhere else, and one of the reasons is the self-righteous attitude of people like Jason Aldean. We raised three kids here, and if we were to suggest they move back to Morris, Minnesota, they’d laugh at us. They’ve all moved to bigger towns. They had enough of the petty, bigoted life with the people they went to school with.
A gay black man, Brian Broome, writes about growing up in a small town in Ohio. It’s representative.
All the Black people lived on one side of town, and all the White people lived on the other. Our churches were separate. We went to school together, but it was at school that I was called or heard the n-word from White students on a weekly basis. The racism of my small town was naked and powerful; seething hatreds were baked into its soil. And when all the steel jobs disappeared, leaving many on welfare, in poverty or desperate, those hatreds deepened and the n-word flew more freely than ever.
As I got older and realized that I was gay, my small town became for me a coffin lined with razor blades. But it wasn’t just my sexuality that made it uncomfortable. I was different. I thought differently. I began to question the things I had been taught, and I found no one in my hometown who offered good answers. I was just told to be quiet: by my teachers, by my friends, by my church and even by my parents. And then the smothering feeling set in, the wondering whether there was more to life than what I was being shown. And I knew I had to escape. I wanted to meet different kinds of people, I wanted different experiences, I wanted to learn new things, and none of that was going to happen in a small town in northern Ohio. I couldn’t wait to leave.
The only thing that makes me at all comfortable living here is that this is a college town, and the university community is a small island of tolerant cosmopolitanism, it’s the only anchor holding me here. I work with gay and trans and minority students, and they know far better than I that stepping out into the small town community is hazardous…and not a one of them has any desire to sucker punch anyone, or pull a gun in a liquor store, or spit in a cop’s face. That’s what the more arrogant, intolerant residents of a small town might try to do.
Also, I listened to that Aldean song. It’s a dreadful, unmusical hash of country-western noise, lacking in charm, melody, and anything catchy at all. It relies entirely on resentment and bitterness to appeal to a certain mindset. I think I’d rather listen to Prince.