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Who Benefits from the Politics of Resentment?
The grift economy of cancel culture
Jason Aldean’s cancellation wasn’t an accident. The country music star topped the charts this summer with his song “Try That in a Small Town. In it, he dares those who sucker-punch people on sidewalks, carjack old ladies, and spit in cops’ faces to try that in a small town. The song is a call to vigilantism — that is to say, racist violence. And the coding isn’t accidental. The music video was shot in front of a Tennessee courthouse that was the site of a 1927 lynching, in a town also known for a 1946 race riot.
The song wasn’t popular until the controversy over the lyrics and the music video drew widespread attention.
Aldean has gone on the defensive, decrying his cancellation and saying he was misunderstood. “‘Try That In A Small Town,’ for me, refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up, where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief. Because they were our neighbors, and that was above any differences,” Aldean wrote in a statement defending the song.
It’s easy to mock Aldean and his lyrics. But that mockery feeds into the resentment and grievance of all those who believe the city folk are always making fun of the hicks. And resentment is a powerful political and economic force in America.
Writing for Fox News, conservative commentator Dan Gainor spews petulantly about how conservatives are winning, pointing out the movies and books that have succeeded despite pushback from “the left.”1
He points to Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel, a film about sex trafficking that has become a box-office hit. He also cites “Progress,” a song by John Rich that declares,
"Stick your progress where the sun don't shine;
Keep your big mess away from me and mine."
Gainor, of course, misses the point. These successes are not happening despite cancellation efforts; they are successes because criticism, which is then called “cancel culture,” has become a potent economic rallying point for the right. Claiming to be “canceled” is big business. This economy of the great white whine is capable of funding entire media outlets and universities, as well as presidential campaigns. Conservative culture isn’t winning, so much as it’s found a way to profit off of resentment-fed political and market forces.
Of course, this shadow economy is nothing new. Growing up in Evangelical subculture, I’m aware of books like, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and the movies like The Left Behind series, that made bank, profiting off of the fact they were outside of the mainstream. The independence from “godless culture” was their appeal.
But in 2023 this specific economy of the aggrieved is a reboot of 2016, in which the violence and resentment oozing like an infection out of Trump rallies became a political movement. One where the victors claim victimhood; where the winners claim that the culture sees them as the losers. The powerful claim persecution.
And it’s potent because it’s not entirely a work of fiction. In a recent interview on the Ezra Klein show, Barbara Kingsolver pointed out that there is a strain of condescension in politics and culture especially toward rural life — one that is simultaneously extractive and dismissive. Extractive in its use of the tropes — pandering to rural Americans as Bud Light panders to farmers while fetishizing aspects of agrarian life for aesthetics.
In the interview, Klein pointed out that this goes both ways, where people living in cities are often characterized as not being real Americans. And then we get a lot of cultural commentators wringing their hands over this deeply divided America and asking how we can come together once more. Very often these commentators like to tut-tut the Black Lives Matter movement or pro-abortion protesters for fostering divisiveness and using incendiary political language.
But while Klein is correct, the dismissiveness happens on “both sides” – the power of cancel culture seems to only benefit people who are conservative. And I use conservative here to mean people who cling to the status quo rather than right-wing reactionaries.
Aldean is working off a playbook finessed by fellow country star Morgan Wallen — it’s the claiming to be the victim while reaping financial gain. In 2021, after being caught flouting lockdown rules and mask mandates, Wallen was also shown on camera using the N-word. The incident would have ruined many people’s careers’, but Wallen came back. His song “Last Night” (which, regrettably, is a fun song), has topped the Billboard charts for 14 weeks.
This is a stark contrast to the fate of The Chicks, who spoke out against George Bush and the Iraq war only to have mobs burn their albums. They were shunned by the country music establishment. They’ve never risen high on the charts again.
This contrast was pointed out on the Sam Sanders podcast Into It, where Tressie McMillam Cotton describes how the Nashville of Jason Aldean’s music is one that is holding desperately onto money, power and influence, and using resentment to find relevance. She also noted that what The Chicks said was more offensive to power at the time than what Wallen said. Wallen was “impolite,” Cottom noted, but his words didn’t challenge the entrenched systems of power. While The Chicks’ questioned power, and our notions of what it means to be an American.
What Wallen and Aldean have done is taken the mechanics of cancel culture and turned them into a capitalism of resentment — an economics of the cast out. It’s a fine-tuning of the script of Trumpism, which showed us that violence and hate make for good spectacle — a spectacle that is economically viable. Trump was never much good at staying solvent as a businessman, but he has made bank as a political candidate profiting from our rage clicks, Drumpf jokes, sticking it to the libs, and controversy. It’s a fine get-rich-quick scheme — especially if you are a man who hasn’t had much of a hit in years.
Which brings us back to Aldean, who was never going to be much of a hit-maker in 2023 if he didn’t tap into the economy of white whines. Wallen, while supported by these market forces of resentment, is actually capable of creating good music.
But for the rest of us, cancel culture brings violence and terror. I will never forget how I felt after seeing my address and pictures of my home in the center of a bullseye on Twitter. None of that helped me sell books; none of that helped me sell articles. All it did was give me anxiety, sleepless nights, a stalker, and finally an Alaskan Malamute bought during a time of depression and fear.
The alchemy of spinning that rage and resentment into gold is only feasible and politically palatable if you are a man, specifically a white man, who supports the current power status. Although, some white women do it too. But if you are outside those norms, the world is far less forgiving, and the economic forces far less understanding.
Linked to cite my sources, but you definitely shouldn’t click on that.