Try this is a small town, or city, or on social media, or…

I’m not a country music fan. Don’t worry, there’s lots of genres of music I’m not crazy about. The only time I really listen to music is when I’m in the car driving. And I am usually listening to something on Pandora. For me that amounts to AC/DC radio, Merengue radio, Hildegard of Bingen radio, Nirvana radio, or for Christmas time – Perry Como (Holiday) radio. I’m a bit eclectic, I guess. 

I’ve heard/read a bunch of the controversy around Jason Aldean’s “Try that in a Small Town.” I haven’t really thought much about the song or the video until the last couple of days. Here’s a few things that I know:

Controversy is great for increasing sales. Our society doesn’t pay attention to something unless there is some kind of controversy around it. And then, look out – people are going to pay attention. And everyone has an opinion and becomes an expert on the subject. Until the next controversy happens in a matter of days. It’s as if the whole nation stays at a Holiday Inn Express each week, waking up as some kind of expert in whatever the latest controversy is. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google the commercials, they are hoot). And since I’m commenting on this, I guess I should tell you that stayed in room 112 last night.

I finally read the lyrics to the song. It sounds like someone who is paranoid. But that’s not anything new. Paranoia is a popular theme in music. The Kinks wrote a song titled “Destroyer” in 1981. Swollen Members put out a song titled “Paranoia” in 2003. And in 2007, The Assembly released a song titled “Paranoia will destroy ya.” All of these (and there are plenty more) are direct references to paranoia. Throw in all the other songs that have paranoid lyrics on any number of topics and you could start your own Pandora radio station.

Plus, fear is a great sales agent. Fear has caused more people to buy stuff they don’t need, believe ideas that aren’t helpful, and vote for politicians who don’t belong in office.

I googled what the population of a small town would be. I was a little bit curious. I didn’t do extensive research on this, so the first article I came across that wasn’t about Aldean’s song and the controversy surrounding it made the reference to a small town being a community of under 50,000 residents. There are lots of these across the country.

In fact, I grew up in a small town, by that definition. I grew up in the Village of Spencerport, NY. According to World Population Review, Spencerport boast a population of 3,683 residents in 2023. Spencerport is one of those old port town along the Erie Canal in Western New York. It is situated in Monroe County, which has the city of Rochester in it. Rochester is the third largest city in New York State. Spencerport is far enough away from Rochester to feel like a small town, but thanks to the interstate extension just south of the village, you can get to the city in a matter of about 20 minutes. 

That highway extension didn’t exist when I was a kid growing up in Spencerport but came along a bit later. Spencerport is a relatively quiet village. There’s a fireman’s carnival each year. The school district is small, but a pretty good district overall. It’s a pretty safe place. 

I now live in Carlisle, PA – a borough with 20,331 residents. By definition, it is a small town also. While it’s relatively quiet, it has some great things about it too. Considering that it is larger than Spencerport, there are a few more things offered here – like Dickinson College, more festivals in the Borough, and easy access to the highway to travel where you need to go. But it still has a small-town vibe. 

I’ve lived in other places over the years. I went to school in Western PA in a small college town, lived in Washington, DC and out in Falls Church as well. And during seminary I had the opportunity to live in Harrisburg PA, as well as outside of Duncansville PA, and we did an exchange year of studies which afforded us the opportunity to live in Espoo Finland, which is the country’s second largest “city” just to the west of Helsinki, the capitol. I’ve lived in a variety of settings and have enjoyed each one. 

When I read the lyrics to Aldean’s song I was a bit confused. I frankly didn’t recognize what he was talking about. I work in Allison Hill in Harrisburg PA, which when I tell people that they usually have the reaction of “oh…be careful” because of the reputation it has related to crime, drugs, and prostitution. And you know what, those things certainly exist there, but I have never felt afraid walking around in Allison Hill. I never felt unsafe walking in DC for that matter, which has far more crime and violence issues. I love cities. Are there challenges – you bet there are. Is there crime – sure is. 

But here’s the rub with Aldean’s lyrics. He’s feeding into some pretty bad assumptions in this song. People know about the crime that happens in cities. It often makes the news. But the implied assumption of songs like Aldean’s is that crime doesn’t happen in a small town. That’s not just a bad assumption, but it’s delusional. You know how I know – because we are dealing with humanity. You think shootings don’t happen in small towns? You might want to check out this listing of mass shootings that continues to be updated with each shooting. A mass shooting is defined by any shooting in which there are at least four victims. Take a look at the listing. There are locations in that list that I don’t recognize and could not find on a map. Yes, many on that list are large cities. But if someone smarter than me with statistics worked out the math, I wonder what the proportionality would be between mass shootings and population size.  Small towns aren’t crime free or violence free just because they are a small town, in spite of Aldean’s lyrics.

Do drugs happen in cities – yes. But again, drugs are also prevalent in small towns. It’s just usually covered up and not talked about until there is some kind of drug bust that the police do. And then all of sudden, people are shocked. The drugs are there though because we are talking about people. 

And do we even need to get into a discussion about the amount of domestic violence that happens in small towns? You think that doesn’t happen in a small town? Here’s a nice eye opening piece titled “Violence and Abuse in Rural America.” Couple that with limitations towards a better life, especially for girls, and you start to see Aldean’s song for what I said before – delusional paranoia. 

I’m not even going to touch the criticisms around Aldean’s song and race and history – there are plenty of articles debating this.  There’s plenty of troubling issues around this, including shooting the video in front of the courthouse where a lynching happened.

I don’t bring all of this up to continue what Aldean is doing – reinforcing a long standing cultural divide between urban and rural life. I’m not interested in picking sides in such a supposed battle. I don’t see such a thing as helpful to anyone. Pointing out the flaws in the assumption is not the same as lobbing accusations at where people live. 

Look I get it – creating an us versus them song certainly bolsters sales. But that seems rather short-sighted and unhelpful for everyone who isn’t making a profit off of such a song.

If you like rural or small-town living, more power to you. I know there are plenty of wonderful things about small town living. I’m happy for you that this is where you choose to live. 

And if you prefer city life – great! I know there are plenty of great things going for wherever you happen to be. I’m happy for you as well. 

Here’s what I don’t like – creating, or actually perpetuating, us and them scenarios. They are not helpful. They are rarely truthful. They conveniently ignore inconvenient facts. They are often just projections of those who espouse such things. Putting down urban living doesn’t make small town living better. And putting down small town living in favor of urban living doesn’t work either. Small town living isn’t automatically safer or idyllic like the nostalgic lyrics of far too many songs. And that’s not counting the challenges that come with small town living often centered on limited choices and access. I know there are great things about small town too. Urban/city living isn’t automatically more dangerous either. There’s plenty of great things about cities. And there are real challenges too. 

Regardless of whether a person lives in a small town or a city, I can guarantee a few things – there will be problems. They may be different problems, or on a different scale, but there will be problems. Because people are involved. 

And people are messy and irrational. They are broken to some degree and have suffered or are suffering in some way. They need healing and to mourn loss. They struggle with meaning and purpose. Far too many are just barely getting by. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about small towns or cities. 

In small towns and cities, you also will find people who also care deeply about others and are wonderful stewards of wherever they are living and calling home. And there are frauds, con men, criminals, and violent people who make cruelty their life’s mission. They are all there whether we are talking about a city or a small town. 

I think some of the issue here with Aldean’s song is something much deeper than all of this. What he’s singing about without naming it is control. This becomes a theme of some cultures in small towns – something that I think some people in small towns really struggle with. It’s the idea that “outsiders” are coming in, invading, their small town to impose some kind of control over people there. It’s such a weird thing to even describe. And there’s a level of irony that I don’t know if most people even recognize. It’s the desire to have “local control” and be afraid of the the idea of big city imposing its values. The big city could be an actual place, but really it’s just an abstract idea being labeled as “the big city.” Yet the big cities aren’t interested in doing such a thing – They are plenty occupied with their own challenges and most in the cities don’t even know that many small towns exist, nor do they care. You’d have to know something exists in order to have a desire to control it at the very least, wouldn’t you? Maybe that’s what this is about – being recognized as existing. It’s like the little guy in school picking a fight with the big guy in order to be recognized. 

Is Aldean just trying to pick some kind of a fight in order to be recognized? I don’t know. 

This reminds me of a sign I saw some time ago. You can see the message in this link. The irony of such a message is that none of us are from “here.” Our history shows that our families at some point left “there” to come “here.” And we then imposed our values on wherever “here” is, displacing the values (and usually the people) that were already “here.” And the audacity of posting such a sign in a community is that our own history has done the very thing that the sign complains about but we seem to think that we innocent.

Is Aldean’s song irony – projecting the very thing that he is complaining about? I don’t know. 

So, where does this leave me. I want to offer this. Why do we feel the need in our culture to disparage those who live differently from us just because of their location, or culture, or anything else for that matter? Why focus on the us and them aspect? So we can feel better about ourselves? So we can think we are somehow more moral and right? So our fantasies and illusions of where we live somehow make us  superior than other people in other locations? 

In my experience, when someone goes on an attack against someone else (or a group of people), it usually means they want attention. And it often says more about the person doing the attacking than it does about the target of the attack.

Maybe we ought to try something else. Maybe we ought to try seeing the value of people, communities, and cultures – especially those different from our own – rather than demeaning them. It might open us to seeing possibilities and learning. It might open us to seeing how connected we are to others. It might help us to see the humanity of others. And in so doing, it might help us to be more merciful to ourselves, our communities, our neighbors, and dare I say it – our enemies, whether they are real or perceived.  And to “those people” who are different from ourselves.

Maybe we can try that in a small town, or a city, or an anywhere. 


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