Queering Country Music: Mr. Misunderstood

Moving to Texas means that I am fast growing familiar with both kinds of music: Country AND Western.

I even occasionally get treated to the Top 20 Country Music Countdown on CMT.  My fellow Northerners and I joke about the inescapable popularity of blonde girls and the complete failure of the band Old Dominion to understand the plot to Back to the Future.

Seriously, dude, you know that Marty is her SON, right?

But right now the country music video that has captured my fancy is the one for Eric Church’s brand new song “Mr. Misunderstood.”  Watch the video and then ask yourself: is this a video about a queer kid finding belonging in music?

At first glance, the lyrics seem to be telling a fairly simple story of a kid turning from a deeb into a rock star.

Hey there, weird kid in your high-top shoes
Sitting in the back of the class, I was just like you
Always left out, never fit in
Owning that path you’re walking in
Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

Now, your buddies get their rocks off on Top 40 radio
But you love your daddy’s vinyl, old-time rock and roll
Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and think Jeff Tweedy
Is one bad mother
Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

One day you’ll lead the charge, you’ll lead the band
Guitar Hero with lightning hands
And the girls will like your tattoos and the veins in your arms
They’ll be helpless to your musical charms
And they’ll all hold up their hands
And they’ll all wanna dance
Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

First time I met Alabama Hannah, I was skinny as a rail
Red hair tied up in a blue bandanna
She was hotter than the devil’s Hell
She turned me on to Back Porch Pickers, Jackson Pollock, and gin
Her daddy didn’t trust my intentions
So he turned to his daddy’s old four-ten
I’m Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

Had an axe to grind, so off I went
Mad at the sun for coming up again
I lost religion, found my soul in the blues
Rubbed the velvet off my blue suede shoes
Yeah, everybody held up their hands
And every soul on Beale Street danced
With Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

So I went with it like a colt on my Plymouth
Through the glass behind my rear-view
Took a left when the world went right down 16th Avenue
Played with fire and I played on ledges
Every circus, stage, and county fair
They tried to file my points
Sand my edges, and I just grew out my hair
I’m Mr. Misunderstood
I’m Mr. Misunderstood

They’re standing in line, chasing the buzz
Til the next big things and already was
A hell if they know, what they’re trying to find
If it ain’t that same old, been-done kind, yeah
Gives the head-scratchers fits
I wondered how in the hell they missed
A Mr. Misunderstood
Mr. Misunderstood

Hey there, weird kid in your high-top shoes
Sitting in the back of the class, I was just like you
Mr. Misunderstood (I understand)
Mr. Misunderstood (I understand)
Mr. Misunderstood (I understand)
Mr. Misunderstood (I understand)
Mr. Misunderstood (I understand)
I’m Mr. Misunderstood (let’s go out of here)

But I argue that there is something else going on here, as well.

First, the name of the song itself struck me as a kind of Glen or Glenda or Victor/Victoria style pun.  When I first heard it spoken aloud, it snapped my head around and I had to look at the title and credits for the video to decipher it into discreet words.  It sounded like Mr. Ms. Understood to my ear.

And looking through the lyrics, there are a number of passages that at first seem like confirmation of the heterosexuality of the singer but at second glance seem a bit less certain.  First, there is the strange sexualization of the Top 40 radio that the boys “get their rocks off to” and the implication that Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jeff Tweedy represent an alternative (and male) object of desire.  Next, there is the constant subordination of the assumed female “love interests” in the song as merely kindred spirits and music fans.  The girls who “wanna dance”only fall prey to his “musical charms” and not physical ones while Alabama Hannah introduces him to cool bands and artists and booze but not fucking (though her father incorrectly assumes that is where things are headed).

But the clincher, for me, is the imagery in the video itself.  According to Taste of Country, 14-year-old McKinley James was selected for the video by Church because “he felt the boy was a living example of everything the title track from the surprise album represents.”  And this character that Eric Church is addressing with his story (the one he is essentially telling that It Gets Better) is presented as quite ambiguously gendered with a single earring (evoking the old queer panic about “which side earring means you are gay“).

MJames

Source

Furthermore, the character’s adult companion/mentor is the epitome of a bear who leans in close to the boy while teaching him all about “manly” activities like checking the dipstick in a car and crawling underneath to fix it.

car.png

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Or purchasing a guitar and learning to play it.
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car.png
And note that none of those girls mentioned in the lyrics make an appearance in the video itself.  This is all about the bro-down, about the boy jamming out with the band and sharing some masculine affection.
car.png
car.png
So what do you think?  I am convinced that there is a very sweet subtext going on here aimed at queer kids who feel like they “never fit in” but who will eventually find their place once they get out of the crushing, limited world of their adolescence.
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