In recent years, producers have begun to incorporate particular songs which elicit a stereotype of particular groups into their television and theatrical pieces. As with any practice that perpetuates stereotypes, this is a practice of smallmindedness that usually results in individuals who are fans of these songs to directly be labelled as part of the group. Below are several examples of songs, the social groups that they supposedly reflect upon, and why this stereotype is ridiculous.
Dueling Banjos (Arthur Smith, 1953)
The song Dueling Banjos has begun to indicate the presence of "hillbillies," or individuals who live solitary lives in mountainous regions, primarily in Appalachia or the deep South. This connotation is derived largely from the famous use of the song in the film Deliverance, which features a very vacant-faced boy in the hills of Georgia who plays the song exquisitely well. Recent uses for this stereotype include multiple television commercials, often featuring individuals running in fear of hearing the song.
Dueling Banjos was written by a jam guitarist, Arthur Smith, in the 1950s mostly to demonstrate the rhythmic power of the banjo and the potential energy of bluegrass music. It is often the first piece of bluegrass music that people become familiar with. In Deliverance, the song is used because the song is so well-known; it was a song that both of the two "dueling" characters in the film knew.
Modern producers, in their desire to attract a sophisticated audience, looked for an auditory cue that would indicate a hillbilly, thusly viewed as someone with a lack of sophistication. Having no familiarity with the music or history of the song, producers apparently watched a portion of Deliverance, noticed the vacant boy's exquisite playing, and tied together the song with the concept of the unsophisticated hillbilly. Thanks to this, the general stereotype delivered by this song is not of individuals playing an upbeat song with friends (in the true spirit of the bluegrass and folk genres), but that of an unsophisticated and perhaps even dangerous individual from Appalachia or the South.
The traditional Irish song Garryowen in modern times has come to indicate the militia, particularly in a "macho" stereotype, in popular culture. This connotation is derived from repeated use of the song in military situations in a wide variety of films, including Patton, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Full Metal Jacket.
Garryowen actually refers to a park in the town of Limerick, Ireland, that has been in existence for more than a thousand years. The park was originally owned by a man named Eóin, and since the traditional Irish term for a garden / park is garrai, the name Garraí Eóin is the place's traditional moniker. Anglicizing the term a bit gives Garryowen.
In the Civil War, in a handful of regiments with a significant Irish contingency, the song was used as a march as the troops went off to war. It was carried on as the official tune of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. Somehow, from this origin, the song began to be used in motion pictures to denote a military presence, even as early as silent pictures. Over the years, it has gradually evolved to indicate the presence of the "macho soldier" stereotype, one who drinks heavily and gets into bar fights. This is perhaps a meshing of the stereotype of the Irishman with the stereotype of the military man.
Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974)
The song Sweet Home Alabama is now frequently used to indicate a "redneck," particularly of Southern descent. This connotation is derived from countless uses of the song in this context in film, television, and advertisement. Some examples of this usage come from the films Joe Dirt and Con Air.
Sweet Home Alabama was written in 1974 as a political response to Neil Young's Southern Man, in which Young lambastes the South for remaining in a mindset of racism, bigotry, and the Ku Klux Klan. Alabama responds to this message by stating that Young is presenting a small minded view of the South. In other words, the song was written to argue against stereotypes and pigeonholing.
Neil Young apparently had the last word on this one, as this song has gone on to represent the generic stereotype of a hick/redneck. Perhaps the most damning assessment of this song in popular culture appears in the film Con Air, where Steve Buscemi's charater utters this line: "
"Definition of irony: a bunch of hicks and rednecks in an airplane dancing to music made by hicks and rednecks made famous by for dying in an airplane crash."
When Johnny Comes Marching Home (Patrick Gilmore)
This song, written as a upbeat march as a tribute to war heroes coming home, has in modern times come to indicate the presence of an oppressive militaristic leader, often socialist. It has been used in many films with a militaristic socialist leader, most famously in the film Antz.
Patrick Gilmore wrote the tune in 1863 with the goal of providing an upbeat piece for parades welcoming home heroes returning from the Civil War. The piece was very widely used for this purpose, with countless homecoming parades using this tune throughout the decade and later. When played as intended, with a brass-heavy marching band, the song seems rather upbeat. Modifications to the instrument choice, however, often give the song a downcast feel, and this is the feel that the media has used for this song.
This song was used famously in World War II propaganda videos, with a heavily oppressive feel to the number, to strike fear into the hearts of Americans about the oppressive Nazi regime, intentionally putting a twist on the original feel of the song. After the war, the song began to be regularly used in film and television for almost the same exact purpose, to show a great socialist military evil threatening all free thinking individuals. Now, this song calls to mind the dark side of socialism and militarism.
These are just some examples; an exhaustive list would be quite difficult.
Whenever you hear a piece of music that causes you to imagine a particular stereotype, remind yourself that it is often the result of misinformed individuals who have some position of power in the media industry. Be aware of this phenomenon, and realize that there is often much more to the music and fans of the music than what is conjured up by your initial reaction.