"Whose ‘It City’ is Nashville?"
It’s a strange time to be living in Nashville now that we’re some kind of “It City.” In most ways, it doesn’t feel any different than it did when Nashville was just the place I lived. On the other hand, I tried to go to the Biscuit House on Saturday in that sweet spot right before lunch when all the hung-over people have gone back to bed and no one else is hungry yet and there was a line! At the Biscuit House! Even the Biscuit House is apparently cool now.
Time ran an article this week trying to codify what it is about Nashville right at this moment that has made us so hot:
The story of Nashville’s current prosperity is a case study in how to make the most out of organic advantages. The specific factors behind its rise aren’t readily transferable, but the larger lessons about what works are. Chief among the takeaways from the Music City’s revival: culture is commerce.
Culture is commerce. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in your craw. The things we’re doing just to make our own lives more interesting are valuable — not in an “enriching the lives of Nashvillians” way, but in a “sell it to the rest of the nation as something they can have, if they just come” way.
Jon Meacham, the author of the Time article, then explains this “culture” that is so valuable:
Tommy Frist, a son of Hospital Corporation of America’s (HCA’s) founding Frist family, who left Nashville in the late 1980s but returned a decade ago to work and raise his own family here, ticks off “four buckets” that he believes contribute significantly to the city’s good fortune. There is employment stability in health care, entertainment, higher education and government. There is the wealth effect of ownership that extends deep into the ranks of some large enterprises, such as HCA, Ingram Industries and Dollar General, and those people and their money generally stay in middle Tennessee. There is a single metro government, thus reducing friction in governance and facilitating more private-public partnerships. And there is the more ineffable but no less real issue of livability. “Nashville is a soulful city in a way that Charlotte or Atlanta just don’t seem to be,” says Frist. “The vibe is cool, but it’s warm and comforting too.”
I can’t speak to the level of soulfulness in Charlotte, though just in the times I’ve been there it doesn’t seem to lack something Nashville has. But the idea that Nashville has a kind of soulfulness that Atlanta lacks? It would be laughable if it wasn’t so bizarre.
Here we’re being told that “culture is commerce,” that in Nashville’s case, our “It City”ness makes us valuable. And yet, the crux of what it is about Nashville that’s so valuable is left strangely unspecified, spoken about in loose terms like “soul.” There’s something nebulous that’s being commodified here. And that nebulousness starts to turn ugly when you think about it.
In the Time article, here is a list of everyone mentioned by name and their race:
- Joe Ledbetter, white
- Jay Gatsby, white
- Daisy Buchanan, white
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, white
- Tommy Frist, white
- Sam Fleming, white
- Thomas Frist Sr., white
- Thomas Frist Jr., white
- Jack Massey, white
- Harland Sanders, white
- Kris Kristofferson, white
- Johnny Cash, white
- Willie Nelson, white
- Don Cusic, white
- Gary Overton, white
- Taylor Swift, white
- Shania Twain, white
- Faith Hill, white
- Nicholas S. Zeppos, white
- Phil Bredesen, white
- Bill Purcell, white
- Karl Dean, white
- Steve Turner, white
- Bud Adams, white
In Nashville, one in four people is black. But, I keep noticing in all these “It City” pieces (and let me be clear that the Time piece is only the latest in a long line with this problem — count the black people on the TV show Nashville. You’re just going to need the one hand) that the only mention that gets made of black Nashvillians is Prince’s hot chicken, like Nashville is exclusively white people except for the one restaurant where you can get “weird” fried chicken. The rich culture black communities that makes Nashville the place it is — Fisk, TSU, Swett’s, Zora Neal Hurston’s old block, the guy who rides his horse down Clarksville Pike, the grandmothers in their church clothes at Kroger on Sundays, Little Richard randomly driving by in his big black SUV, the bikers with the amazing custom motorcycles, the laughing moms at the park — all just vanish. They aren’t a part of our great “It City” story at all.
The whole history of commercial country music has been about taking an art form with multicultural roots and selling it to white people as music by us, for us. And Nashville’s tourism industry has thrived on that same dynamic, taking a place with deep multicultural roots and selling it to white people as a tourist destination. Nashville is an “It City,” a great, money-making fantasy — for white people with expendable income. The culture that we’re commercializing is from white people for white people. How Nashville is being portrayed in the media — both fictionally and non-fictionally — is as a place white people can come and enjoy. Which Nashville is, but that’s not a new story. It’s just that now you can come to the white fantasy land and not have to rub shoulders with Ma and Pa Kettle from Arkansas, because they can’t afford the new Nashville.
I’m glad that people across the nation are being cued in to how awesome Nashville is. But that our “awesomeness” is presented to the rest of the nation as a largely white only phenomenon and now, even more exclusively, as being for rich white people, it kind of feels a little less awesome and a lot more problematic.