Times a-Changin': Fan Response to Eric Church’s Politics Tells Nuanced Story
In late July, Rolling Stone revealed Eric Church as its August cover artist. In a lengthy feature interview, the country superstar discusses his forthcoming new music, reveals the emergency, life-saving surgery he underwent in Summer 2017 -- oh yeah, and talks politics.
With Rolling Stone's Josh Eells, Church shared his thoughts on immigration, abortion and climate change, among other topics. But it's his comments on gun control, the October 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, Nev., and the National Rifle Association (NRA) that got everyone talking.
Church had performed at Route 91 earlier in the weekend, before a lone gunman opened fire on the festival from the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel during Jason Aldean's festival-closing set. Headlines from news sources on both sides of the political aisle had him "slam[ming]" (NBC News) and "blam[ing]" (Fox News) the NRA for the tragedy that left 58 country music fans dead and hundreds more injured. And, as you'd find scrolling through social media in the days that followed, that had his fans up in arms.
In the country music community, "Dixie Chicks-ing yourself" is sometimes a threat, sometimes an insult, meant either to warn the genre's artists against speaking out about hot-button issues or to chastise those who have. The insinuation is, of course, that doing so will torpedo your career, as Natalie Maines' onstage comments about then-President George W. Bush did to the superstar trio in 2003.
Much like Church's comments about gun ownership and the NRA, however, the country music community's response to this dust-up was more nuanced than the angry mobs on social media would lead you to believe -- and more nuanced than its response to the Chicks 15 years ago. That it was is a testament to the changing demographics of the country music fandom, and to the social climate in which we live.
The country music community's response to Church's comments was more nuanced than you might think -- a testament to the changing demographics of the country music fandom, and to the social climate in which we live.
Country music is still the genre of choice among conservatives -- a 2016 study by Audiokite found that those who were planning to vote for Donald Trump in that year's presidential election were 2.5 times more likely to "prefer" country music -- but the country fanbase is growing more diverse. Per research provided by the Country Music Association, between 2005 and 2016, country music listenership among millennials (ages 18-24) increased by 54 percent; among African-Americans and Hispanics, it increased by 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
As of 2016, country music fans' average household income is $81,500 -- higher than the general population average. Seventy-one percent of country fans own their own homes, and 57 percent of them are college educated. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram use is higher among country music fans than among the general population by 2-3 percent per social media platform.
Social media, indeed, was where the conversation over Church's comments took place. The link to the Rolling Stone interview shared by Church's Facebook page elicited about 14,000 reactions, 13,000 or so of which are "like" or "love." The 3,500-some comments on the post, as well as the conversation in Church's official fan group was more of a mixed bag, however: Plenty of angry now-former fans were swearing off his music, but plenty of fans were also agreeing with him -- or disagreeing but saying they'd continue to support him.
"Social media is littered with strongly opinionated comments ... It takes time and effort to review or comment, and it appears that you only really get the very passionate people that will express their opinion," says Braden Smith, brand manager, operations manager and afternoon DJ on 101.9 The Bull in Amarillo, Texas. "I think the majority of people won’t bother commenting, so when you go back and read comments, that is why there seems to be so much celebration or hatred."
While the response seemed intense online, the hubbub was just another brief firestorm to many. Traci Taylor, one-half of the morning show on 98.1 The Hawk in Binghamton, N.Y., tells The Boot that although she and her co-host Glenn Pitcher talked about Church's comments, they heard "absolutely nothing" from listeners.
"It's just like, 'Oh, there's another person with a political view. Onto the next story'" ... We're so overloaded these days, and life was a little simpler in 2003," Taylor notes, comparing the response to Church's comments to the response to Maines' comments, "so people did call radio stations, and they did chitchat ... It's very few and far between that we get those kind of phone calls these days ...
"I also think that, as a whole, as a country," Taylor adds, "we've become more tolerant."
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For this story, The Boot contacted nine fans who voiced their opinions of Church's comments on Facebook; their opinions were split between no longer supporting him, agreeing with him and disagreeing but supporting him nonetheless. Three were willing to talk.
Joseph Drew of Bethalto, Ill., is "a Trump guy," he tells The Boot, and while he doesn't exactly agree with Church's comments, he recognizes his right to express his opinion. "Honestly, I think [the hate he received] is wrong," Drew says. "I don't care what side you're on, everybody's allowed to have their own opinion, and if you can't respect that, that's on you.
"He never said anything over the top," Drew adds. "He gave his opinion, and that's his right."
Drew says he would "prefer it" if artists kept their politics private, because he feels they have more pull than the average citizen; however, he says his opinions of those who share their feelings aren't going to change, unless they're disrespectful in their remarks.
"You fall in love with an artist for their music, and if you were ever truly a fan, then you'd still be one."
"A lot of people, they get real attached and picture in their head what [an artist is] like, and when they come out and it's a differing opinion, it shakes up a lot of people," Drew says. "There's part of me that's like, 'Yeah, I wish he were a little bit more like me' -- it'd be a little bit easier to relate to him -- but it's not that big a deal."
"You fall in love with [an artist] for their music, and if you were ever truly a fan, then you'd still be one," says Blake Sheppard of Savannah, Ga. "We didn't fall in love with Eric Church for who he was; we fell in love with Eric Church for his music."
Sheppard is "a conservative through and through," and although he owns guns, he isn't an NRA member. He says he agrees with Church's point to Rolling Stone that "nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition [that the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooter had] and we don’t know about it."
"He's got a valid point," Sheppard says. "I think we all asked that question."
The fans The Boot spoke with -- as well as many more, in tweets and online comments -- expressed exhaustion over the hatred and name-calling taking place. "If you don't agree ... you don't have to go on there and bash him," says Robin Manning, a Winter Haven, Fla., resident. A Republican who agrees with Church's comments about lobbyists ("I don’t care who you are – you shouldn’t have that kind of power over elected officials," Church said), Manning says she's faced nasty comments for stating her opinions.
"If you want to voice it, say it once, and then shut up," Manning says. "But I don't think it's gonna change his views."
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