For the past decade, Todd M. Kerstetter has used rock music to teach students about how society views the history of the American West.
The TCU associate professor of history based his lessons on a 1980 article by Richard Aquila that examines references to the Western United States in rock song lyrics from 1955 to 1980. Kerstetter supplemented Aquila’s article with his own analysis of more up-to-date songs from the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s.
The more new music he added to his lesson, the more Kerstetter began to feel there was an opportunity to write an article that would update and improve upon Aquila’s earlier work. Kerstetter’s self-described “bold sequel article,” titled “Rock Music and the New West, 1980 to 2010,” was published in the spring 2012 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly.
Whereas Aquila’s research concludes that Western themes in early rock music mainly adhere to an idealized view of the past, Kerstetter finds a much grittier portrayal of the American West in more recent rock songs. The new study identifies a continued influence of long-held cultural myths about the West. But the lyrics and sounds from the past 30 years of rock music balance this optimistic land-of-opportunity idealism with a heightened awareness of the negative — and often grim — aspects of life west of the Mississippi River.
“For a large chunk of the period that Aquila studied, there were these very positive images of the West,” Kerstetter says. “And he talked about surfers and mountain climbers and people enjoying the outdoors. He cites John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High’ and the Beach Boys playing up and glorifying the surfer culture of beaches and girls. But then, as he sees it, by the time you get into the ’70s, you begin to see some discontent.
“And that’s where I pick up the story.”
Turner vs. the New West
They may not know it, Kerstetter says, but rock musicians, by commenting on the West, are taking part in a decades-old debate by historians over how the story of the region should be told.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 article “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” became the prism through which historians would study the region for many years. Turner’s work focuses on the settlement of the frontier and frames Westward expansion as a triumphant march across the continent by a people destined to rule the continent.
But by the last quarter of the 20th century, a growing number of scholars had become increasingly critical of this pervasive myth of the West as a place of manifest destiny, fresh starts and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps individualism. “And these historians got labeled New West historians because they supposedly looked at the region and its history in a new way,” Kerstetter says.
New West historians acknowledged the positive aspects of the history of the West, but they also paid greater attention to the problems in the region, such as the plight of the Native Americans, who lost their land and cultural identity and faced a steep decline in population. The New West scholars also pointed out the relative absence in the Turnerian West of women and people of color.
“It’s not as rosy of a picture,” Kerstetter says of the New West.
Implicitly, the New West movement also speaks to the worthiness of studying the West beyond the era of pioneers and settlers and cowboys and Indians. The notion of bringing the region’s history to the 20th and 21st centuries as a distinctly regional history remains a subject of spirited debate, Kerstetter says.
“In this piece of research in particular, since it’s 1980 to 2010, that’s really recent. A lot of historians are not comfortable with studying something so recent. That’s current events to historians.”
Dark side of the West
Aquila found that the imagery in rock music lyrics of the 1950s through 1970s depicted a West that was an idyllic place of individualism and opportunity. But examples cropped up near the end of that period that revealed cracks in the shiny-happy façade. For example, The Eagles song “Hotel California” hints at a West Coast lifestyle that is alluring on the one hand and an inescapable trap on the other: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
“The musicians, rock musicians in particular, were beginning to write about a West that wasn’t quite so clearly filled with opportunity and good things,” Kerstetter says.
He found that this emerging thread of discontent became even more pronounced in rock music of the 1980s and has continued to today. Kerstetter expected that this thread of negativity would be present in the lyrics, but his findings surprised him in at least one respect.
“The dark side was darker than I thought,” Kerstetter says.
New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, in particular, taps into this dark side. The Boss focuses on the West in three albums: Nebraska (1982), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils and Dust (2005). Nebraska’s title song concerns the story of a real-life mass murderer whose killing spree began in Lincoln, Neb., and stretched into Wyoming. The lyrics of this song are the only overt references on the album to the West.
Kerstetter also considers how Nebraska’s cover art — a bleak Great Plains landscape in winter — and the album’s stripped-down sound, consisting of an acoustic guitar and harmonica, complement Springsteen’s comments on the West.
“The album reflects a lot of themes of this New Western sense of history, where they’ll talk about this ugly part of the region’s history rather than focus upon triumph and opportunity,” Kerstetter says.
Springsteen comments even more strongly on the despair of Western life in a Ghost of Tom Joad song called “Sinaloa Cowboys.” The song concerns two Mexican cowboys who come to California seeking farm work but end up getting roped in with a drug cartel over promises of fast cash. One of the brothers ends up dying in a meth lab explosion. It’s a tragic story — and one that could have been ripped straight out of the headlines of a Los Angeles newspaper.
“This is evidence of people — rock musicians — having a very realistic view of what’s going on in the West,” Kerstetter says. “It’s almost totally focused on the negative, but it’s significant in that it’s a way different story than what would’ve been told, probably, about the West before 1980.”
Kerstetter, however, found that not everything is dismal in this rock ‘n’ roll version of the New West. One of the Springsteen songs he studied concerns a young African-American man from back East who decides to start a new life by moving to Oklahoma and becoming a cowboy.
“It taps into that powerful traditional myth of the West that showed up a lot in that [Aquila] article I started with,” Kerstetter says. “And this to me complicates the story: You’ve got different characters, like an African American cowboy. But they’re doing that traditional Western thing.”
Even bands that did not normally comment on the West, such as Living Colour — an African-American heavy-metal band from New York — play into that traditional myth of the land of opportunity. Living Colour comments on the West in a 1980s song called “Which Way to America?” The song talks about the problems of urban life, particularly those issues faced by African Americans. The solution to the problems, according to Living Colour’s lyrics, is to “Go West, Young Man” — an allusion to a famous line by 19th century newspaperman Horace Greeley.
“I think this is a neat mix of New West-Old West,” Kerstetter says. “The idea of going west to solve your problems is a traditional idea. But the fact that someone in the late 20th century would say, ‘Go West to solve your 20th-century urban problems,’ shows that this powerful imagery of the West goes well past 1890.”
Taken as a whole, the rock music in the period Kerstetter studied maintains the romantic ideal of the West as a land of opportunity. But these latter-day musicians point out the perils of this seeming paradise.
“From 1980 to 2010, there’s continuity in using the myth of the West and, at the same time, the way the myth of the West gets used is much grittier and much more realistic than the way it was used up to 1980,” Kerstetter says.
Nirvana and the New West
Beyond looking at what rock music tells us about our attitudes toward the past, Kerstetter’s study also ponders what the rock music of the past 30 years tells us about the changing role of the West in American society. His article examines a number of new rock movements, or “sounds” that had their roots in the West during the time period of his study. Perhaps the most influential of the sounds was the Seattle grunge movement led by Nirvana. Kerstetter contends that grunge and the California-based Calpunk, hair-metal and thrash-metal movements exerted a heavy cultural influence on the rest of the country. This west-to-east flow of cultural influence stands in direct contrast to the assertions of some scholars that the American West essentially functions as a colony — or even a cultural backwater — of the more influential and refined eastern United States.
“Nirvana is an important part of this article,” Kerstetter says. “Even though they, in their songs, didn’t talk much about the West, that particular music style was so popular and widespread, I think it was a case of the West having a cultural influence on the rest of the country.”
California Girls Reconsidered
Kerstetter, whose article includes a section about female rockers, ends his study by discussing a popular pop song by Katy Perry that shares a similar title with a 1960s hit by the Beach Boys. The “California Girls” of the Beach Boys are sexualized, but in a wholesome way and focuses on frivolity. But Perry’s song “California Gurls” takes the wholesome beach girl of an earlier era, puts her in stiletto heels, and has her tell the listener, “We’ll melt your popsicle.”
“The original ‘California Girls’ is a fun song about cars and good times at the beach,” Kerstetter says. “And Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ I think would probably make the Beach Boys blush.”
Contact Kerstetter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd M. Kerstetter, associate professor of history, is the author of “Rock Music and the New West, 1980 to 2010,” which appears in the spring 2012 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly. His monograph, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2006 and in paperback in 2008. Kerstetter has had multiple blind refereed articles published in Western Historical Quarterly. His scholarly articles have also appeared in American Journalism, Great Plains Quarterly and Nebraska History. Kerstetter has also authored a variety of encyclopedia articles and more than 40 book reviews. He has taught at TCU from 1997-99 and from 2000 to present. Kerstetter earned a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1997.