In one of the most controversial moments in the history of the Country Music Association Awards, an obviously inebriated Charlie Rich came up to the podium to present artist of the year for 1975. He announced John Denver’s name, then took a silver lighter out of his jacket pocket and lit the nomination envelope aflame. This was a strange move for Rich—he wasn’t really an outlaw, and had spent decades in the industry moving between genres. There was very little pure about him, except perhaps minor details of geography. Rich read veteran, or hard living, in ways the softness of Denver belied. The confusion of the gesture is an ongoing controversy, a point that Rich’s son made clear in a blog post about the incident a few years ago: “For those of you that assume Charlie thought John wasn’t country enough, I’m sorry but I disagree. If you feel that way fine, but that wasn’t my father’s general point of view. Anybody that knows much about the history of my father will know that it wasn’t in his mind set to judge someone for not being ‘country enough,’ ‘blues enough,’ or ‘anything enough.’ It went against his philosophy. He started out as a rockabilly, then did R&B for several years, then he migrated to Jazz, and finally to country.”
Almost 40 years later, the Country Music Association funded an expensive ad explaining itself, its location, and its genre. It was called “Forever Country,” and featured a dozen country stars singing Denver’s “Country Road” as part of a three-song montage. The performers sang in cafes, on the highway, on gas stations forecourts, front porches, and plantations, moving from one location to another. The history of place in “Country” is built up with a kind of digital transition between actual places and imaginary histories. When Dierks Bentley sings in front of a gas station, the history of that gas station is digitally painted in front of him; when Eric Church sings in the ruins of an old country house, the house appears around him.
Thinking about these two incidents, I wonder if they provide a framework for how we can understand John Denver. As both real and hyper real; as a country boy and as a city huckster; as someone too earnest for words and someone whose ironic smile can be seen; as both authentic and a hyperreal simulacra.
Denver’s music shows up three or four times a year onscreen, usually as some kind of historical marker, in ways that move between ironic and sincere. Last year, his “Leaving on A Jet Plane” marked a lover’s departure in Masters of Sex; in a 2014 episode of the prime time domestic soap, Parenthood, a deep cut was chosen as aural wallpaper, just hip enough to work through emotion. So it’s not that 2017 has been an unusually popular year for Denver, but rather that his work has been used in more clever and difficult ways—perhaps an indication that culture’s loosening and ironizing of past pop culture has corrupted the new sincerity.
Working through the ongoing problems of John Denver is also a way of working through how, in our era, irony and earnestness work in conjunction—and how camp, or the gag, has become a kind of po-faced perfoming of authenticity. Denver was rarely viewed as ironic, and deeply tied into time and place, plus nominally intended as adult listening—so his use in modern films becomes a reflection of how we read media now. It’s not unlike the cultural arc of Bob Ross, another gentle icon, who traveled from earnest PBS, to kitsch irony, to stoner entertainment, to internet distribution, to a genuine love of his warmth. Except that Bob Ross as a live Twitch stream becomes a democratic reclaiming of traditional media, in a form where the authorship is taken over by commentators, where the meta/paratext becomes part of the goal. The best use of Denver in 2017, though, is being done by filmmakers who have a unique vision, who do not allow paratext, and who have become perhaps the closest in our era to Sarris-level auteurs.
The three examples I am thinking of explicitly are (from the most conventional to the most weird) Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, and Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. Each film provides an example of how John Denver is used in films directly, how this reflects changes in film viewership, and how texts intersect in a post media age incapable of separating the ironic from the sincere.
Wheatley’s Free Fire is a historical drama set in Boston, in the mid 1970s. It’s a bottle episode of a movie, in which a variety of low level gangsters meet an IRA operative in an abandoned garage to sell them arms for the revolution. The movie ratchets up tension through explicit violence; the whole point is to see who dies last and, in its grit and low light, the film functions as a meta-commentary about the nature of filmic violence. One of the notes in that essay is verisimilitude: every inch of the screen, from the cars, to the clothes, to the guns, to the acting style, is meant to illustrate a 1970s milieu, and by extension, a 1970s film. To put it plainly, Free Fire’s intention is to appear as an actual 1970s movie.
This is where the use of Denver becomes interesting. In the most shocking moment of the film, a passenger van is used as a battering ram by a character who has already been shot. It balletically careens through the warehouse, threatening to maim or kill everyone in its path. It’s a funny riff on a gag—the soft music of the 1970s used to offset acts of hard steel and harder violence. But unlike the infamous use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs—where the juxtaposition between violence and music is an ironic reclaiming of pop culture kitsch as a kind of bicoloured art—the use of Denver in Free Fire is intended as diegetic. The smoothing over of sign and signified, the realization that the 1970s music was not deep cuts of funk, but John Denver omnipresence, suggests taste as amoral. In Free Fire, taste is neither good nor bad, but rather accurate or inaccurate. Unlike commissioning Portishead to do a spooky cover of Abba’s “SOS” for his previous pyschosexual breakdown/Ballard adapation, High-Rise, Wheatley here is not trying to redeem the violence of the scene by using Denver’s softness—or trying to make Denver any harder—but instead noting how amorality can extend the juxtaposed gag through an understanding of how people listened to the music back then.
If Denver is used as a mark of cultural authenticity, or historical desire for the same, and as an extension refuses the kind of camp violence post-Tarantino, then Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is a mark of how Denver has been crafted as a shibboleth of real country raising. Set in the world of NASCAR, the film has been called a redneck remake of Ocean’s Eleven. The very first scene and the very last scene feature the same child singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” In the first scene, she is singing it on a piece of rural land in West Virginia, to her daddy (Channing Tatum, playing a genial ne’er-do-well). In the final scene, she chooses to do it at a child beauty pageant she’s competing in, as a mark of respect for her father.
Having a child sing a John Denver at a beauty pageant marks an ironic joke made sincere, a way to prove that Logan Lucky has some amount of earnestness. In the wrong hands, the film could be seen as mocking the rural poor—but Soderbergh has a clear affection for them throughout. The working-class white people that populate most of the film are loved because they succeed against capitalist exploitation by outsmarting the lawmen, but Soderbergh also argues these people should be respected because they love their children, and by loving children, they seem to love America. But it could also be a meta-joke (a recursive meta-joke) where the audience can see how corny this conceit is, and the expectation does not surprise. Sentimentality is rewarded, destabilized, and mocked simultaneously.
Whereas Free Fire is tied to a literal, diegetic attempt to refuse taste via historical verisimilitude, and Lucky Logan uses “Country Roads” to ground a genre’s burlesque into sentimentality with a heavily self-aware schtick, Okja’s free form/allegorical moral fable abstracts Denver from these more distinct possibilities. Okja tells the story of a gentle “super pig,” given to six farmers worldwide, by a Monsanto-stand-in, to raise. One of these “super pigs” is raised by a girl in rural Korea. Once the “super pig” is grown, a television wildlife reporter travels to South Korea and tries to bring it to New York, but is interrupted at every turn by a radical animal liberation front. Tilda Swinton plays a CEO running the “super pig operation.” The film spends much of its early time in the pastoral, before moving to Seoul, then New York City, and finally, industrial New Jersey.
In a scene set in Seoul, the “super pig” escapes and causes chaos—a moment of exquisite slapstick, soundtracked to “Annie’s Song.” In this sense, the kitsch sublime of Denver’s pastoralism can be considered to be as artificial as the pig, the underground supermalls of Korea, or the rhetoric of established protest routines and corporate PR. Okja has a distinct lack of sympathy for most of its characters, with the possible exception of the pig, and the return to the pastoral is closer to Reservoir Dogs’ use of Stealers Wheel—except subtler, looser and funnier.
You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
The senses in the mall are certainly filled up, but with too many people, too much chaos, and the unknown genetic engineering of a pig. Nothing is natural in Okja’s surrounding, and Denver’s writing about nature often appears equally false. “Annie’s Song” becomes as hyperreal as the mall, the pig, or the strangeness of Swinton’s severe haircut. The hyperreal becomes a way of destabilizing hyper capital. Like the CMA video—where the history of a space is digitally imposed on country music superstars, singing “Country Roads” while working through a green screen—Denver becomes ideologically convenient.
Watching these three films, in addition to the CMA work, is to understand John Denver’s function as a kind of post-ironic symbol. The quality of Denver’s work—the lushness of his production, and the smoothness of his gentle tones—allows for a quality of being all things to all people. To put it explicitly, being less self-aware of the concessions that critics make to taste means that contemporary auteur-ish filmmakers are contained by irony. And being too self-aware of the ironic means being trapped by a constant discourse of reclaimed authenticity.
In the 1970s, for a wide variety of reasons, Denver’s popularity was resting on a profound earnestness. Kermit called him “one of the good guys of contemporary music” on The Muppet Show—but even then, in a show marked by gags, winking, and a vaudevillian chaos, Denver sings with puppets and it just seems pleasant (and even then, it has its sweetness undercut immediately by Statler and Waldorf). None of the three films I’ve mentioned seem pleasant, and none of them are calming. Denver’s work, then, is both/and rather than neither/nor in relationship to a sincerity whose ideology seems always suspect.
Denver is what critics play when we are unwilling to commit to either sincerity or irony.
Each of these three films, and the music video, are so paratextual, so winking, and so genre mashed up, that they constantly need something to ground them or they might risk being lost in a mush of references or unclear goals. John Denver can ground a film through his musical skill, and by claiming the historical moment.