Toby Keith and the American Way

Shock and awe at Shoreline.

To properly dip tobacco, take a decent-size pinch, tuck it as deep as you can into the space between your gum and your lower lip, and let it stay there until — I’m paraphrasing here — you feel the fiberglass and menthol literally burning a hole in your face. Spit as necessary.

This advice comes from a group of nineteen- and twenty-year-old guys from Fremont, and it is delivered between alternately bellowed and whispered discussion about the various activities they’d like to engage in with the young women filing past them. (Nearly all of this talk employs a string of words that can’t be printed in a newspaper — not even this one — but feel free to use your imagination.)

They, along with 18,000 or so other people, have come to the Shoreline Amphitheatre for the Bay Area stop of Toby Keith’s “Locked and Loaded” tour, which is swiftly shaping up to be one of the more memorable things you’ll see around here. Shoreline — which already kind of feels like a county fair, what with the big-top style tent and wide walkways — has been rendered a full-on rodeo: long lines snake out of the bathroom and onto the concrete, the country music station KRTY has set up a gleaming prize wheel, and, all around, cowboy-hatted people clutch comically large beers and $14 margaritas. The walkway is choked with bodies, with tables hawking concert gear and, somewhat incongruously, a pair of women selling New York Times subscriptions from a tent. A wayward piece of Xeroxed paper fluttering around like a tumbleweed informs us that TOBY IS PHASING IN MADE IN AMERICA MERCH; we understand that we’re supposed to be relieved to hear this. A girl who looks like she can’t be older than ten wears a T-shirt that proudly and neonly declares that “[her] ass is made in America,” and a few feet away, two self-described Keith obsessives only slightly older than her clutch each other, apparently overcome by emotion. Everywhere is cutoff shorts and cowboy boots. Average age: 21. Average degree of sobriety: zero. Number of people seen wearing confederate flag T-shirts: two. Remember, we’re still right here in the Bay Area. It’s a sight to behold.

After all that, the show itself was always going to be secondary to the people-watching. And anyway, to describe the Toby Keith experience in terms of songs or set lists would be to miss the point entirely. It all sounds the same, for one — not bad, necessarily, just middling, country-fried party anthems about the pleasures of beer and trucks and horses and women and various combinations thereof. Besides, any act that’s big enough to play a venue like Shoreline is bound to have been discussed to death — and Keith, especially, by virtue of a very public feud with the Dixie Chicks and a seemingly insatiable impulse for shit-starting. At this point, he’s less a singer than a symbol — for either a) all the single-minded jingoism and boot-in-your-ass aggression and dumbed-down musicianship that makes mainstream country radio nearly intolerable these days, or b) a sort of folksy, feel-good, imminently listenable, pop-inflected country that celebrates America in all its simple joys and ineffable glory. Choose your own adventure, but chances are you already have. At shows like this, the die has been cast, the win-overables already unimpeachably won over and everyone else somewhere else. People don’t drive out to Mountain View and spend $40-$518 on concert tickets unless they’re already fans. Big shows like this are not about surprises; they’re about giving the die-hards what they want.

In this case, apparently: extreme patriotism. To see Toby Keith live is, above all, to be keenly aware of your nationality. Yes, the man who is perhaps best known for the hyper-patriotic stadium jammer “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American),” is, indeed, an American, an angry one, and it seemed like everything about last Friday’s show was designed to remind us of this fact. He began his set with a shower of sparks and an ultra-amplified truck engine sound effect, and the rest of the show was equally larded with literalist American iconography: Keith thanked the troops too many times to count, hastened to mention that his mic was foreign-made when it briefly malfunctioned, and was backed the entire time by a massive screen displaying boilerplate American imagery — stars and stripes floating around in abstract patterns, stock footage of tailgate parties and trucks. Not exactly subtle, but remember, this is the same man who came out with an album called Shock’n Y’all less than a year after the invasion of Iraq, and who continues, at fifty, to churn out songs with names like “Who’s Your Daddy?”, “Beer For My Horses,” “Big Ol’ Truck,” and “Whiskey Girl.” Subtlety is not his game — and nor would we ever want it to be.

And at any rate, mission accomplished, and only two songs in: “He’s so American,” a young woman said, sounding awestruck, to her boyfriend. Taken in context, that’s a tremendous compliment. To say that Keith is American is to praise him more highly than you could by saying he’s a good musician (which he isn’t), or that he has good stage presence (which he does, though possibly just by virtue of pyrotechnics). Here, America is a stand-in for something else — authenticity, quality, showmanship — though no one could quite put a finger on it. “I don’t know, he’s just a true American,” said John from San Jose, attempting to explain his fandom.

That’s the thing: Outsiders/pundits/alt-weekly music critics are eager to freight Keith — and country music in general — with all kinds of culture-wars implications, but what unfolded at Shoreline was a complicated — and surprisingly apolitical — kind of patriotism. The Times ladies said they were actually having better luck than they usually do; one of the boys from Fremont engaged in a remarkably insightful discussion about congressional politics between half-yelled suggestions about assorted things he’d like to do with/to/for me; and an informal poll of lawn-sitters indicated that about a third had voted for Obama in the last election, another third had voted for McCain, and the final third were some variation on Ron Paul-libertarian or — more commonly — hadn’t been old enough to vote in 2008. Sure, Keith has (regrettably!) turned himself into a caricature of post-9/11 middle-American machismo, and his fans at Shoreline gleefully plumbed every country-western motif they could find, in both dress and behavior, for better and usually for worse. But there’s a sense of performance to all of it: They’re wasted and angry and occasionally offensive, but these people aren’t idiots — they’re just acting like it.

Anyway, they ate it up, screaming and singing and occasionally crying as Keith ran through a singles-heavy set that was altogether decent — generally exciting in a big budget/bright lights/ loud noises/explosions kind of way — though largely unmemorable musically. Remember: It’s about giving the die-hards what they want.

The encore was, of course, “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” — played on nothing less than an American flag-bedecked guitar, brought out fresh for the finale, and surrounded by none other than real-life troops, fatigue-ed and stoic. At the end, the crowd erupted into a rumbling chant: U-S-A! U-S-A! Then the floodlights come on, and all the whiskey boys and girls stumbled down the ramps and into the colossal Shoreline parking lot, the men beer-drenched and tired, the women shivering in their cutoffs in the dark and the fog. And they drove home to Fremont or San Jose or Oakland, presumably raving the whole way about all the shock and awe and sheer Americanness they’d just witnessed. Earlier that evening, the United States received its worst credit rating ever, and the next day, we would see the biggest single-day death toll in the ten-year history of the war in Afghanistan.

The dipping tobacco was fucking disgusting, by the way.

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