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Christa Anne Bentley

Christa Anne Bentley is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is completing her dissertation through the Royster Society of Fellows. Christa researches the politics of popular music, and her dissertation looks at the ways the singer-songwriter movement in Los Angeles intersected with social movements during the 1970s. Her fieldwork in Los Angeles has led to collaborative work with the Grammy Museum and her current internship with the Bluegrass Situation, in addition to a chapter in the upcoming Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter.

“‘For Everyman’: Singer-Songwriters, Anti-Vietnam Protests, and the Sensitive Male”
In the summer of 1967, pop music critic Paul Nelson prophesied, “The world is shrinking to a point now where the whisper and caress may replace the pen and the sword.” These words, penned in Sing Out! magazine, predated the catastrophic events of 1968, including the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon. Indeed, the cultural turmoil in the United States that characterized the late 1960s necessitated a new volume. But, like Nelson suggested, often this anxiety and protest was musically articulated through softly sung personal narratives instead of noisy confrontations.

This paper looks to the whispered introspection of the contemporary singer-songwriter movement as a window into the changing relationship between citizens and their nation during the Vietnam War. Shifting conceptions of military service as one’s civilian duty required the elevation of the individual in opposition to one’s nation. Furthermore, this change in attitude affected constructions of masculinity, in which one did not need to fight to “be a man.” I look at the voices of white male singer-songwriters as articulations of this political stance and new gendered identity, embodying the “sensitive male” and speaking for the demographic that typically engaged such protests. I focus on three artists—Jackson Browne, John Denver, and Jesse Winchester—as examples of the individual contesting the silent majority, the conservative regime that dictated U.S. policies at home and abroad. Drawing on oral histories and musical analysis, my argument considers how the musical genre focuses listener attention on the voice of the artist and theorizes the ways that contemporary audiences understood the voice as expressive of the self. Such an analysis contributes a new understanding of invocations of protest, reframing sung self-narration as a highly politicized form of communication during the Nixon Era.

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