If you want to get a real, tangible sense of America — the America that the national mainstream media tends to forget — I highly recommend regularly skimming some of the big stories published by the very local, non-mainstream media in towns far from Manhattan and D.C.
Such as the Auburn Journal (front-page headline one day last week: “Highway 49 set for upgrade: two new stoplights, bike lanes on horizon”) of Auburn, Calif. (population 13,963). Or the Dothan Eagle (“Hopes high for 2017 local peanut harvest”) of Dothan, Ala. (pop. 65,496). Or the Herald & Review (“Schools fret over funding”) of Decatur, Ill. (pop. 76,122). Or The Telegraph (“Col. Drew takes command of 78th airbase wing at Robins”) of Macon, Ga. (pop. 92,582). Or the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (“State approves exploratory drilling near Yellowstone”) of Bozeman, Mont. (pop. 45,250). Or the Arizona Daily Star (“Football field at Tucson High is off-limits after flooding”).
I also recommend checking out a new Apple Music commercial.
I suspect that when you think of Apple ads you picture some combination of ridiculously seductive product porn and uber-cool endorsers — from Canadian indie darling Feist for the iPod back in 2010 (remember the impossibly infectious “1234”?) to, earlier this year, Lil Buck defying gravity for Air Pods as he danced down a street to Marian Hill’s “Down,” a gorgeous, moody synthpop-R&B number.
Awesome artists and awesome music, but arguably as elite/elitist — to speak in blunt cultural/political terms — as the Apple brand itself.
Enter country star Brantley Gilbert and his new Apple Music commercial. It debuted during NASCAR racing on NBC, and you can also watch it above. Directed by Anthony Mandler, the black-and-white, cinematic-style spot opens with Gilbert standing alone in a farm field as we hear him in voiceover: “I love the feeling out here. The freedom. The simplicity. The open road.” We see him touch “recently played” on his iPhone screen and then, as his song “The Ones That Like Me” starts up, we see Gilbert and his buddies motorcycling across that open road in and around Leiper’s Fork, Tenn.
There’s more voiceover: “This is my home. No matter where I go, my heart stays here. My friends, my family, this country. … My country, my people …” And there’s more music: Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” With the exception of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” which also briefly plays, it’s as heartland-y as you can get. The visuals — an American flag draped on the side of a weathered barn waving in the wind, Gilbert and his biker buddies rumbling over a railroad crossing, a motorcycle carving circles in the dirt — underscore the gritty Americana feel.
There’s nothing overtly political about the ad, but to me the subtext reads as This is Trump Country — and Gilbert’s fan base surely overlaps with President Trump’s political base. (In 2015, Gilbert made a stir on Instagram by sharing a photo of his latest ink: a huge tattoo of two pistols on his upper back plus the words of the Second Amendment — “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” — over his entire lower back.)
In fact, the ad sort of had me flashing back to driving through rural Ohio last August (albeit in a rental car) to get to Cleveland to cover Donald Trump’s coronation at the Republican National Convention. The heartland-Harley symbolism was the same (an omnipresent group called Bikers for Trump rolled through Cleveland to protect their candidate from “left-wing agitators”), the “my country” rhetoric was the same, the music was even the same (the RNC soundtrack was classic rock and country).
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s big win last November, shocked members of the mainstream media made a lot of noise about trying to find new ways to seek out and connect with the “forgotten” men and women of the heartland who propelled Trump to the White House. The media elites missed the Trump Revolution, they (correctly) realized, because they were too focused on the coasts bracketing “flyover country,” too trapped in their own media-industrial-complex filter bubbles.
Fast-forward to right now: What’s changed in terms of how the national media sees non-coastal America? Not much, really. For all its hand-wringing, Big Media is still wildly out of touch with the kind of consumer/persona celebrated in that Brantley Gilbert Apple Music ad. The MSM, which has collectively dived deep down the Trump-Russia rabbit hole, has already re-forgotten the “forgotten.”
And here I come full circle to the local, non-mainstream media in towns far from Manhattan and D.C. A few weeks back, Dave Boucher of The Tennessean newspaper filed a story, headlined “In Trump country, Russia scandal doesn’t resonate,” from Waynesboro — about a 90-minute drive from Leiper’s Fork. Boucher talked to still-loyal Trump voters, including the owner of Mike’s Cycle and Marine, “who isn’t losing sleep over the scrutiny of President Trump’s ties to Russia,” and a local Republican Party chairwoman, who really can’t imagine what it would take for her to turn on Trump (“I don’t know what he would have to do … I guess maybe kill someone. Just in cold blood”).
My country, my people. Trump’s country, Trump’s people.
Good luck spending much time with them through the mainstream media. But for now you can see them in, go figure, an Apple Music ad.
Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.