It does not matter who you are or where you come from, we have all experienced hard times in our lives. Because music is one tool people use to reflect on the past and process emotion, I've compiled this list of 47 songs to help. So when you're experiencing hard times or if you just need a little pick-me-up, listen here.
These songs are feel-better, keep-going, it-gets-better songs about getting through hard times and overcoming adversity, challenges, and obstacles. I've ranked them according to the strength of their message and the universal applicability/relatability of the music and message. There are a wide range of genres represented here so whether you like pop or country or opera, you'll find something that resonates for you.
I realize that many of these songs could be interpreted as female singers singing about men and relationships (or an implied significant other) which, while empowering, may not necessarily be equally relatable to both men and women or to people whose tough times are not related to relational hardship. But the "you" they sing to could be anything or anyone. Remember, it's the thought that counts with respect to the message! Listen with an open mind and you might realize the words also apply to you.
Dedicate these songs to your hardship, adversity, burden, mountain, or challenge. Sing them to the pains of your soul. Sing to God, the universe, and/or whatever you believe in. Sing to your cat. Sing to whatever you need to, overcome those challenges, and go forward.
I wouldn’t say I came in cocky, but I ate my humble pie anyway. And doing so was transformational, as I gained an enormous respect for country music, country music fans and the history of the music. Getting an inside ticket to the world of country certainly helped, but it was less about the star power aspect than it was about seeing a whole new side of American culture I did not have a clue about before.
That’s when the “everything but country” comment started to bug me. I figured people just weren’t trying, heard Toby Keith on the radio, and changed the station. Still, I couldn’t understand how some of the people I knew who were deeply interested in music like I was couldn’t see the light and recognize the worth of country music.
Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music
Earlier this year, I read a book that was the missing piece of the puzzle for me. University of Michigan Women’s Studies and Music professor Nadine Hubbs wrote a book called Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music in 2014. I bought it on a whim, and it put words and reasons to my discomfort with so many of my peers writing off country music.
“Everything but country and rap” at its core is a class issue. I just needed someone else to say it, and it confirmed why it had been bugging me.
“Is the declaration ‘Anything but country’ really about the music?” Hubbs asked in her book. No, it is most certainly not. And anyone who knows me knows that using pop culture as a window to our bigger world and bigger issues is my favorite thing ever, so you know I was hooked after reading that.
Where there’s class issues, there are race issues. This is no surprise. But that’s where the story of “everything but country and rap” starts: a formal racial division.
Race & Hillbilly Records
When popular recorded music was first able to be distributed and marketed in the 1920s, a decision had to be made. This is the South-- do we keep all of the blues-based music together? That would mean white and black in one category. It was an easy answer at the time: no. This created two, in Hubbs’ words, “racially distinct marketing categories:” hillbilly and race.
The disbelief over Billboard actually publishing a chart called “Race Records” through the 1940s was a big part of rock history, which has its own racial separation issues, although less formal. I never knew, however, that the “Hillbilly” chart was its direct counterpart.
To listeners today, country music is the sound of whiteness as much as hip hop is the sound of blackness. The music industry deciders of the 1920s would be very impressed by this, that their legacy has lived this long. The inequality inherent in our society has fostered these two genres to be sounds of two different groups who have distinct cultures all their own, music included: black Americans and working class white Americans.
“By now, the arbitrary marketing scheme devised by early record industry executives has been institutionalized,” Hubbs writes, “and the two categories of music, known today under the labels of ‘R&B’ and ‘country’ are reified not only in imaginings of country's (true, deep) whiteness, but in ways that are woven throughout American cultural and social life.”
Where Two Extremes Converge
While they seem completely separate, hip hop and country sit on the extremes of the spectrum of popular musical genres, and find themselves subject to many of the same criticisms. This, to me, threw open the door on why “everything but country and rap” is a bigger deal than it seems.
Authenticity is important in both musical communities, both policed inwardly and from outside listeners. Can you be a country singer if you didn’t grow up on a farm? Can you be a rapper if you didn’t grow up on the streets of a big city?
I remember first encountering this argument in Johnny Cash’s Cash: The Autobiography,which I read a few years ago because Johnny Cash epitomizes country to rock fans, so I should probably read that book, right? He said country isn’t truly country anymore, because the singers didn’t grow up picking cotton in the fields like he did. Fair for someone who grew up picking cotton to say, I suppose, but turns out authenticity policing is a form of classism.
Rappers do this, too. Remember the scene in 8 Mile where Eminem is in a rap battle and he saves himself by dissing the other rapper for going to a bougie private school, Cranbrook? It goes over great with the crowd. How can this rapper be real if he studied where Mitt Romney went to school?