America's Got Talent is watched by around 10 million people a week. On Tuesday, Jimmy Rose, a former coal miner and Iraq War vet, appeared on the show to sing an original song, "Coal Keeps the Lights On":
This is an extraordinary cultural artifact, for all sorts of reasons. There are lessons in here for social change agents in general and climate hawks in particular.
First off: It is genuinely affecting! Not least because Jimmy Rose has the kind of deep Appalachian accent and adenoidal, high-lonesome voice you don't hear much in country music these days. It brings to mind lots of other amazing music out of that tradition. And of course lyrics about a hard-working man watching over his family can hardly fail to tug the heartstrings, even if "clothes on their back and shoes on their feet" might not be the most original turn of phrase. He sells it.
But the segment also draws a great deal of power from the larger narratives and tropes it evokes. It's pure Americana: Rose served in the military, which makes him an object of instant, bipartisan adoration in the post-9/11 world. He's got the twang. He's got Pineville, Ky., which to these hyper-groomed L.A. judges might as well be another planet. He's got the anti-style haircut and the fish-out-of-water family. He's got a dream. And he's got a history as a coal miner. It's all of a piece.
What's fascinating to me, and significant for climate hawks, is how the coal mining piece fits into that larger tapestry.
On the show, before he starts singing, Rose emphasizes twice how dangerous coal mining is -- even says he joined the Marines and deployed to Iraq to escape it. Yet the implicit message is not that coal mining is a crappy job or that coal companies are neglectful, inconsiderate employers. Instead the job is presented as a kind of heroism: Rose went underground, put himself in danger, so that he could feed his family and keep the lights on for the rest of us. It's a kind of national service, an analogue to his stint in the military: These are the guys who work and suffer so that the rest of us can live in luxury. Heroes. It's powerful stuff, clearly enough to get the crowd rooting for him.
Why does coal mining evoke these kinds of feelings? One obvious explanation is that working-class guys are taking a battering all over the country, not just in Appalachia. Coal mining is hard, dangerous work, but it's honest work, available to anyone willing to do it, and it can -- or could -- support a family. Those kinds of jobs have been steadily disappearing for decades. Now America is a land of knowledge workers and service workers, ever-increasing inequality and ever-decreasing social mobility. That kind of economy can work, at least for a while, for large urban areas with lots of knowledge workers to service, but it's hell on places like Pineville (or Detroit) that relied entirely on decent-paying working-class jobs. Lots of people around the country understand the anger and loss in places like eastern Kentucky even if they don't share all the cultural signifiers.