That Jason Aldean song, and the art of weaponizing silence in small-town America

I grew up in a small town in rural Southern Ohio, and like so many LGBTQ+ people, I often feel I escaped from something I can’t quite define but can instantly recognize when I meet people with similar backgrounds. Because while I am from a small town, I’m not sure I was ever of “that same small town,” to quote the OG John Mellencamp small-town song.

Jason Aldean didn’t actually grow up in a small town, though he sang defiantly about leaving one that sucked in his 2018 lament “Rearview Town.” The MAGA darling hit screaming up the charts, “Try That in a Small Town,” written by someone else, doesn’t speak to his personal experience, either, but he’s got the story right, according to the Very Loud People of the Internet. And maybe his screed does get it right, for certain people in certain small towns. But as someone born and raised just outside a town of 850 people, a place where my progressive-minded parents were constantly getting ahead of the things I’d hear in the back of the bus every day, I’m here to tell you he doesn’t get it right for those of us who didn’t align with the “you ain’t from around here” crowd.

My small-town hometown is quaint, quiet, and very friendly, as long as you’re not making waves. When I was growing up, you could fly under the radar as long as you kept your mouth shut when good ole boy behavior happened, like the n-word being used liberally behind closed doors or date rape being incredibly common. And maybe that sentiment and those behaviors aren’t exclusive to small towns, but once you’re branded as a slut or a (gasp!) queer person in a small town, your story is written and the consequences are immediate and forever. There’s an irony in how big the megaphone is, the smaller the town.

But I was a good, quiet girl and, for the most part, I went unnoticed, which was fine by me. I’d love to think that if I knew then what I know now, I’d have never kept my mouth shut when a friend told me her boyfriend, a kid in our Spanish II class, had held her down and raped her in his car after a football game. I’d have delivered some kind of cinematic monologue on race relations and embracing LGBTQ+ people right in the center of the cafeteria (to wild applause, no doubt).

But I did nothing. Essentially, all of us who knew better in that small town did exactly nothing.

So it’s maybe not a surprise that the people dishing out the abuse and the racism and the queerphobia continue to feel emboldened and that their behaviors have continued devolving and festering into something that feels almost like a parody. And maybe it’s not shocking that these people feel so shocked, themselves, that the wider world out there isn’t buying what they’re selling. It’s shocking to discover, perhaps, that even though all the people around you seem completely fine with your 1950s viewpoints, that much of the rest of the world has woken up to the fact that every person deserves agency, even the ones denigrated for so long and so deeply that it’s become part of the actual culture in some small towns.

What I do know for sure is that my fellow classmate Bobby likely wouldn’t identify with some of these small-town people out here on TikTok, the ones sobbing that the Aldean song proves “someone gets us.” Bobby was sweet, way more stylish than most of us (probably more than most of our county), and he had an instantly recognizable affectation that put him squarely in the crosshairs of our high school bullies. It was nothing to hear him openly called a faggot, including in front of smirking teachers (many of whom grew up there, too). And being gay — even closeted but assumed — was about the worst thing you could be in our small town in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The kids I found out later who were also queer had stayed safely in the closet.

Bobby may have fared better than the one Black kid I recalled joining our school district for less than a year before his family essentially fled in the night. And probably a bit better than the family that had crosses burned in their lawn in the next town over for harboring a teenage daughter who, rumor had it, had dated a Black kid (“from the city!” no less). But the taunting often turned physical, and as far as I know, Bobby got far away as soon as he could. Lots of us did, and it wasn’t the economy, as much as many conservatives like to claim.

Bad things happen everywhere, but it would be missing a compelling part of the narrative to pretend like what happened to, as one example among many, Matthew Shepard, didn’t happen in rural Wyoming. When he “tried that” (“that” meaning “literally existing as a gay man”) in a townie bar in Cheyenne, they showed him, all right. It’s similar to what happened to Brandon Teena, Billy Jack Gaither, Roxanne Ellis and her partner Michelle Abdill, Army Private First Class Barry Winchell and the list goes on. All targeted for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community over the past few decades in small places where that’s all it took to become a target. No doubt, there were good, quiet people living in those towns, too.

It’s a very bad ’80s movie vibe, this look back. A moment frozen in time that I feel wholly disconnected from in 2023, mom to two queer children and decades of introspection behind me that make it very clear that had I grown up away from this place, I’d have realized long before I did who I really am, myself.

There’s no room for self-exploration when self-preservation means survival, and that’s what can happen in small towns where the “you ain’t from around here, are you?” mentality goes unchallenged — when all the quiet folks are assumed to be in agreement and who allow their towns to go unchecked for breeding and bleeding hate for the perceived Other. Aldean isn’t singing about a perceived threat by outsiders who want to take on small-town folks just living peacefully. He’s singing about a threat to a way of life that doesn’t fly in much of the country in 2023 for some very good reasons. This year, we saw a record-breaking number of Pride festivals organized by young adults in small towns across Pennsylvania and the nation, often drawing ire from local officials and residents alike. Perhaps Gen Z isn’t buying what Aldean is selling, either. Maybe this generation will be defined by gathering up the strength to stop being quiet and to shine a spotlight on ugly, long-overlooked behavior.