The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator

Leigh H. Edwards

Florida State University
Professor of English
Dolly Parton in the Pandemic: New Constructions of Authenticity and Transmedia Storytelling

This paper examines why Dolly Parton has emerged as such a resonant artist in the COVID-19 pandemic, with press coverage of her calling her a “patron saint” who has tried to save the world with her early funding for the Moderna vaccine, as “the great uniter” in a period of political division in the U.S., and as a still incredibly prolific artist, with releases including a single about the pandemic, “When Life is Good Again” (2020), Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas (2020) and televised holiday concert special, and her memoir Songteller (2020). Using historicized textual analysis and cultural theory, I argue that in this pandemic time, Parton has amplified her own projection of her version of “authenticity” in a way that speaks to how current popular culture responds to constructions of authenticity that can account for both sincerity and a knowingness about mass culture commodification.

I argue that she has also amplified her own transmedia storytelling, using her autobiographical narratives and sincerity projection as the content for her carefully coordinated storytelling and branding across multiple media platforms. Parton’s transmedia storytelling during this time includes a new Christmas film for which she wrote fourteen new songs, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square (2020, Netflix), and her YouTube series for children, “Goodnight with Dolly,” where she reads bedtime stories to kids in the pandemic, part of her literacy project, The Imagination Library.

I demonstrate that Parton’s construction of authenticity in this context amplifies even further how Parton, as I have argued in my book, Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music, (2018), embraces both sides of the country music genre’s authenticity binary, the fantasy of folk culture purity versus supposedly “fallen” manufactured mass culture, in a way that questions that binary and illuminates the on-going power of authenticity narratives in popular music.

Leigh H. Edwards (Professor of English, Florida State University) authored the books Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music (Indiana University Press, 2018, Foreword Book of the Year), Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity (2009), The Triumph of Reality TV:  The Revolution in American Television (2013), and edited The Dolly Parton Reader (2021). Published in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Southern Cultures, FLOW, JPC, others. Institute for Bob Dylan Studies board.