I don't watch TV or follow much pop culture, and most of the country music I occasionally listen to is from old albums by the likes of Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss. But this was apparently a big week in country music thanks to Brad Paisley and his new album Wheelhouse. I was on the road on Tuesday, but by the time I was catching up on email early Wednesday morning, I had lots of messages from friends giving me a heads up on the furor associated with Paisley's new song, "Accidental Racist," which includes a cameo from LL Cool J. Commentators have varyingly discussed Paisley and his new song thusly:
In short, as one commentator put it, the song has attracted "an unusual amount of ... sneering." Another called the response "overpowering vitriol."
Eric Weisbard did not sneer in his piece for NPR. His headline references the history of white southern musical identity, and Weisbard touches on biases against the South, as well as white-on-white biases:
As you may have heard, Paisley is sifting through some rubble of his own right now, having been declared a national laughingstock by virtually all commentators coming from outside mainstream country. But then, this condescending dismissal is nothing new. There is a history to "Accidental Racist," the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are.
After all, while the Jim Crow South was Anglo supremacist politically, American culture offered a very different dynamic. Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity. ... Variety loved jazz but scorned the hillbilly in 1926 as " 'poor white trash' genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all to themselves. [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons."
This reminds me of some of the points I made in The Geography of the Class Culture Wars about contemporary bias against Southerners, rural denizens, and the ever burgeoning group of people who get labeled "white trash." I note that various commentators of this Paisley/Cool J duet speak ill of the South in a broad-brush way that is not so different to what Variety had to say nearly a century ago. This has me wondering if Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory," to which many commentators are comparing "Accidental Racist", elicited such ridicule when it was released?
Let me be clear: I do not defend slavery, the historical South, nor the Confederate flag, which I see as necessarily signaling racism. Further, I offer no comments on the artistic merits of "Accidental Racist," the song, though I will admit that this media frenzy about it led to my first country music download ever just so I could have the full musical experience, first hand.
Mark Kemp, too, puts "Accidental Racist" in historical musical perspective and notes regionalism's role in this kerfuffle. Kemp observes that this is "hardly the first time a song by a Southerner dealing with white blue-collar issues has produced strong reactions among the Northeastern-based media."
Weisbard's piece goes on to comment on the "choices" available to southern white musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, choices that may not have changed much:
They could embrace black music and contemporary life and cross over, like former Texan Janis Joplin. They could go bluegrass singing the Carter Family's now revived "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." Or they could join the notion of regional separatism to new concepts of identity: In songs by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, that great euphemism, country, became something you could be proud of like James Brownwas proud to be black.
I find this recognition of "country" (rurality?) as identity interesting, encouraging--and authentic. (Describing "country" as euphemistic is similarly insightful).
Which brings to my single favorite commentary on "Accidental Racist," from NYT's "Room for Debate" series about the song. (Yep, that's right, this little ol' country song was the topic of Room for Debate forum a few days ago, which might be seen as progress for both shunned rural whites and for blacks). One of the commentators, novelist Will Shetterly, makes the point that Paisley and Cool J didn't write or perform this song for the liberal elites who have responded to it in mostly sneering ways. In a contribution headlined, "Why Elites Hate this Duet," Shetterly writes of the song's many failings--from the perspective of elites/elitists, that is:
The song’s first sin is it’s earnest. There’s no irony to please hipsters.
Its second sin is it’s about members of the U.S.’s racially and regionally divided working class, a southern white Lynyrd Skynyrd fan in a Confederate battle flag T-shirt and a northern black rapper in a do-rag, gold chains and sagging pants. This song wasn’t made for, by or about people who consider themselves the cultural elite, and elitists hate the idea of being irrelevant, especially in a discussion of an issue as important as race.
Its third sin is featuring a rap artist. Many elitists hate rap as much as they hate country, though they don’t like to admit it for fear of appearing racially insensitive.
* * *
Elitists are too smug to consider the possibility that a person from a culture may know it better than they do, so they make easy jokes about “Accidental Racist” being “accidentally racist”.
I like this affirming comment on Shetterly's post, from one who identifies himself as a "liberal elitist":
As a private-school-educated, deep blue liberal elitist, I find I agree with Mr. Shetterly, and in fact said a similar thing about Mr. Coates's piece just the other day. Let's be frank: this song isn't for me and mine. It's for a totally different audience. The problem with people like me is that we want important issues like race and poverty discussed, but only in the way we think is appropriate. We want to set the tone of every conversation. Then we laugh at or scorn guys like these, who take on the same subject in a different way. There are an awful lot of people out there who didn't go to Harvard, yet could greatly benefit from being party to a real conversation about race. However ham-handed it may be, I think there is real good intent behind this song, on the parts of both Paisley and L.L. Cool J, and I hope it does reach their intended audiences.
This, from NPR's Code Switch bloggers, is more typical of the (quasi-)scorn being heaped on Paisley, Cool J and their single:
Most folks, though, seemed to agree that it was at least a well-intentioned, if cringeworthy, gesture. Which we see a lot of in conversations about race, right?
Luis Clemens, our editor, was pretty adamant that this was some kind of elaborate joke. "This is all an elaborate and knowing gag meant to provoke a real conversation about race unlike the pseudo-discussion in the song," he said. "Think of it as a Derridean act of derring-do."
But nope — Paisley and LL insist that it's the real thing. So if it's a well-intentioned mess, aren't their intentions a little dubious?
MT: There's probably a mix of intentions, at work, right? I mean, Mr. Paisley and Mr. Cool James had to know that there was going to be a reaction. A lot of reaction. You don't tread into 'Solve Racism' Land lightly. Paisley's tweet yesterday indicated as much.
So you can take it at face value, and many folks did: this is a serious effort to bridge cultures, to extend a hand and try to embrace someone else's humanity.
I can't resist coming back to this conclusion of Shetterly's piece:
[I]f you think “Accidental Racist” is racist, accidentally or intentionally, read a few comments at a white supremacy site like Stormfront. So long as they call Paisley a race traitor, he and LL Cool J are doing exactly what the elitists claim they want: furthering the conversation about race in the U.S.A.
For a commentator calling Cool J a race traitor, look no further than this Room for Debate contribution by M.K. Asante.
Mark Kemp asserts that Paisley's accidental racist in the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt is not necessarily Paisley himself. No, that man is arguably just a persona that Paisley (who, according to some commentators, is known for his "left-wing" views), has adopted for purposes of prompting a discussion about race. If Kemp is right, maybe there's a bit of irony or something akin to it in this song after all. Or maybe the irony is in the knee jerk responses of those who have missed this point.
I can't help think of the firestorm "Accidental Racist" has wrought this week in relation to Shirley Sherrod
, the former USDA official who was unceremoniously fired in 2010 after Andrew Brietbart publicized an out-of-context video excerpt in which she hinted at having failed to assist a poor white farmer. (That was, in fact, not the case.) Matt Bai observed
then the "depressingly familiar pattern in American life, in which anyone who even tries to talk about race risks public outrage and humiliation." Paisley and Cool J seem to be providing another example of that sad phenomenon.