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You might think progressive-minded social-critic types would cheer a development as unlikely as America’s top male country star releasing a song that pleas for racial understanding, acknowledges the failings of our nation’s founders, and features a black man rapping “Just because my pants are sagging doesn’t mean I’m up to no good.” But no. Yesterday the Internet lost its collective shit upon hearing Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” a song much thornier and more complex than the simpleminded reactions it has stirred. Here are two key contextualizing ideas that the first round of agitated bloggers missed.
1. Today’s country stars are in the reassurance business: Telling white listeners who may feel out of step with the rest of popular culture that they still matter. Telling them that their lifestyles today–isolated from both the city and the farm, shaped by highways and churches and Targets and Wal-Marts–are still wholly bound to that vision of hardworking American greatness that shades memories of their grandparents. Telling them not just that it’s imperative to maintain that vision but that everything in their lives already does so.
Listen to Jason Aldean’s hit “The Only Way I Know.” In defiantly white rap verses that suggest Barney Rubble’s “I’m the master rapper/and I’m here to say,” Aldean, Luke Bryan, and the great Eric Church insist that in their red-dirt farm towns “the first thing you learn/is you don’t get nothing that you don’t earn.” That sentiment is a reassuring yet not exactly persuasive account of life in communities with few jobs and large chunks of the population on food stamps and disability.
2. Brad Paisley challenges his audience, and not necessarily from the right. Paisley is as great a reassurer as anyone in Nashville, and as fine an entertainer as anyone in pop. He’s also an evangelical sort, for the good book, for good times, and for lifelong love, but also for the world outside of songs like “The Only Way I Know.” Obama-era Paisley hits have butted against the country-radio cocoon: “American Saturday Night” cheered immigration, diversity, and the fact that Little Italy is smack-dab next to Chinatown. “Welcome to the Future” is an epic, celebratory blind item, a song swollen up with excitement for the current president–and that shrewdly never quite mentions that president’s name.
A canny hitmaker, Paisley sweetens his off-the-farm enthusiasms with sentiments country radio listeners all can agree upon: In “Welcome to the Future,” he opens with nostalgic memories of Pac-Man and family trips, then toasts his grandpa’s service in the Pacific, all before hinting at anything political. Like any good debate student, he gets his audience nodding along before challenging them. Better still, both songs are killer good.
So, the brave “Accidental Racist”–from his ninth album, Wheelhouse, available today–works the same trick, except maybe for that “killer good” part. (It’s sad that Paisley’s most important song is not one of his strongest.) But its heart is in the right, complex place, no matter how dopey Cool J’s “do-rag/red flag” formulation.
Again, Paisley opens with a scenario his audience will appreciate: An everyday Southern guy (the “I” of the song) discovers that a black barista doesn’t care for the stars-and-bars on his Skynyrd T. That white man tells us–and, presumably, that black man–that “I’m proud of where I’m from/but not everything we’ve done.” He admits that it takes work, sometimes, to understand what it’s like not to be a white man, a theme picked up from Paisley’s current single, the superb “Southern Comfort Zone,” which urges his audience to believe that life will be just fine once demographic shifts have left them “in the minority.”
Eventually, the black man responds, in the heartfelt but terrible rhymes of TV’s LL Cool J. He suggests that people of different races should get a beer and talk about race in America.
Outside of country music, this all might sound trite, condescending, ridiculous: Who needs to “conversate” (as Cool J puts it) about old-school black-and-white in our new post-racial online future? Cool J gives a shout-out to Robert E. Lee, draws a risible equivalence between his own “gold chains” and his ancestors’ “iron chains,” and seems to argue that when it comes to the South’s racial tensions, both black and white folks are equally at fault–all as Paisley reprises “Southern Comfort Zone”‘s appropriation of “Dixie.” That’s dumb, but the impulse is appreciable. Cool J, like Paisley, is a hopeful, conciliatory personality engaged in persuading an audience he fears might not be receptive to him–not Jezebel, but country listeners. After getting everyone nodding, the good debater always acknowledges potential objections.
Paisley and Cool J’s eagerness to reach their target audience makes both sound naive–even pandering–to the broader world. Uncharitable bloggers are howling already, with the usually savvy Jezebel deeming the song “a mournful ballad about how hard it is to be a white man.”
That’s as dismissive a falsehood as saying Biggie only rapped about drugs.
I know a 65-year-old white man from my hometown who was raised by racists, went to school with racists, and, has never once been in the home of a black person. Ten years ago, he mentioned to me that he had recently taken a work-mandated diversity seminar. “I thought it would be bullshit,” he said. “But then I realized that when a black man walks through the mall, everybody is looking at him and thinking ‘There’s a black man.’ I’d never thought of that before.”
Brad Paisley is asking his listeners to think of that. He urges them not to assume the worst about people different from themselves. It’s dispiriting that so many smart progressives online have failed to do for Paisley what Paisley is asking his audience to do to Cool J.
If “Accidental Racist” becomes a single, it will become a hit, and millions of Americans just like that white man I know–and the white man Paisley plays in the song–will soak in it once an hour every hour on every country radio station in America. The song is imperfect, but far from a disaster. Instead, it’s a daring declaration of the new American norm, one that will be sounded out in the precincts where that norm isn’t yet entirely accepted. It’s an exhortation to see all the ways of being beyond “The Only Way I Know.”