Brad Paisley, a pop country musician, is stirring up more press on progressive newsites and blogs than probably ever before with his and LL Cool J’s collaborative “Accidental Racist.” As a country music fan and a student of critical race theory, I’m pretty disappointed in the reception the song is getting.
It’s not a great song, musically. And it is not a dissertation for a critical race theory phD. But anyone who is judging it on those grounds completely and willfully fails to understand the climate in which this song is being introduced. Country music has become so increasingly nativist that you could listen to an uninterrupted hour on your local station in which song after song would proclaim messages of pride for the singer’s small backwoods, the certainty that cities are inferior, that all you need to know is in your Bible, that anyone different is not wanted, that their kids aren’t like our kids, and that we will “stick a boot in your ass because it’s the American way.” There is one Black artist in all of pop country-land (Hootie now without the Blowfish), and you can bet he does not sing about race. Into this context comes popular singer Brad Paisley’s earlier songs like “American Saturday Night,” boldly subversive because he dared subtly state that we are a nation of immigrant influences, and even crazier his “Welcome to the Future,” which references the KKK and with awe welcomes our first Black president. He now dares go further and start a conversation — that’s it, a starting conversation — to actually acknowledge race, racism, slavery, and racial conflict and tension, with the collaboration with respected if slightly out of date Black rapper LL Cool J. In explaining this song to Ellen DeGeneres, Paisley said “I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but there’s some racial tension,” a simple statement that our own first Black president has had to backtrack from, because acknowledging racism refutes the compromise with the right that we pretend to be a “post-racial” society.
It’s not just that people are criticizing this for not doing a great job at what it sets out to do. It’s that the condemnation is so swift from those of us who should want these issues addressed that we are essentially chilling the conversation. Anyone who thinks that Eric Church and Talib Kweli are now going to do a country duet about reparations lives on another planet. Meanwhile, what’s drifting back to the (probably irate and certainly ruffled) white country base is the message that they shouldn’t even bother to try to approach the issues because we’ll just attack them, and that’s why they should just stick to what they know, which is cornbread and chicken, blonde-haired blue-eyed girls, church on Sundays. No more trying to talk to those Black baristas, as Paisley’s song imagines; you don’t get it, so don’t try.
I get that people are interpreting LL Cool J’s line “If you forgive my gold chains I’ll forgive your iron chains” as creating a ridiculous equivalent, and if that’s what it’s meant to do I agree. But this song doesn’t strike me as a “I’m black, you’re white, that’s history, let’s forget it, kumbaya” type of song, and I think anyone rushing to judgment on that should listen more carefully. I hear Paisley acknowledging that he’s coming across as racist and that he’s uncomfortable with the racist legacy associated with the South. Yankees tend to react with horror to the Confederate flag, and I’m no exception, but we also learned the victor’s version of the Civil War which, frankly, was not all about good intentioned Northerners trying to end the evils of slavery. Southern revisionist historians do have some good points to make. But I digress. I also hear LL Cool J saying that his automatic reaction to the cowboy hat is fear, and I don’t then hear any indication that either singer believes that’s stupid and he should get over it. This song is not pretending it’s all good and we should move on. As Paisley sings, “We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells.”
The critics aren’t demanding, as some claim, that this “come from a place of honesty.” They’re demanding that Brad Paisley not talk about race at all until he’s fully immersed in critical race theory, and maybe not even then. And demanding silence from people beginning to learn and question and speak is not a good way to bring them along further. We are telling Brad Paisley, “You don’t get it, so shut up.”
So I’d ask everyone who is now skewering Brad Paisley and LL Cool J because their 5 minute pop song doesn’t fully and completely discuss the racist legacy of this country and how that affects us today, how is your condemnation moving the conversation forward? (And also, I’d ask you to listen to a pop country station for a few hours. Seriously.)