Monday, December 16, 2013

Accidental Racism

Brad Paisley, the Irony of “Accidental Racist”, and the Danger of Thinking Outside Your Station.

I have enjoyed Brad Paisley’s music for a long time. My parents discovered country music when I was in middle school, so I was often exposed to it in the car, and his songs stuck out because of their genuine humor, their wit, and his guitar playing. He didn’t write anything that left the country wheelhouse, but he went about it with more creativity than most. My appreciation of his work increased with my interest in music, and codified when he released American Saturday Night in 2009. That was the album that launched him from successful country musician to a superstar, and deservedly so. Within the realm of popular music, it’s kind of a masterpiece.
Several different aspects of Paisley’s music, which had been hinted at here and there on previous albums, bloomed with American Saturday Night. His guitar playing was out in full, astonishing force, the songs were varied in subject and style, and he wasn’t limiting himself to the acceptable norms of a popular country artist at the time. From the standpoint of ethos, the most important song on the album was the title track, a song about multiculturalism that disguised itself as being about a night out on the town. Songs about multiculturalism, be they positive or negative, are not anything new. Gogol Bordello have been mining that vein for a long time. Doing it in the context of a mainstream country song, though, that was something else.
It’s genuinely not fair to say that all people who listen to country music are close-minded Republicans who think that the border with Mexico should look like a highway sound barrier with barbed wire on top. It’s really not. The fan base for country music is far too large, and far too diverse for that to be anything resembling a fair statement. However, there is a certain truth to the idea that country, on the whole, has a more conservative audience, and up until recently, its music and artists played to that. Within the last five years, and particularly this year, there has been a slow but steady shift in the ideology presented by mainstream country music, and a lot of that shift can be traced back to the song “American Saturday Night”. While the music itself never espoused ideas along the lines of “build a wall” or “they took our jobs!”, the music was always well ensconced in a world where those values were defacto. You had the odd “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue”[1], or “I’m Proud to Be an American”, but on the whole the ideals were accepted through ignorance of the alternatives. Now songs like Miranda Lambert’s “All Kinds of Kinds”, which makes explicit reference to the acceptance, even necessity, of cross-dressers, gay people, and immigrants, are not only entering the country charts, but dominating them[2].
American Saturday Night did not cause a massive, overnight shift in country music, and it seems Paisley felt this, because his next album, This Is Country Music, while still showcasing his craft, humor, and personality, seemed to be a retreat back into the inner sanctum. The title track is a song expounding the virtues of traditional country music, and what it does for people. “Old Alabama” is about driving with a girlfriend and listening to Alabama, the epitome of traditional popular country. The album had the same astonishing musicality, but it wasn’t trying to expand. It was comfortable sitting in the envelope, instead of pushing against the edges. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but after the promise of American Saturday Night, it was a let-down.
Based on the evidence of this year’s Wheelhouse, Paisley also found it unfulfilling. This is an incredibly ambitious album. While my opinions about its ultimate quality are mixed, it’s impossible to listen to it without being impressed by what he’s tried to do. In the end, your opinion may depend on how much you value the concept of a work over the execution. Musically, it reaches from Kinksian pop to stadium rock. There’s a guitar instrumental inspired, at least in part, by Ennio Morricone. “Southern Comfort Zone” welds the aforementioned stadium rock with a church choir.  The main hook to “Beat This Summer” has more than a little hip-hop to it. And, most importantly, Brad Paisley the progressive lyricist has come back. With a vengeance.
At times, Paisley’s considerable abilities are perfectly matched with his ideological ambitions. “Southern Comfort Zone” is “American Saturday Night”’s older, worldlier brother, a song about needing to travel the world and experience the unfamiliar. It is so cunningly disguised as a stock Southern Nostalgia song that I read a review faulting it for being an unremarkable one. “Karate” deals with domestic violence, in the form of funny, light revenge porn. Other times, however, his ambitions, be they musical or thematic, get a bit ahead of his pen, and, this time, he received a lot of flack for it.
“Accidental Racist” is Paisley’s attempt to deal with unintentional racism, or passive racism. It’s certainly a legitimate subject for a song, and it’s even a brave one, for country music or otherwise. How many mainstream artists can you think of who have written songs that deal directly with the idea of racism, and are not from the perspective of someone who’s a victim of it? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. It’s an issue fraught with complications, presuppositions, sensitivities, and god knows what else. Paisley was, if not openly criticized for the idea behind the song, at least derided for the quality of the execution, which, to be fair, is pretty terrible. The music is bland, the rapping section is well-intentioned but trite, and the lyrics are very poorly thought through. They are, themselves, racist. The man who walks into the Starbucks, with his cowboy hat and Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, is a caricature of the white south, and the black man behind the counter, with his pants sitting low, his doo rag, and his gold chains, is a caricature of inner city black people[3].
The lyrics make any number of mistakes outside of the cursory treatment of the individuals involved. This has all been covered before, by other people, and I don’t wish to spend much time on it, but lines like “If you forgive the gold chains,/ then I’ll forgive the iron chains” are so fundamentally misguided in their conception that it’s easy to dismiss the song in its entirety. I’m also not advocating its existence as a listening experience, but I do think Mr. Paisley deserves a substantial amount of credit for attempting to start what is a very difficult conversation, even while unintentionally fueling the very fire he is attempting to discuss.
It’s easy to dismiss Paisley as just another privileged white male, who doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about, but I would argue that the best reason to discuss something is because you don’t understand it and you want to. He also deserves more credit, yes, more, for joining that conversation as a wealthy white male living in the United States, and for doing it from his own perspective. We have a problem in this country where we immediately dismiss anyone who’s not on the disadvantaged end of an argument. I’m a white male, and often feel that others believe I couldn’t possibly have anything productive to say about racism, or sexism. If you are at all aware of the world around you, it is incredibly difficult to say to someone, “God, I’m sorry, I really never realized that the flag on this shirt would offend you.” That requires admitting you were, if not wrong, then at least oblivious, requires admitting that you have hurt somebody else, and requires you to reevaluate things about yourself! That’s huge! And, again, Brad Paisley deserves a lot of credit for even thinking about going out on that limb in the first place. That he did a poor job and fell is very unfortunate. That song could have been important if it had been done well. Its botched execution shouldn’t take away from the fact that the man is trying to have a difficult discussion a lot of people need to have, but aren’t. And the response to the song will only continue to prevent people from trying again in the future.

[1] Really a phenomenal piece of work if you ignore the wider implications of the lyric.
[2] Two interesting conversations, about whether or not the country audience was ever actually as close-minded as it was perceived to be, or if it was a mob mentality, and about the current, concurrent prevalence of songs about hanging out and drinking with the boys, which could be argued as an answer to the progressive songs, are for a different time.
[3] As well as being in clear violation of Starbuck’s dress policy.

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