Yesterday, my Twitter account exploded with reactions to “Accidental Racist,” a new song by country star Brad Paisley that features LL Cool J. In my little corner of the social media world, the response went pretty much likes this: “This is some racist bullshit masquerading as racial healing.” Which isn’t a surprise, I guess, considering the political and geographic status of the people I follow. And maybe it’s not surprising that I think the song is racist, too… even though it’s clearly not intended to be. Even though it’s clearly intended to start some kind of helpful conversation.
So let’s have a conversation, why don’t we? I’m going to try to suss out the various reasons I think this song is a well-intentioned disaster, and I’d love to know your thoughts are.
Here’s a version of the song with lyrics included:
It’s important to restate that Brad Paisley obviously has good intentions here. In this lengthy statement about the song, which he made to Entertainment Weekly, he talks about being an artist who wants to “lead the way” in getting Americans to heal the racial wounds that divide us. He also directly addresses the issue of Southern pride, which is at the heart of this tune. “But, at the same time, symbols mean things,” Paisley says. “And I know one thing: It just doesn’t do any good to blatantly do things and be like, ‘Just get over it.’ That’s not what we’re saying. This is a very sensitive subject, and we’re trying to have the discussion in a way that it can help.”
So… okay. Great. We can’t reflexively dismiss Brad Paisley as some kind of backwater hick. It matters, too, that LL Cool J is on the song. There’s an overt effort being made to symbolically suggest races coming together.
Yet the song itself, as a piece of art, is a lot clumsier than Paisley’s statement to a magazine. And that clumsiness tips into flabbergasting offensiveness over and over again.
Consider the very first verse:
To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt,
the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ’ol can of worms
I grew up in Chattanooga and then lived in Atlanta for five years after that, and I have heard this argument a billion times. This argument that rocking a Confederate flag is not about supporting slavery but is in fact about expressing pride in your region of the country. But come on. As Paisley himself says in his statement, symbols mean things, and regardless of what it meant during the 19th century, the Confederate flag is now understood as the banner for a nation that wanted slavery to remain legal. That’s what the symbol means now to millions of people. Anyone who chooses to wear that flag on a t-shirt or trucker hat or display it on a mailbox or flag pole is consciously choosing to offend millions of people.
Saying, “I don’t mean ’slavery’ when *I* display the Confederate flag” doesn’t make it better. It’s like when people say, “That’s so gay!” and then they say, “But I don’t mean ’gay’ like ’homosexuals.’ I just mean ’gay’ like ’bad.'” Tell that to the millions of gay people who have been assaulted because of their sexuality, you know?
My point is: you don’t get to choose. A symbol is more powerful than any one person, and if you insist on disregarding the millions of people who feel hurt or disenfranchised by the Confederate flag, then you need to examine what you’re really proud of. Because there are plenty of ways to celebrate your Southern heritage without hoisting up the flag that is now commonly connected to slavery. As Amanda Marcotte tweeted, “Completely innocent signifiers: Your accent, cowboy boots, BBQ, country-western music, the Texas flag. Non-innocent: the Confederacy.”
Oh, and also? This would hardly be the first formerly innocent symbol whose meaning has forever been changed by its terrible, historical associations with oppression. But people let go of the swastika, you know? There are other ways to express your belief in ancient religious teachings. Again: It doesn’t ONLY matter what the symbol used to mean or what it might mean to you personally. You have to accept what other people think about your symbol, and you can’t get all defensive or faux-innocent when they react they way you know they will react. (And yes, I know I went there with the swastika, but it seems like an apt comparison.)
So right from the start, Brad Paisley’s songwriting undercuts his purported message.
And then we get LL Cool J’s verse, which includes such bridge-building promises as, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” As Jason Lipshutz points out over at Billboard, “The couplet suggests that, if LL Cool J’s gold jewelry can be overlooked, so can all of slavery. Maybe… ’forget’ is the wrong verb to use in this line? Does anyone really want to “forget” the horrors of slavery instead of learn from them?” That’s a really gentle way of putting it, but he’s absolutely right. It’s just embarrassing. If this is the best you can offer to an artistic conversation about race, then maybe don’t offer anything.
Because it’s not like pop artists haven’t been making substantial statements about race for decades now. That’s another disingenuous element of Paisley’s statement. He’s hardly the first artist to tread these waters. For god’s sake, Paisley himself recorded a song in 2009 called “Welcome to the Future” that explicitly tackles the problem of racism in America. In the second verse, he reflects on how his grandfather fought the Japanese in World War II, and now Brad himself is doing business with Japanese companies. In the third verse, he recalls a black high school friend who got a burning cross on his lawn for asking a white woman on a date, and then he reflects on how horrifying that is. He ends by reminding us that the future is coming and everything will change and justice will be done.
Yes, that’s pretty simplistic, especially since racism is still a problem in all 50 states, but “Welcome to the Future” is less aggressively offensive than “Accidental Racist,” which tries harder and fails more miserably to be inclusive.
Mark Blankenship has written about music and culture for the New York Times and NPR. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship