The backlash against the song “Accidental Racist”, and against Paisley and LL Cool J, has been intense. The Internet is abuzz with scathing reviews of this song and the intent behind the song. I agree with much of the criticism. The history presented lyrically in the song is, to be blunt, revisionist drivel (that unfortunately happens to be believed by approximately 70% of white southerners). The musicality is…questionable at best. And the two voices represented in the song are essentially caricatures, stereotypes of two cultural Others. But even though I’m not a big fan of the song, the criticism has largely ignored three critical points:
1. The characters in this song are just that…characters. They’re telling a story based on character point of view, not an analytical treatise on history.
2. To my knowledge, the last mainstream country artist with mass popularity to release anything that questioned race relations, or for that matter even addressed a controversial topic with a modicum of earnestness, was Johnny Cash with his release of “Man in Black”…in 1971! .
3. The audience for this song is a mainstream country audience.. Many among this audience own more than one item of clothing emblazoned with a Confederate flag. Statistically, this is largely the same demographic that has grown more racist since President Obama’s election in 2008.
So putting artistry and taste aside, let’s look at this song in the context of modern country music and its primary audience. Because, as sad as it is to say…
“Accidental Racist” is the most progressive song you’re likely to hear on mainstream country radio.
Many critics are equating the views of the character of the song’s southern white with the views of the singer. “Accidental Racist” isn’t autobiographical (though it was inspired, at least in part, by a specific event…more on that later). The “southern white” and the “black yankee” are characters, however stereotypical, looking at an issue from two different perspectives. The history presented in the song-if you can call a couplet about Reconstruction “history”—is revisionist rather than strict historical analysis, but it is historical perspective as viewed through the lens of the character of the white southerner with a flag on his t-shirt, a perspective that, however erroneous, is widely held by the song’s primary audience. Is it past time for southern apologists to discard such opinions? Of course it is. Have they? No.
Think about the context of Paisley’s position in mainstream country. If he went on stage and dropped a 200 foot Confederate flag from the rafters, his audience would only applaud louder, buy more records, and order up a round of Jack Daniels for the band. This is the same audience that stopped buying-and started burning-Dixie Chicks records after singer Natalie Maines said she was “ashamed George W. Bush was from Texas.” The audience for country music as a whole isn’t exactly socially or politically progressive. Neither, for that matter, is the industry. Since the birth of the Opry, country music has by no means been a model of cultural diversity, at least historically speaking. DeFord Bailey, Charlie Pride, Darius Rucker…name another genre of popular music where you can count on one hand the number of black super stars.
The audience, by and large, doesn’t read The Atlantic Monthly, or Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, the New York Times, or any other news source with a perceived or actual liberal bent. The message this audience hears, and has heard for the last 60 years, is “the flag is heritage not hate.” Within the last year, another country star, Trace Atkins, was criticized for wearing an ear monitor with a Confederate flag on it. His defense? Basically, great great granddaddy fought for the south and this flag represents my heritage. His record sales didn’t decrease. Not in the least.
Is this song defending that position? The flag is heritage, not hate? I don’t think it is. The song delivers this perspective, to be sure, but also asks listeners to think about other perspectives, the very acknowledgement of which is bold by modern standards in country music where white rural America is the only real America. At a time when white southerners are further entrenching themselves into regressive policies and opinions, this is the only song in recent memory that actually question such actions, however inartfully, and ask listeners to be reflective.
So, if nothing else, this song is asking the audience to think about race relations from multiple perspectives. Unless I’m missing something, mainstream country music has gone about four decades without anything remotely similar. The song might persuade John Q. Redneck, a card-carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to stop for a second and think about what this flag he so cherishes has come to represent for someone else and why they might be offended by it. The song might persuade him to question his openness to other points of view in general, even if for a moment. To be honest, I doubt it will, but at the very least the song, even through the ridiculous stereotypes, portrays an open and civil discourse between two people with conflicting points of view that I doubt you’ll find in the comments feed of any given southern newspaper. You sure won’t find it on country radio.
Paisley wrote this song after someone called him a racist on Twitter. He was called out for wearing a t-shirt from the band Alabama that had a rebel flag within the band’s logo. But prior to this incident, there’s not a lot of damning evidence against him. In fact, quite the contrary. Paisley performed for President Obama, was openly moved by his election, and wrote a song called “Welcome to the Future” in honor of him (btw, that song didn’t exactly cling to the country charts). A few weeks ago, Paisley released a song called “Southern Comfort Zone” all about how southerners need to travel, step away from the familiar, and experience the world as other people see it. Not exactly Tea Party talk.
Now comes “Accidental Racist.” Provocative? You bet. Ham-handed? Yeah, I’m afraid it is (isn’t most pop country?). But I think the intent is pure. He’s asking people to question their worldview. Clearly, he’s been thinking about his own as evidenced by the direction of his recent work on the whole. And he’s certainly thinking about the world differently than his contemporaries, who too often merely try to out-country each other. Not only is that dull, it doesn’t exactly move the needle of progress.
Say what you will about the song, interpret it as you will, but if I had to place a bet on what would be most likely to change a person’s point of view regarding their problematic attachment to the rebel flag, this song or an op-ed in the New York Times…my money’s on this song. Regardless, Brad Paisley is at least trying to reach the people who hold such problematic points of view in a way that might actually persuade them to listen.