Like the Counting Crows, who were “Accidentally in Love,” Brad Paisley is accidentally racist. His new country song is one of the most ersatz and unintentionally ironic pop culture meisterwerks to come down the pike in a long, long time. And LL Cool J does possibly the strangest rap crossover cameo since Chuck D appeared on Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing,” though LL appears to be more interested in assuaging the consciences of white listeners than challenging them.
Racism is not often the stuff of bubblegum pop—at least not explicitly. It’s tough to stuff issues of race, ethnicity, identity, and inequality into the verse-chorus-verse format of popular music. Yet Paisley and LL have attempted to write a country-rap hybrid song, “Accidental Racist,” that would broach the sensitive subject of race relations and begin a dialogue about how white people, particularly Southerners, might be misunderstood as racist despite their best intentions.
The whole affair has the markings of a grade-A fiasco, as Paisley’s song about a white man offending a black employee at Starbucks with his Confederate flag t-shirt seems to promise some kind of racial self-awareness (“I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland, tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be; I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done”) but ultimately lapses into self-pity about how white people are the real victims of racism (“white folks are still paying for the mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came”). Incredibly, LL Cool J is on hand to legitimize the proceedings, promising “If you don’t judge the gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains” (!) and even repping Robert E. Lee.
You have to appreciate Paisley and LL’s desire to do something different and write about issues that virtually never get discussed on country radio (or almost any radio, for that matter). Yet their foray is awkward, pained, and unsurprisingly subject to immediate and widespread derision by critics who quibble with its clueless take on issues of race and racism. There’s a reason why people don’t write songs about Japanese internment camps and voter ID laws—they’re complicated and they don’t rhyme.
As Jody Rosen of Slate asked, “Where do I start?” Paisley’s racial odyssey begins, fittingly enough, with a black person who is waiting on him—a nice image for a story about white privilege, racism, and the legacy of slavery. He pleads naivete and political ignorance, saying, in essence: I had no idea, black person who is waiting on me, that your feathers would get ruffled by the Stars and Bars on my shirt, which I innocently put on this morning. I had no idea it had any other significance to anyone else until this very moment—I thought it was as innocuously interchangeable in pop cultural terms as the Rolling Stones’ lips or Slayer’s pentagrams. In the tradition of the non-apology apology, I’m sorry if you were offended.
This is all well and good, as far as it goes—it’s heritage, not hate, and almost anyone can make a case that a symbol means something different to them than it does to other people, and they mean nothing hateful by it. In this view, racism is all about an internal, mental state of virtue or vice, good intent or malice—is this person a racist? Do they harbor ill will toward people who look different from them? A local official in Kansas recently talked about “n****-rigging” bridges, but his friends insist he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” The same goes for Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and his loose tongue when he reminisced about “wetbacks” on his father’s farm. All of them pled racial innocence. If racism is about people’s individual views and opinions, almost everyone outside of StormFront and the Klan will claim that they are as pure as the freshly driven snow. No big surprise there.
But what is Paisley really going on about, apart from his love of Skynyrd? The country singer, who has been around for a while and has been known for his sense of humor since the likable breakout hit “Me Neither” in 1999, claims that he’s just trying to express his southern pride. Yet he was born and raised in the northern tip of West Virginia, at the very outer limits of what could be plausibly called the South. It’s practically Pennsylvania. WV notoriously seceded from seceding Confederate Virginia, revealing its flinty mountaineer resolve not to participate in defending the bankrupt and immoral institution of slavery. WV has long been more industrialized and unionized than much of the South, sharing a culture more in line with the old Rustbelt/steel/coal region of eastern Ohio and western PA. This is where Paisley is from. If it’s pride in the Confederate dead and Southern culture that the flag is meant to represent, he has about as much claim on it as Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp.
If it’s not the South that he’s proud of, then what is it? What does the Confederate Flag, as a symbol of Southern pride, mean to a non-Southerner? Ask the guys in upstate New York who drive around with it on their trucks what it means to them. Could it be that the flag is not about Confederate or Southern pride, but something truly verboten: white pride?
(As Kelefa Sanneh suggests in a far more sympathetic treatment, Paisley has been more unabashedly frank than most country singers on the subject of race, noting that country is kind of like hip hop, but “for a whole different ethnicity.” While the genre is by and large “white music,” few country artists would want to frame it that way.)
By far the worst part of Paisley’s song, though, is not his own lumpy lamentation of being unfairly accused of racism just by being himself. The grand prize has to go to LL Cool J, who was apparently Operation Dumbo Drop-ed into the middle of an insane ode to racial reconciliation in order to assuage white fears of the broadest black male stereotypes imaginable. He asks white people in general to look past his do-rag and gold chains, as if the whole of racism boils down to misperceptions of clothing and jewelry. (Not that these things don’t matter, but acting as if a black man who decides to wear a gold chain is somehow equivalent to the white people who put black people in literal manacles is beyond bizarre—in both cases, it is black people who are being unfairly treated without doing anything wrong, but the song presents these two things as being transgressions that equally merit forgetting and letting “bygones be bygones.”)
It reminds me of a moment in the early 1990s in my high school, when white folks insisted that if Confederate flag shirts were to be disallowed, then the Malcolm X hats and shirts that were so popular in the wake of Spike Lee’s film should also be banned—as if both were equally hateful or offensive. Black people had better give something up if they want the white people to respect their sensitive feelings, right?
LL and Paisley both seem to buy into this logic, as if race relations were all about semiotics and hurt feelings. The ultimate implication of all this, which presumably neither artist even dimly understands, is that white people are the real victims of racism. If racism is all about sartorial misunderstandings, then both sides just need to be less judge-y: “So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking that it’s not all good,” LL Cool J says. “I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book.” If we could just get beyond stereotypes and superficial generalizations, LL implies, then all would be good—as if there is no unequal power dynamic going on between the black man and the white guy in the cowboy hat and Confederate flag shirt. If everyone really is equal (ceteris paribus), and the only problem we really have is stereotypes that are mutually held on both sides, then the minorities who complain about racism—as if something is systemically unfair in the way things work in American society—are whining about imagined problems and being unfair to the white people who they wrongly accuse of being racist.
In short, the accusation of racism is far worse than actual racism itself. It’s the sort of thing that would drive a man to write a song about how uncool it is that someone thinks he’s racist.