Do intentions matter? As controversy swirls around Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” a song on Paisley’s new album, “Wheelhouse,” out today, the criticism is coming fast and furious.
To be sure, from a musical standpoint, the song is reductive and somewhat naive...and that’s just Paisley’s part. Don’t get me started on LL Cool J’s rap, which I will delve into more later. But if you can get past the awkwardness and clunkiness, the song raises some interesting issues that we like to pretend don’t exist, but still do.
I spent some time with Paisley recently for a cover story for the current issue of Country Weekly magazine. We talked at considerable length about “Accidental Racist.” He said he didn’t write the song to be “provocative,” but that he also didn’t want to pull any punches. He’d been accused of being racist once when he’d worn a music act's t-shirt with a Confederate flag on it, and that had served as a wake-up call for him.
In our conversation, it was clear he had spent a great deal of time thinking about race relations in the south and studying the Civil War. This wasn’t a song he wrote casually or without great care. He wanted the song to make people think and to continue a dialogue that he felt had been reopened by movies like “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.”
As a fellow southerner (Paisley is from West Virginia, but now lives in Nashville and I was born and raised in North Carolina), there are parts of his lyrics that resonate with me. When I lived in Chicago and New York, I often met people who assumed I was prejudiced simply because I had a southern accent or who made other presumptions about me because I was from south of the Mason-Dixon. While I find some of Paisley’s lyrics overly simplistic, I can relate to some of what he brings up. I am so proud to be Southern, but the slavery issue will never be something that I can ignore as part of the South’s tragic past (even though neither one of my parents were Southern). It’s one of the most glaring examples of being on the wrong side of history that anyone can imagine. Paisley isn’t trying to excuse it or rationalize it away in any way, shape or form in “Accidental Racist.” He's trying to understand why it haunts us so much 150 years later and how we can move on.
On the other hand, LL Cool J’s rap just feels dunderheaded and it sinks the song. There are a few good points: when he brings up feeling a distrust of someone in a white cowboy hat, I can understand that, but the part I can’t wrap my head around is LL Cool J’s equating any of the prejudices that blacks may have against whites as in any way even remotely comparable to slavery. When I first heard, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget my iron chains,” my jaw may have literally dropped to the floor. Almost as bad is “If you don’t judge my doo-rag, I won’t judge your red flag” and “The past is the past, do you, feel me?” I understand the intention is to move ahead and try to focus on common ground rather than focus past differences, but his part just doesn’t work.
Paisley wrote his words and LL Cool J wrote his own, but since it’s Paisley’s record, the buck ultimately has to stop with him and I find myself wishing he’d challenged LL Cool J a little bit more to think about what he was saying there. By no means is Paisley’s part perfect, but I wonder if there would be such an outcry if the song only featured Paisley’s honest, earnest questioning about how to reconcile his heritage.
In the broader arc of Paisley’s career, there’s a point that not a lot of the pundits who are piling on him right now have brought up. If you’ve followed Paisley over the past dozen years, you know his heart is pure, when it comes to these kinds of questions. To be sure, he’s not clinging to his shotgun, declaring that “A Country Boy Can Survive” like Hank Williams Jr. He’s a post-modern southerner, proud of where he’s from, but very well aware of its unforgivably flawed past.
He’s shown us so many different sides. There’s the comedic Paisley who pokes fun of the internet on “Online” or rednecks with “Camouflage.” There’s the guitar wiz Paisley, who is awe inspiring with his combination of dexterity, speed, and clarity. Then there’s the Paisley that interests me the most: the Paisley that wants to make us, and all country fans, think and stretch our minds a little bit. Sometimes it’s done subtly and other times, more obviously.
On 2009’s “American Saturday Night,” verse after verse details what we consider a typical evening out in the United States without ever thinking about how much of our culture came from other places. It’s a reminder that we are a melting pot and that we, as a nation, drew the best from the immigrants who came here and made them our own. Find me one other country song that makes that point, as subtle as it may be.
Paisley wrote 2009’s “Welcome To the Future,” another song that explicitly mentions race, after Obama’s election. The song, one of his best, mentions a black friend who had a cross burned on his yard after asking out the (presumably white) homecoming queen, as well as references Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and how progress comes and we should all embrace it. Paisley played the songs at Obama’s Inaugural Ball in January.
Even on his most recent No. 1, “Wheelhouse’s” “Southern Comfort Zone,” he talks about the wonders of travel and how it opens up one’s world. This is not your typical country artist who is content to sit on the front porch.
He’d probably blanch at my use of this word, but in my mind, Paisley is one of the few artists who consistently gets mainstream country radio play, who has a progressive streak.
For his part, Paisley took to Twitter last night and today to respond to the criticism: “...I hope the album rocks you,soothes you,raises questions,answers,evokes feelings, all the way through until [closing track] 'Officially Alive'” and added, I imagine about the controversy, “'Cause I wouldn't change a thing. This is a record meant to be FAR from easy listening. But fun. Like life. Have a ball, ya'll. love- brad.” Today, he added “This is what I love about albums. Especially country albums. So many different topics can be explored.So So many conversations can start here..”
That’s my hope too. It’s fine, and quite frankly, very understandable not to like the song simply because, as one website claimed, it’s horrible. But to dismiss it out of hand seems to squander an opportunity to continue the conversation that is very real and that needs to be ongoing.