How to Make Sense of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist"

Categories: Country

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You might think progressive-minded social-critic types would cheer a development as unlikely as America's top male country star releasing a song that pleas for racial understanding, acknowledges the failings of our nation's founders, and features a black man rapping "Just because my pants are sagging doesn't mean I'm up to no good." But no. Yesterday the Internet lost its collective shit upon hearing Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist," a song much thornier and more complex than the simpleminded reactions it has stirred. Here are two key contextualizing ideas that the first round of agitated bloggers missed.

1. Today's country stars are in the reassurance business: Telling white listeners who may feel out of step with the rest of popular culture that they still matter. Telling them that their lifestyles today--isolated from both the city and the farm, shaped by highways and churches and Targets and Wal-Marts--are still wholly bound to that vision of hardworking American greatness that shades memories of their grandparents. Telling them not just that it's imperative to maintain that vision but that everything in their lives already does so.

Listen to Jason Aldean's hit "The Only Way I Know." In defiantly white rap verses that suggest Barney Rubble's "I'm the master rapper/and I'm here to say," Aldean, Luke Bryan, and the great Eric Church insist that in their red-dirt farm towns "the first thing you learn/is you don't get nothing that you don't earn." That sentiment is a reassuring yet not exactly persuasive account of life in communities with few jobs and large chunks of the population on food stamps and disability.

See also: Brad Paisley Tells Country Audiences There's Nothing Wrong With White Folks Becoming the Minority

2. Brad Paisley challenges his audience, and not necessarily from the right. Paisley is as great a reassurer as anyone in Nashville, and as fine an entertainer as anyone in pop. He's also an evangelical sort, for the good book, for good times, and for lifelong love, but also for the world outside of songs like "The Only Way I Know." Obama-era Paisley hits have butted against the country-radio cocoon: "American Saturday Night" cheered immigration, diversity, and the fact that Little Italy is smack-dab next to Chinatown. "Welcome to the Future" is an epic, celebratory blind item, a song swollen up with excitement for the current president--and that shrewdly never quite mentions that president's name.

A canny hitmaker, Paisley sweetens his off-the-farm enthusiasms with sentiments country radio listeners all can agree upon: In "Welcome to the Future," he opens with nostalgic memories of Pac-Man and family trips, then toasts his grandpa's service in the Pacific, all before hinting at anything political. Like any good debate student, he gets his audience nodding along before challenging them. Better still, both songs are killer good.

So, the brave "Accidental Racist"--from his ninth album, Wheelhouse, available today--works the same trick, except maybe for that "killer good" part. (It's sad that Paisley's most important song is not one of his strongest.) But its heart is in the right, complex place, no matter how dopey Cool J's "do-rag/red flag" formulation.

Again, Paisley opens with a scenario his audience will appreciate: An everyday Southern guy (the "I" of the song) discovers that a black barista doesn't care for the stars-and-bars on his Skynyrd T. That white man tells us--and, presumably, that black man--that "I'm proud of where I'm from/but not everything we've done." He admits that it takes work, sometimes, to understand what it's like not to be a white man, a theme picked up from Paisley's current single, the superb "Southern Comfort Zone," which urges his audience to believe that life will be just fine once demographic shifts have left them "in the minority."

Eventually, the black man responds, in the heartfelt but terrible rhymes of TV's LL Cool J. He suggests that people of different races should get a beer and talk about race in America.


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42 comments
pinkestlili
pinkestlili

@jodyrosen read all the people who write to the high minded, but it's good to read the critics who write to the people consuming the music.

matt
matt

"It's dispiriting that so many smart progressives online have failed to do for Paisley what Paisley is asking his audience to do to Cool J."

In analyzing a song filled with false equivalency  the author of this piece offered up yet another one. Just as saggy pants do not equate to the symbolism and history of the Confederate flag, Paisley asking his audience not to be racist is not the same as "smart progressives" shaking their heads at the notion that blacks and whites have had equal blame to share in the racial history of the nation.  One group served as slaves and the other slave owners.  One group, just a few decades ago, did not have equal protection under the law.  When viewed in this context, the song becomes a dangerous message to exactly the audience the author claims will benefit from it.  Recognizing our difference and accepting them is one thing, but to create an equivalency between white persecution and black persecution is irresponsible and wrong no matter what the intent was.  Engaging Paisley's audience on this subject is only worthwhile if it's done with the truth.  Forgiving "the iron chains" in exchange for not making racial judgments towards LL Cool J's jewelry isn't exactly what I'd call a fair exchange.  One is a fashion choice and the other is the enslavement and holocaust of an entire race of people.  

daringantt
daringantt

@joeovies If by interesting you mean "load of pandering, apologist crap," then yes.

nationsfilm
nationsfilm

@kentucker Interesting perspective on the good intention. But the lyrics are still trivializing, condescending and just bad music.

poniewozik
poniewozik

@kentucker also the assumption (which ironically ppl also make abt rappers) that country artists cannot have distance from their narrators

poniewozik
poniewozik

@kentucker Good link. The song sucks, but don't like casual assumption BP must be a right-winger. "Am Sat Night" a great melting-pot anthem

PepeSilvia
PepeSilvia

I know it’s fun to set yourself in opposition to the mean ol’ elitist blogosphere, and it’s true that their knee-jerk reactions to country are often purely ignorant, but this article, like Paisley and LL’s song, isn’t doing country listeners/Southerners any favors by coddling and infantilizing them. Sorry, but I don’t feel any sympathy for any white people out there who genuinely still need to be reassured that slavery wasn’t their fault. I refuse to believe racial harmony needs to be predicated on such a gross misreading of basic American history (“They called it Reconstruction / Fixed the buildings, dried some tears”...yep, that pretty much covers it!). Basically, what the song’s telling us is that the last legitimate beef that black America had with white America was slavery, and that was 150 years ago! Definitely time to let bygones be bygones, ‘cause everything’s been pretty smooth sailing for black people ever since, except for maybe getting some static about wearing baggy pants and gold chains, but hey, blacks give whites shit about rockin’ the rebel flag, so we’re really even Steven there!

commiegirl1
commiegirl1

@studiesincrap yeah, I was all ready to like it because everyone was howling so much, but Alan, it is VERY NOT GOOD.

jodyrosen
jodyrosen

@Jesselansner Agree. But that's not all that the pundits are saying about it. And horrible and misguided are not all it is. It's complicated

ctklimek
ctklimek

@nprmonkeysee I'm a big fan of Drive-By Truckers, a band with at least six songs that do exceptionally well what Paisley did here v. poorly.

ctklimek
ctklimek

@nprmonkeysee Of course. People always say great art supports multiple readings. Sometimes lousy art -- and this song is awful -- does, too.

jodyrosen
jodyrosen

@pinkestlili Not about high-mindedness. It's about context, a sense of history, familiarity with the form in question.

kentucker
kentucker

@poniewozik Yes,tho I DO thinkBrad intends u to picture him& LL sittin around sharin a beer & conversating; problem is interp of (con)intent

studiesincrap
studiesincrap

@PepeSilvia The song says nothing of the sort. Paisley's character admits that it's difficult to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's skin but that it's important to do so.  He also says he's not proud of everything the south has done, a statement that is not at all limited to slavery. 

Finally, a point I didn't get to in the piece. Lots of people see the song as a defense of the Confederate flag. Paisley's character -- because he *is* playing a character, here, someone more like his idea of his male listeners than his actual self  --  admits that wearing that flag makes it looks as if he has "a lot to learn." You can't be a big country star and put out a single called "That Flag makes You A Dick," exactly, but the implication's there.

nprmonkeysee
nprmonkeysee

@ctklimek The song exists; people have opinions. Better to engage the argument than try to DQ people who don't agree.

nprmonkeysee
nprmonkeysee

@ctklimek I don't think you have to like country music to decide whether the "iron chains"/"gold chains" thing, for instance, is gross.

nationsfilm
nationsfilm

@kentucker As a Black southerner, I take issue with a lot of Brad's points. As a Black not from "the hood" I take issue with nearly all LL's

PepeSilvia
PepeSilvia

@studiesincrap I think you're seriously overselling the "implication" considering later on in the song LL says "If you don't judge my do-rag / I won't judge your red flag."

Shaun
Shaun

@nprmonkeysee @ctklimek The iron chains / gold chains thing is a common trope in hip hop music. When done well it expresses the complicated relationship the ancestors of slaves have to wealth. Listen to Chain Heavy by Kanye, Talib Kweli and Consequence for a more expansive treatment of the theme.

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