I was sitting on the floor of the NOW offices amid a sea of CDs when I came across Brad Paisley's Wheelhouse. I immediately dismissed it to the giveaway pile; it was not likely to be written about in the pages of NOW. But then, a pang of intuition: something told me to retrieve it and file it under "B" where I would be able to find it if the unlikely need arose.
And then Accidental Racist became a thing. On Monday - the day after the American Academy of Country Music Wards, and the day before Wheelhouse was released (what curious timing!) - the internet was buzzing about a brazenly titled song in which Paisley, basically, says he wants to put this whole dang racism thing behind us, cause it ain't his fault what his daddy's daddy did. We'd link the song, but the rights-holders are being pretty vigilant about tearing it down from free streaming sites. But here's a taste:
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
I'm proud of where I'm from but not everything we've done
And it ain't like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn't start this nation
We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
It might be the Canadian in me, but there are some topics that still merit some eggshell-walking, or at least handling with a modicum of tact. In Accidental Racist, Paisley does neither.
There is so much to hate about the song that it's simultaneously too easy and too hard to write about. Like the overwhelming pile of discs I found Wheelhouse in, it's filled with distracting gems, each more tempting than the last.
First, there's the oxy-moronic name. You can't be an accidental racist. Not knowing that is a crime in itself. People aren't born hating one another. If you didn't wake up one morning and say, "I'm going to believe in white superiority," then someone or likely multiple someones around you nudged you in that direction. In Paisley's case, I'm wild-guessing some deeply entrenched attitudes in his home state of West Virginia may have contributed to a situation where he found himself oblivious to one of the most inflammatory symbols in America. This despite that fact that West Virginia was formed when it seceded from a Confederate State during the Civil War, and so never even ran the Southern Cross up its flagpoles. So Paisley is basically intentionally co-opting the insignia of the Confederate Army so he can excuse himself for doing so accidentally, under the auspices of enjoying Lynyrd Skynyrd. If he's not rewriting American history, Paisley's certainly taking some liberties with his own.
More to the point, ignorance is no excuse. Like speeding and date rape, not knowing the law doesn't make you immune to the consequences. So: you wear a confederate flag, you're endorsing racism.
But it's not even the wearing of the flag shirt that's the most troubling.
Isn't one of the most insidious and damaging forms of racism the promotion of ridiculous stereotypes? First, Paisley directs the song toward the black man working at Starbucks, which, well, sure. There are certainly black men and women employed at major coffee chains. But perhaps directing the song at your black dentist or insurance broker would have demonstrated an understanding of the year 2013.
Then Paisley enlists LL Cool J to dig him yet deeper into the hole. In LL's verse, the rapper beseeches white men not to judge him on his baggy pants, his do-rag and his gold chains. Congratulations, LL. You have the exact same idea of what black people look like as my uncle Ted in rural Ontario. (For the record, baggy jeans were a transracial fashion phenomenon throughout the 90s and into the 00s. Generally, all races are now wearing a trimmer jean. See any current rap video for evidence of this.)
Including LL was clearly a preemptive strike against the inevitable backlash, but it hasn't prevented the song from becoming a laughing stock. But dismissing it only as such, and feeling victorious that nobody took it seriously, is a problem. While the liberally inclined mainstream media might outright dismiss the tune, there are those that will relate to and celebrate it. Just as there were people who ran to Rick Ross's defense after he was called out for his pro-date rape lyrics, there are likely throngs of Paisley fans relieved that someone is expressing their POV.
Like Ross, Paisley hasn't apologized for his song. But he did offer some words of explanation to Entertainment Weekly:
I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don't know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we're asking the question in a big way.
In this defense Paisley is just exposing his own short memory. Music has been bridging social gaps and fighting racism for decades in much more intelligent ways. Some examples:
1971: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On - a concept album told from the perspective of a Vietnam war vet returning to an unjust and hateful country.
1982: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's The Message - credited as the first prominent rap song that tackled social and political issues.
For goodness sakes, Paisley. Have you even forgotten Garth Brooks 1992 anthem We Shall Be Free? The song is a call for human rights in general, but the video mostly features anti-racism imagery. The lyrics are simple but free of Paisley's nauseating "I'm sorry if this offended you, but..." tactics. They call for equality with no strings attached - as it should be.