When well-meaning topical music goes terribly wrong
Back in 1998, the great folksinger Dan Bern (where has he been lately?) recorded an album called Fifty Eggs. On it, was a song called “Different Worlds” which addressed the precarious topic of racial relations in a rather humble and empathic way. Bern, in his sort of wryly humorous approach, made a long and awkward list of all the ways white people and African-American people are different. Instead of pointing out the frustration of history, the assumed burden of every urban, contemporary, progressive and enlightened white man – who has no issues with women or minorities, yet has inherited a legacy of misused power, and must figure out how to wield it toward the pursuits of justice and equality – Bern simply recognized that there’s no point in trying to pretend different races and cultures aren’t different. Because they are. What’s important in the end is that we all share a planet and we need to cohabit peacefully and respectfully. (Perhaps it helps that, as a Jew, Bern has also inherited a legacy of oppression.)
He offered no suggestions as to how to surmount history’s embarrassingly unfortunate imbalances. He simply pointed out the differences are, at once, important and irrelevant. As white-guys-singing-about-black-guys goes, it was a carefully written song. Its point was unflappable.
We eat different food and we
Drink different booze
Cheer for different football heroes
We hope the other ones lose
We laugh at different jokes and we
Have different names
Watch different tv shows and
Play different games…
We have different hair and noses
we have different teeth
In fact, everything is different
‘cept what’s under our feet
Hey, we live in different worlds
right along beside each other…
This was the song that came to mind when I clicked through, yesterday, to a song by mainstream suburban country star Brad Paisley featuring legendary rapper LL Cool J.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear I don’t think Brad Paisley has a problem with black people. Considering his hits include not-at-all-intellectual gems like “Good Morning Beautiful” and “She’s Everything,” it’s important to recognize he probably believed he was taking a chance even venturing into the realm of topical music. The song he – and probably a team of Music Row collaborators – came up with was awful, sloppy, and completely offensive. But I believe him when he earnestly told Entertainment Weekly, “It was really obvious to me that we still have issues as a nation with this. There are two little channels in each chorus that really steal the pie. One of them is, ‘We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday,’ and the other is, ‘Paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came.’ We’re all left holding the bag here, left with the burden of these generations. And I think the younger generations are really kind of looking for ways out of this.”
I feel a strong need to address this, because it bothers me profoundly – as a white person, as a Southerner, as someone who knows a thing or two about topical music and the history of race issues in the South.
What Paisley perhaps intended was to create a song which presented a conversation between White and Black, about letting go of the past and finding common ground to move forward as a unified front toward a more peaceful world.
What he wound up doing was writing a song which oversimplified one of the most violent and oppressive histories on American soil (overshadowed only by the way emerging white power in the New World treated – and continues to regard – Native Americans).
What he wound up doing was sounding as though he believes it’s unfair for human beings now to bear the burden of history. He seems to want to wear his rebel flag t-shirt and pretend in his imagination that the South didn’t secede from the Union in order to protect slavery; that the South didn’t grip Jim Crow with all its might and look the other way when black folks were framed on all manner of charges (Scottsboro Boys, anyone?) or blow up churches and unapologetically kill children; that some Southern white folks aren’t still resting easier in some parts knowing a mind-blowing number of Southern young black men are now incarcerated thanks to a school-to-prison pipeline and the ones who aren’t, are in a neighborhood far across town.
This is not a yesterday issue. The Supreme Court, right now, is facing a decision as to whether or not we “still” need laws which make extra sure African-Americans not only have easy access to voting, but that they exercise that right at every opportunity. Those laws are being challenged because some white folks in the Deep South are tired of making up for slavery and lynchings. If your grandfather was swiped from his bed in the middle of the night and lynched because society agreed people who look like you were subhuman animals, how many years would you like to see society make a concerted effort to clear up the trauma now deep in the cultural bones of not only your family but every family in your neighborhood? Because even here in North Carolina, there’s a push to overturn the Racial Justice Act. And, along I-40 between where I sit typing this and where Brad Paisley lives in Nashville*, there are rebel flags waving on very tall poles, atop hills, like a friendly reminder, or a warning.
You can bet African-American Southerners weren’t behind the decision to fly those flags.
But, just like Paisley, I’m proud of the South too. This place has a crazy history. For every fearful mob who lynched a black man for having the wrong color skin, there have been as many – if not more – determined to embrace differences and overcome oppression. For every Bull Connor, there’s a Myles Horton or a Rosa Parks. An artist – if they had a mind to – could spend a career singing the stories of the Southland, singing the spirit of these lower Appalachians and the deep South swamp and Delta. There is music here, enough for generations to write and sing. There is history here, enough for fifty Music Rows to delve into and come out with a catchy tune.
(These brave justice-seekers were not embraced by the Confederacy for whom that flag flies, FYI.)
I’m proud to come from my family too, though we’re not an historically Southern family. Like LL Cool J, we’re from New York. As Paisley points out to EW, New York had an economic interest in slavery, but what he doesn’t bother to mention (perhaps because it seems unimportant to him), it also remained in the Union. That state also welcomed African-Americans after the war and gave them room to actualize, to be intellectuals and artists and leaders, as well as to do things like finish high school and attend college, or sit wherever they pleased on a bus or in a restaurant. Meanwhile, the State of Tennessee held onto racism and segregation with an iron fist for another near-Century. There are parts of that state that are still holding it, though in different forms.
Paisley is right that artists should move the conversation forward, but there’s a danger in creating topical art about something you’re not actually familiar with.
We should be careful not to come down on white men simply for being white men. But any white man who has convinced himself that the history he inherited is not his problem, should sit down and read a book. Or, better, start asking questions of people who look nothing like him. It’s absolutely important for these things to be discussed by artists. On the one hand, I commend Paisley’s courage to sing a song about an issue he doesn’t really understand. At least he’s a white guy who, perhaps in his personal past, understood this issue even less, and who is now waking up to the fact that he is contributing to the imbalance on some level. That doesn’t seem fair to him and he doesn’t like it, because he doesn’t personally have a problem with African-Americans. But he’s yet to grasp how to articulate all these things responsibly and mindfully, respectfully. He’s yet to grasp that one’s language needs to be especially well-chosen when one is a white man trying to discuss the centuries-old problem of racism (which, psst, didn’t start in America, and was something his white male ancestors were pridefully carrying around Ancient Rome, etc.). He’s yet to grasp that this isn’t just an issue between white and black people, but also Latinos and Asians and the majority of the humans on Earth who are not white but live in a worldwide economy which favors white men over all other kinds of humans. This is an enormous bag of snakes into which Mr. Paisley unwittingly climbed, and it’s an enormous departure from “I’m Still a Guy”.
As nice as it was for Paisley to at least try to throw his hat into the ring, there’s a reason topical songwriters spend their careers perfecting the craft. When they start, they start with what they know. Working one’s way up to race relations or something equally as precarious (Steve Earle’s “John Walker Blues,” yall) takes an incredible amount of mastery and study and care.
It was almost 30 years into his career that Springsteen found the knowledge, empathy, and experience to deliver “American Skin” – a tribute to the racially charged slaughter of Amadou Diallo by NYC cops. In the world of topical music, you don’t just hop into that pool before reading up on it so that you can “be well-armed for any discussion.” And, when you do, it’s certainly not to sing a chorus which brags “I’m a white man comin’ to you from the Southland,” confronting race relations via an awkward encounter at a Starbucks of all godforsaken places.
It strikes me that the only accident here was not hiring an editor to go over the song before they put it into the world. Not reading a history book or asking questions of people who aren’t white men. (Can we really consider that an accident? Is willful ignorance ever truly accidental?)
All this said, if a mainstream suburban country singer can manage to get anyone talking about race relations, I guess we’ve taken a couple baby steps as a society. But if this song becomes an anthem for Southern white men who don’t think it’s their fault and want to do away with laws which continue to ensure racial justice – because that was then and this is now – that will only worsen the situation for so many people.
If Paisley has truly decided to enter the fold of topical songwriting, I hope he goes on “hiatus” for a while first. I could recommend a few books for the “reading up” he’s been doing and a few collaborators for next go-round. But, in the meantime, I’m going to keep my topical ears peeled toward Steve Earle and write some letters to my representatives, imploring that they keep the Racial Justice Act intact.
*Correction: It’s been brought to my attention that Brad Paisley lives in West Virginia. Even though WV has slightly more open-minded history on race relations than Tennessee, where the Country Music Industry resides, but there are a list of ways in which WV has made concerted strides away from its less-conservative past, which I’m personally well aware of – I have family there. It doesn’t negate my point that there’s no accident to racism – especially when it involves sincerely wearing the rebel flag. It also doesn’t change the fact that this song remains sloppy and offensive.