We have seen, though, quite a bit more attention paid in "elitist" circles to country music in the aftermath of Brad Paisley and LL's epic fail. Most of it has revolved around whether or not Paisley is actually racist (he put it in the title of the song, didn't he?) and whether or not America has actually reformed itself, but some people have bothered to peak around this elephant in the corner of the South to see what else is going on in Nashville.
Noah Berlatsky published an absolutely scathing review of The Band Perry on The Atlantic site yesterday. Ouch! While I'm pretty sure he only meant to tackle TBP—and perhaps by extension their "country" sub-genre that sounds more like post-grunge modern rock than anything else—I think his thesis has some light to shine on the whole "Accidental Racist" controversy.
The meat of his argument is that historically country (or hillbilly) music was, "not so much a single style (like jazz or to some extent blues) as it was a marketing category," designed to appeal to a swath of people who were either rural themselves or were from rural families recently transplanted to the city in a rapidly urbanizing society. Naturally, people want music that reflects their values and strengthens bonds within their community, especially as that community is being stretched beyond recognition, and the marketers in New York and Nashville knew how to exploit it. "This meant," Berlatsky explains, "that country became the music of hillbillies. But it also meant that whatever music hillbillies played—whether folk, blues, jazz, or, eventually, rock—became country."
The problem over time is obvious: "rapidly urbanizing" in the '40s and '50s means "urbanized for generations" in 2013. This is true in the urban jungle of Chicago or the post-industrial sprawl of Canton, OH, but it's also true in new New South bastions like Charlotte and Atlanta. Grandpappy isn't whittling sticks on the front porch anymore, and his beat-up old '52 Chevy Pickup is just something he joyrides while on vacation from his office job. The physical connection to the pastoral homeland of yore has been severed, the once-tight relationship between urban now and rural then has been FUBARed.
This leads Berlatsky to the question: "What is the music of hillbillies when there are no hillbillies left?" His answer is the vast empty space of The Band Perry and those of their ilk. I think there's still plenty of room on that giant fantastical plane for songs like "Accidental Racist".
You see, one of the great things about being white in the United States of Amnesia these days is that you get to choose your historical allegiances and cultural identifiers just like you'd fill your plate at the Old Country Buffet. Also just like at OCB, you can consume a wide variety of tasteless garbage and shit it out soon after. After all, this is the land that encourages Masshole townie teenagers to get blotto in the New England Patriots stadium parking lot before Country Music Fest, sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts, Texas Roadhouse and the Samsung Galaxy Note. This is the land where for every Teena Marie there are innumerable Three Times One Minus Ones. This is the land where emo kids become grown-ass adults that fetishize spell-casting children and vampires. This is the land of the "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk".
This is our contemporary culture and us white people are like shapeshifters in that we have this ability to be what we want at any given moment, until it becomes inconvenient, at which point we can become something else. We can change back and forth without repercussions. Tonight with our friends we can be just like KeSha, T. Mills, Lil' Wayne, Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian, Seth McFarlane, Tony Montana, Jay-Z or whoever the fuck else and Sunday afternoon we'll still be who we were raised to be for dinner at Grandma's house. Meanwhile, someone like Jordan Davis does the same play acting in a gas station parking lot and ends up dead at the hands of an angry racist. Yet nobody seems to grasp the difference.
This magical cocktail of ignorance, entitlement and opportunity is what's behind "Accidental Racist". The story starts, after all, with our "Skynyrd fan" wearing a symbol of "Southern Pride" on his chest, but when a black guy sees it our protagnist gets to thinking that maybe this guy is assessing "Southern blame". Instantly our "white man" becomes a victim of the antebellum South, too, "caught between" the dueling forces of pride and blame.
Read: The character is so accustomed to thinking he can have his cake and eat it, too, that he thinks he can walk into a Starbucks wearing a CONFEDERATE FLAG T-SHIRT(!)* and expect that NOBODY should dare think he might be racist. Brad Paisley thinks he can write that character as a victim of life's circumstances. For real.
Then our protagonist says that, you know, we didn't start the fire and I'm doing everything I can within reason to appease your anger, but it's not my fault. "THEY called it Reconstruction" and "WE'RE still siftin' through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years." Can't you see that we're brothers in the fight, brother? For real.
Finally Paisley brings in a real-to-life black guy (a celebrity rapper, even!) to validate his worldview and offer a truce ("If you don't judge my do-rag / I won't judge your red flag / If you don't judge my gold chains / I'll forget the iron chains"). For real. Talk about false equivalence.
This would be a hilarious farce except for the facts of what we are talking about. What we are talking about is the wholesale capture, shipment, commodifcation, enslavement and brutalization of human beings, followed immediately by equal or worse treatment of their descendents, followed immediately by a war in which they were pawns, followed immediately by a decades-long state-run terrorism campaign against them—sometimes sanctioned by the federal government—followed by a brutal public struggle for human rights, followed by another four or five rocky decades of realization until now, when we may have a President with brownish skin but we also have more than a million black people in prison. I'm sorry, Mr. Paisley, if you're comforting "white man from the southland" bullshit enrages those of us who care about history, society and real amity. You don't know shit, so please shut the fuck up.
But, really, what else can we expect from a culture that separates its history from its heritage but hubristic & vacant pride for the stuff we come from that we like and callous attempts at disassociation from the stuff we come from that we don't like? The dufuses of the new New South have been afforded the luxury of distancing themselves from Jefferson Davis while still embracing Rand Paul, and they are acting accordingly.
In all of their ignorance, can you blame them?
* By the way, who the fuck calls the Confederate Flag the "red flag"? I've heard "Rebel Flag", "Dixie Flag", "Stars & Bars" and "Southern Cross", but never "red flag". If it is such an inoffensive symbol of Southern Pride or Skynnyrd fandom, Mr. Paisley, why did you have to use a euphemism to describe it?