Brad Paisley’s new album, Wheelhouse, hadn’t even arrived in stores, and he was already catching flak for a track called Accidental Racist. Recorded and co-written with rapper LL Cool J, it was clearly intended as gesture toward racial conciliation, in which he, a white Southerner in a Confederate flag shirt, reaches out to Cool J, a gold-chain-wearing black New Yorker, in the hopes of finding common ground.
Only it wasn’t taken quite that way.
No sooner did the song go viral (it was streaming at iTunes a week before release) than the complaints started piling up, ranging from outraged YouTube commentaries to Gawker snarkily dismissing it as “a real, horrible song.”
Paisley, for his part, insisted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that the song “isn’t something I came up with just to be sort of shocking,” adding that the lyrics came “from an honest place in both cases.”
The singer is perhaps being a bit disingenuous. Accidental Racist starts off with him getting grief from a barista in some Starbucks for wearing a shirt emblazoned with the red, white and black Confederate battle flag. In the song, he says, “When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say/ Is I’m a Skynyrd fan.” In other words, the stars and bars don’t automatically signify racist redneck, so chill out, dude.
But to anyone familiar with Paisley’s oeuvre, that defence doesn’t quite wash. On his last album, This Is Country Music, there’s a song called Camouflage, which, in talking about Southern pride, includes the line: “Well the stars and bars offends some folks and I guess I see why.” Obviously, he knows what the issue is, and it’s nothing to do with liking Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It’s not just Paisley. Cool J’s side of the song is, at times, even more cringe-inducing. Can he really be naive enough to mean a rhyme like, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains”? Bling and slavery aren’t exactly equivalents, Todd.
Still, it’s Paisley’s refrain that raised the most hackles. Trying to settle differences, he shrugs, “It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history.”
But trying to disassociate the stars and bars from the racist legacy of the Confederacy is precisely about rewriting history.
The unspoken issue, both in the song and in real life, is slavery, and that’s where the rewrite has been astoundingly successful. Historians almost unanimously agree that the American Civil War was fought mainly about slavery, citing documents such as the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, which stated, “Our cause is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world.”
Yet, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 48 per cent of Americans believe that their Civil War “was mainly about states’ rights.” Only 38 per cent held that the war was mainly about slavery. As historian Tracy Thompson points out in her book The New Mind of the South, there’s a reason for this: “a vigorous, sustained effort by Southerners to literally rewrite history.” As recently as two years ago, textbooks used in Virginia actually taught the myth that thousands of slaves fought for their masters on the side of the Confederacy.
For Paisley to take his stance now, after the last U.S. election laid bare the amount of residual racism and Confederate pride still at play in the South, is beyond tin-eared. Can he have already forgotten that, less than six months ago, more than 100,000 Texans reacted to the re-election of a black president by signing a petition to secede from the union? Can he be unaware of the Neo-Confederate movement, and its influence on the Republican Party in the last election?
Southerners are, of course, sensitive about criticism of this sort coming from north of the border. It was, famously, Neil Young’s anti-racist Southern Man that inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern Pride anthem Sweet Home Alabama. So it might be worth mentioning that I spent most of my adult life south of the Mason-Dixon line, and am aware of the many ways, subtle and overt, that racism leaks into everyday life there.
Take, for example, the fact that for years the seventh-inning-stretch music at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium was John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy. Was it just a fun piece of music, or did the song selection have to do with the fact that Baltimore was 65 per cent black, while the baseball audience was largely white? You could argue the point for days without reaching a satisfactory solution.
The same is probably true here. Nobody seems to think that Brad Paisley is a conscious racist, and I doubt this controversy will adversely affect his career (although it won’t make it easy for Cool J to restart his rap career). Still, it would be nice to think somebody on his team had given the song a little more thought.
Yes, Brad, we can’t rewrite history. You might, however, consider learning some next time.