Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s collaborative song hit the web this week and, while music taste is subjective, this might be a case where it’s fair to say that it is objectively bad. Even worse than the music is the song’s problematic lyrical content, which has managed to propel the song to viral status – for all the wrong reasons.
The song begins with country star Paisley wearing a Confederate flag shirt in public and feeling – get this – judged. He goes on to say that he displays the flag only because he’s a proud southerner and Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, so why does everyone have to assume he’s a racist?
The thing is, Paisley already knows why. In the lyrics, he acknowledges that he is aware of the flag’s racist symbolism. (Plus, someone ought to tell him that even Lynyrd Skynyrd has disassociated itself from the Confederate flag at this point.) In essence, he is actually asking why people are making him feel bad, while not stopping to consider how his actions are making others feel bad, as well.
This is what we call white privilege. As a white man, he’s not used to being criticized for his opinions and actions. He is someone who is discovering how much he hates discrimination… now that he’s on the receiving end of it. “Why are people assuming something awful about Brad Paisley that’s not true?” he wonders, seemingly without taking into account that others receive this treatment to much larger extents.
For the record, I don’t think Paisley is a racist. While I’m sure he had good intentions in creating this song, he is a bit too ignorant about this complex subject to pull it off inoffensively. He acknowledges some of this ignorance in the lyrics (“I got a lot to learn,” “it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin”), but it is clear that he is oblivious to just how insensitive he is coming across.
Still, it’s not as though Paisley doesn’t raise any good points, even if in a muddied manner. His attempt to reconcile a pride in his southern heritage without being labeled a racist is an interesting dilemma. As a north-born, west-residing white man, I can’t deny that I myself cling to stereotypes about white southerners that I wish I could shake.
Then again, if, as he sings, Paisley doesn’t want to be judged on his home’s history, he’s going to have to drop the historical emblem that evokes those memories. Choose new ways to represent your culture’s present values or a historical image that isn’t so racially charged. While Paisley shouldn’t be presumed a racist because of his cowboy hat, when he is criticized for wearing a symbol of hate like the Confederate flag, forgive me for saving my sympathies for someone else.
But moving on from Paisley, things get that much more horrifying when LL Cool J joins the song at the halfway point. Maybe I, too, am an accidental racist for putting more blame on the black man in a song plagued with racial insensitivities, but I can’t believe he wrote and/or agreed to rap many of the lines he does.
“If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag,” LL sings. I realize the line is intended to say, “let’s both stop hating each other’s cultural identities,” but you can’t equate those two things. One is a piece of cloth worn on the head, the other is a historical symbol of slavery and racial oppression.
LL’s next comparison is even more shocking: “If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains.” Again, you can’t equivocate a harmless fashion accessory with a human atrocity. If a Caucasian American doesn’t like an African American’s gold chains, that is indicative of a larger prejudice, whereas if an African American doesn’t like slavery, that’s a justified position. For goodness sakes, it’s like a Jewish person saying, “If you don’t judge my yarmulke, I’ll forget the Holocaust.” They’re not remotely in the same realm.
That’s one major element this song is neglecting – a sense of proportionality. If you took these lyrics to heart, you may get the impression that prejudice against black and white people is similar. Alas, this inequality is not the same. The extent to which a white person faces discrimination – both historically and contemporarily – cannot compare to what a black person faces. Consider how African Americans are unemployed, impoverished and incarcerated at higher rates. Consider how African Americans are underrepresented in politics, media and leadership positions. It’s not that white people never face prejudice; they just aren’t nearly as oppressed by it.
Although both singers are right – history cannot be altered and they weren’t part of the generation that perpetuated slavery – this notion that we should “forget” slavery is absurd. Let’s work to a point where the aforementioned effects are no longer felt. Let’s work to a point where we can no longer begin to comprehend how slavery was ever considered acceptable. But let’s never try to erase it from our history as these musicians suggest.
If Paisley experiences white privilege, then LL has been skewed by what I’ll deem “celebrity privilege.” His success in the entertainment industry is not representative of the oppression many other African Americans face. Not a whole lot of black people would so nonchalantly say, “RIP Robert E. Lee” and dismiss slavery as “bygones.” I’m not saying these singers can’t be part of the discussion on striking racial harmony, but they might want to expand the conversation to include more perspectives before concluding, “Most people are only ‘accidentally’ racist, so get over it.”
In summary, Paisley’s song bemoaning how he was accidentally perceived as a racist accidentally made him seem like an even bigger racist. (It’s sort of like how Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” used no actual examples of irony and thus, in turn, became ironic.) It’s worth noting that the country music community has labeled Paisley a progressive for merely broaching this subject at all, which is probably a good indication of why Paisley thought he should tackle the issue of racism in the first place.
Hopefully, the criticism of this song doesn’t end the conversation. Talking through and becoming aware of the ways in which we are ignorant is how we grow as a society. Even if Paisley and LL Cool J didn’t address the subject from the most enlightened perspective, the resulting discourse can still help us all to be less “accidentally racist” in the future.
Photo Credit: Craig O'Neal