I have to take a detour here. This post began as an attempt to review Brad Paisley’s new album Wheelhouse, which officially drops today. However, given the buzz and controversy stirred up by one song in particular, “Accidental Racist,” it became apparent that this article needs to be about the greater conversation that the song has sparked.
Let me begin by saying that regardless of your thoughts about that song, it’s worth mentioning that Wheelhouse may very well be one of the strongest albums of Paisley’s career—a fact that I’m concerned may be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding one song. After years of gliding to the top on relatively “safe” country songs, as Paisley himself suggests with his leadoff track, he’s chosen to walk out of his “Southern Comfort Zone” and tackle some of life’s more difficult issues, albeit tinged with his signature sense of humor. Yes, there are the obligatory party tunes and sentimental love songs fans have come to expect, but metaphorically speaking, the loudest songs on the record are those that deal with subject matter that big-name country artists are supposed to avoid—songs like “Karate”, which deals with domestic abuse, and “Those Crazy Christians”, which delves shamelessly into the living contradiction between hypocrisy and grace that currently plagues the modern church.
And then, there’s the song.
“Accidental Racist” begins a serious conversation about ongoing racial tensions in America by relating an incident in which Paisley supposedly causes offense by going into Starbucks wearing a t-shirt with a confederate flag on it. Throughout the song, Paisley approaches the issue from the perspective of a white Southerner (“I’m a white man living in the Southland…caught between Southern pride and Southern blame”), while New York rapper LL Cool J provides the counterbalance (“Just because my pants are saggin’ / Doesn’t mean I’m up to no good / You should try to get to know me / I really wish you would…I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book / I’d like to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air / But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here”).
In attempts to explain the song to the media, Paisley emphasizes that he is simply trying to engage the conversation with music, rather than provide answers. As he told ABC News, “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 listening to the song, my first impression is that it is coming from an honest place, rather than a malicious one, even if some feel Paisley is misguided. As a “Yankee” who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Deep South, I understand the Southern mentality probably better than some who have not come from that part of the country, and my perception is that Paisley is merely trying to shine a light on that perspective as part of the conversation. However, I also recognize that there are people who will misinterpret Paisley’s perspective as an unwarranted defense of the Southern mindset, tying it to racism by association. And of course, there are plenty of people in the blogosphere and Twitterverse who are more offended simply by the fact that Paisley brought the subject up than by what the song actually says—as if to assume that racism will go away simply by not discussing it.
While at this point only a few extremists on the margins would land on the side of racism as a good thing, “Accidental Racist” has inadvertently made a very important point—and that is that for most Americans, there is still some grey area as to what does and does not constitute racism. If anything, this song has underscored the fact that there are still some important conversations to be had about this issue—and by being bold (or foolish) enough to put this song on Wheelhouse, Brad Paisley has willing walked into the crosshairs. In digging deep for this album, he has apparently dug up a can of worms.