He’s a music megastar — one of the best Telecaster-picking guitar players of the day — and he’s Mr. Stereotype. White guy from West Virginia who sings country tunes, wears a cowboy hat and has performances at the Grand Ole Opry (often) and the White House’s celebration of country music (in 2009) on his resume.
Can’t get more modern-day Nashville than that.
But, gosh, has he kicked the ever-lovin’ mess out of the anthill that is racism in America — which hardly is a common theme emanating from Music City’s recording studios.
A few days ago, Paisley’s new song, “Accidental Racist,” hit the Internet. (In music parlance, it landed with a boom.) It’s a slow-paced ditty that features rapper LL Cool J, which, in the realm of musical duets, is as atypical as you can get. Its release has also earned Paisley and LL Cool J, along with tons of free publicity, spots on The Tonight Show to explain just what they were thinking.
The long story’s short version is that Paisley wanted to record a song with deep, lyrical meaning. He wrote about racism. And he talked his friend LL Cool J into helping him record this difficult merger of clashing musical cultures.
Lyric-wise, it’s a simple premise: White guy and black guy have a conversation about racism — and find out, as the song explains, that there’s so much more to a person than the music he listens to or the clothes he wears. In essence, let’s all get along.
Problem is, we don’t all get along. There are people who still see color instead of faces, who can’t let go of memories of our racist past. There also are people — being human — who hold widely different opinions about things artistic (such as music) and social (such as race relations and when it’s OK to talk about them).
Thanks to “Accidental Racist,” Paisley and LL Cool J are getting hammered from all sides. There is no sanctuary of a middle ground.
In general terms:
Musical purists hate it.
Southern heritage types are appalled that Paisley would (a.) team up with a rapper and (b.) write a song about racism.
Music critics — pros — by and large think the song wore out its 15 minutes of fame 14 minutes ago.
To put it kindly, the song isn’t Paisley’s best work. It’s a good thing he was trying to push out a valuable message — the absurdity of racism — instead of writing a musical masterpiece or Grammy-worthy lyrics, which it is not.
But hammer Paisley for trying to say something both controversial and relevant?
Isn’t that what infuses the best music with its soul? A message to go along with the tune?
Give the guy credit. Instead of wimping out with more inane pop-country, he chose a risky path. Recall what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who were blacklisted by conservative, right-leaning Big Nashville when Natalie Maines had the gall to criticize President Bush and the Iraq War. Not every musician who stands behind political or social-justice songs keeps their career on track.
Likewise, don’t forget that Paisley and LL Cool J are merely the next in the long queue of artists who have bravely pushed a message, whatever it is, through their music. Don’t consider them trendsetters.
That label fits the Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Fortunate Son”), John Lennon (“Imagine”), The Beatles (“Revolution”), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (“Ohio”), Elvis Presley (“In the Ghetto”), Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”), not to mention the countless blues musicians before them who sang of tough times and inequity. They set the standard for innumerable artists who wrote anti-war songs, revolution songs, equality songs and, in the heart of the turbulent 1960s, anti-government songs. The others who have followed, from punk to pop to rock to country, have merely continued the trend.
Earlier this week, Paisley tried to explain to Jay Leno what led to the creation of “Accidental Racist.” Paisley said, “I thought maybe it would be an interesting conversation between country music and rap music to deal with this subject between two individuals in a loving and understanding way … In the song, really what we’re trying to do is explore what happens when two people have a dialogue.
“My prayer is that maybe something good will come from this.”
Sometimes, the message is the only thing worth listening to in music.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him on Twitter.com at PTutor_Star.