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Accidental Racist: How Bad Punditry Makes Bad Music

The Brad Paisley / LL Cool J song is like every "To be sure, both sides are guilty..." paragraph from a political story, set to a whiny soundtrack.

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Jerod Harris/ACMA2013 / Getty Images for ACM

Brad Paisley at the 48th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards on Apr. 7, 2013, in Las Vegas

The Brad Paisley, LL Cool J country-rap duet, “Accidental Racist,” is a very bad song,  a memorably bad song, possibly the worst race-relations single since GOB Bluth sat down with hand puppet Franklin to record “It Ain’t Easy Being White or Brown.” (“All this pressure to be bright / I got children all over town!”) But what kind of bad song is it? Bad musically? Philosophically? Historically? It is all those, in interlacing, force-multiplying ways. It is the Beethoven’s Ninth of cringe-worthy awfulness.

The song is not, at least, bad in its intentions; those good intentions strangle the song every second its whole nearly six-minute run. The song begins from the perspective of a white guy* who walks into a Starbucks wearing a Confederate-flag T-shirt. (Your first warning sign: this is a country song set at a Starbucks.) He notices the African American barista giving him side-eye over his shirt. Our white guy tries to explain that he wears the flag because he loves the South–and Lynyrd Skynyrd–not because he hates black people. LL’s character tries to explain how the flag, the banner of states that fought for slavery, makes him feel regardless: “I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here.”

*Some critiques of the song have said the narrator is “Paisley.” And Paisley himself has said he based the song on an experience going out in public with an Alabama shirt bearing the Stars and Bars. But one thing country singers have in common with hip-hop artists is that people don’t give them the same credit for having distance from the characters in their songs as they would, say, Bruce Springsteen.

So far, so well-meaning. We ought to try to understand people different from us. Country star and hip-hop star, trading lyrics and sharing billing for peace. Don’t pre-judge! Don’t assume the worst of people! What’s not to like?

Oh God, so much. The sappy ballad arrangement that sets up the confounding metaphors (“The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant / In the corner of the South / And I just walked him right in the room”) and clunky lyrics (“I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood / I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could”). The basic misrepresentations of history, such as describing Reconstruction as mainly being when “they… Fixed the buildings, dried some tears.” The seriously questionable assumptions about the Starbucks employee dress code: (“Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good” “Don’t judge my do-rag”).

But the major problem of “Accidental Racist” is also the major problem of a lot of well-intentioned punditry and journalism. To avoid alienating its audience–here, country-music fans–it sets up a string of false equivalencies. If one side has to bear some burden or confess some bad history, an equivalent must be found on the other side, because, well, it’s only fair, even if it’s not actually equivalent.

Thus: yeah, white Americans enslaved black people for 300 years, but then again, Sherman burned the South! (Um, in the war against said slavery? And, um, I believe he was a white guy?) Yeah, Abraham Lincoln was a hero, but hey, “RIP, Robert E. Lee”! Yeah, black people still suffer from the assumption that they’re criminals, but white Southerners get assumed to be racists, which… hurts their feelings? Sure, we could argue back and forth all day about who enslaved who! But bottom line, white and black people are “still paying for the mistakes / That a bunch of folks made / Long before we came.”

Well… all right. But maybe a line or two acknowledging that for some people, the bill worked out to a hell of a lot more decimal places than it did for others?

The thing is, I don’t doubt that everyone involved here knows that slavery and hurt pride are not equal afflictions. But as Alan Scherstuhl writes in the Village Voice, Paisley probably wants to be careful not to make his country audience feel picked on or disrespected. (As Scherstuhl writes, Paisley has a history of celebrating multicultural America, in much better songs like “American Saturday Night,” which I wish everyone rightly hating on “Accidental Racist” gets to listen to someday.)

So he does what journalists do when they don’t want to seem “biased” and alienate their audience: he “balances” the setup even if it’s sharply tilted in real life. “Accidental Racist” is basically every “To be sure, both sides are guilty…” paragraph in a political story, this time set to a syrupy, whiny tune. And it probably alienated far more people than it would have otherwise.

Whatever it has to say about race and culture in America, “Accidental Racist” is–accidentally–a classic example of how good intentions can ruin a work (and a message). As a cautionary tale, at least, this bad song is very good.