In trying to dream up a #slatepitch on the new Brad Paisley-LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist,” a variety of contrarian avenues spring to mind: “Why Brad Paisley, Like Skynyrd Before Him, Is Right About The Stars & Bars.” “If You Love The Band You Can’t Hate ‘Accidental Racist.’” “Good Intentions Redeem Gag-Inducing Lyrics In Paisley-LL Collabo.”
None of those headlines can sustain a valid argument. Taking the The Band-themed one first: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Tears Of Rage” would spit in your tea if you tried to use their rich portraits of confederate humanity to excuse “Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood/I wasn’t there when Sherman’s march turned the South into firewood” (LL) or “Fixed the buildings, dried some tears/But we’re still sifting through the rubble after 150 years” (Paisley). In the case of the Skynyrd pitch, you’d just be retreading a million strained defenses of the Confederate flag that boil down to “…BUT I REALLY LIKE THAT FLAG DON’T TAKE IT AWAY!” Because again, there’s no comparing the subversive lyrical tenor of “Sweet Home Alabama” – arguably the only classic rock staple more widely misunderstood than “Born In The USA” – to the godawful writing of “Accidental Racist.” And the on-wax conflict between Neil Young and Skynyrd provided exactly what’s lacking from the simplistic detente Paisley and LL attempt to voice: the unblinkered honesty that combativeness brings.
In the case of the redemptive-intentions #slatepitch, Rembert Brown already provided the appropriate irate mockery of LL’s inexcusable offer to “forget the iron chains,” among other lyrical crimes. But Brown left just enough meat on the bone to make a separate point:
This is the Americans Elect of pop culture racial healing.
Americans Elect was the Thomas Friedman-inspired moneypit for earnest rich people who believe that our policy issues can be fixed by taking the raspy edge off our politics. That’s an old idea, supported by the constant poll finding that Americans claim to want a less-caustic politics, but gutted by the real, sharp divides which underlie our policy conflicts. We genuinely disagree over the proper balances of liberty and safety, of individual and communal interests, of private property and public resources. The federalist, tri-partide cauldron our founders built functions best when those disagreements flare up underneath it and cause the country to change somewhere between as quickly as is morally just and as slowly as is socially practical. Efforts to smother those conflicts rather than identify legislators capable of crafting them into a truly responsive politics are counterproductive, and born of elites who are tired of the shouting and incapable of seeing its potential value.
The post-racial aspirations voiced by Paisley’s narrator and LL’s “black yankee” interlocutor suffer from the same self-serving, battle-weary ignorance that drove Americans Elect. While the voices in “Accidental Racist” espouse hyperawareness of color, they’re also calling for an approach to racial differences that’s functionally identical to the colorblindness canard Alyssa’s gutted before. The performers call for racism to magically heal itself through major chords and willpower. It’s The Secret by way of Tinkerbell. Paisley doesn’t want to talk to the coffeeshop guy about racism any more than LL wants to talk to white folks about mandatory minimums or systemic disparities in educational outcomes. They each want to know that ‘We’re cool, right bro?’ without actually engaging the ugly substance and legacy of American history. “Accidental Racist” deserves every ounce of clowning it gets, but a song this earnest that actually grappled with racial divisions wouldn’t merit such epic shade-throwing. Unfortunately, the aesthetics here are exactly as simple, cheap, and foolish as the sentiments. Indemnity masquerades as forgiveness, and squeezes critical self-examination conveniently out of the picture for stars&bars fans.
Like Americans Elect, the failures of “Accidental Racist” at least offer a sort of negative-space sketch of what forward motion might look like. There may be a professional political class that exploits voter antagonisms for profit rather than progress, but the antagonisms themselves are real. A third party that severs some of those antagonists from the parties that are minimally responsive to them in policy terms might do some good, but one that wishes them away is both foolish and damaging. Similarly, imagine the good that might come of pop artists calling not for a peaceful, easy, made-for-Clearchannel conversation about how racism manifests in 21st-century America, but for a difficult, contentious, honest, and combative one.
How appropriate that Paisley locates the initiating event for his narrator’s earnest call for getting over it all in a Starbucks. “Accidental Racist” is the shiny plastic version of a call to productive racial discourse, a cheaply made thought-jalopy that will break down the second anyone foolish enough to buy it drives the thing off the lot.