At New York Magazine, Jody Rosen has a long and revealing conversation with Brad Paisley about “Accidental Racist,” his collaboration with LL Cool J, which started a very different conversation about race than the two men seem to hav intended. One of the things that I think is striking about Paisley’s discussion of what he hoped to do with the track is how much he was concerned about setting the terms on which a conversation could occur, rather than about the content of that conversation:
The truth is, I mostly thought about “Accidental Racist” in terms of my fans. This song was meant to generate discussion among the people who listen to my albums. What I was most worried about is that my fan base would think that I was preaching to them. The last thing I ever want to do is be preachy. But I thought that my fans would get something out of hearing a point of view that they don’t hear very often — a perspective you really don’t hear in country music. Some Southerners got very mad it me: “I’m done with you. How dare you apologize for the Confederate flag.” But the majority of my fans said, “We know you, we love you — and we don’t understand the controversy, we don’t get why everyone is so mad.” Which tells you all you need to know, right there. There is a gulf of understanding that I was trying to address…
I wanted to this with LL because I love his music, and because he’s a legend in his format. And I didn’t want to do this with someone controversial. You have to remember my thought process: I was thinking about the reception from my audience. My fear was, I didn’t want my fans to just write it off. I didn’t want them to dismiss the song and its message. I thought about approaching Kanye. Mike Dean, who works with Kanye, produced “Outstanding in Our Field” [on Wheelhouse]. But it would have instantly been polarizing if I’d gotten Kanye.
There’s no question that if you want to make a point that’s challenging to the people you’re in conversation with, you have to get your audience in a position where they can hear and absorb that point, rather than rejecting it out of hand, and reacting to you in a way that makes it impossible for you to raise anything with them ever again. A lot of Paisley’s brand depends on his ability to find ways to bring new ideas to a core country audience, while selling himself as a country artist who’s palatable to casual listeners who pigeonhole country as inherently conservative. And the ability to have a conversation is reflected in LL Cool J’s lyrics in “Accidental Racist,” too, when he explains that “I’d love 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.”
But agreeing to have a conversation is only part of the work. You have to think about what you want to say over that beer once you’ve ordered it. And you have to think about both what you want to give to and get from the other person in the conversation, rather than simply gratifying your own feelings, or congratulating yourself for being willing to talk in the first place. “Accidental Racist” came across as risible in part because the racism in question is of the sort that is an accident only if you’re barely thinking at all about the symbols you’re wearing and the way you’re behaving. But it was also that the song was yet another entry in the long tradition of demanding a conversation about race without thinking about what the content of that conversation will be. And it didn’t recognize that, to make progress at the end of a conversation, the positions of some of the people involved are going to have to change. It’s a very different thing to commit to have a beer, and to consider actually giving up your Skynyrd t-shirt, or to try to prioritize the feelings of other people even if it means sacrificing things that feel sentimental or important to you. A lot of people are willing to try out the former. Fewer are up for the latter.