Another year is coming to an end, which means I have spent a good part of the last month trying to convince various horrible readers’ polls on the internet that Future of the Left’s How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is the best album of 2013 and “Singing of the Bonesaws” is the Very Best Single of the year. Although it wasn’t technically a single, I operate on the assumption that we live in an era where every song simultaneously is and isn’t a single.
There’s a lot we could talk about looking back at 2013 but for some reason, my mind keeps coming back to “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley (featuring L.L. Cool J). I thought about adding it to my ongoing list of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard but 1) I’m not even sure I can do that feature anymore and 2) it would just be too goddamn easy. To address the first point first, part of the reason Bollocks! has been so infrequently updated over the last two years is because I was finishing a master’s degree but another part is that I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at what I’ve written over the last few years and honestly, I don’t like much of it at all. There’s some stuff I’m kind of proud of but there’s mostly a lot of jokes that seem too easy, not to mention enough ego to swallow a music industry awards show whole. A surprising amount of people (i.e., “any people at all”) dug a lot of that shit and that’s fine. But for me to keep doing Bollocks! it’s gonna have to be different. Better. More on that as it develops.
But as for “Accidental Racist” being too easy of a target for being one of the Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, here’s what I mean: it is most certainly one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It’s lyrically embarrassing and musically banal but so is most modern country music these days. Like a lot of white guys, I find the reaction to this song kind of shocking. Unlike a lot of white guys, I mean I find it shocking that my fellow crackers were quick to give Paisley points for trying and thereby brush off accusations that “Accidental Racist” is (accidentally, of course!) racist. One writer suggested that this was the “first time ever” that a song had sparked a national dialogue about whether or not the Confederate flag is racist. Essentially, a lot of defense of “Accidental Racist” wants to give Paisley points for trying and shush up all the meanies who dare to suggest that being racist by accident is still being racist.
This is the point that a lot of people – including Brad Paisley – seemed to miss. That whole “accidental” part doesn’t stop racism from being racism and to suggest that hey, I’m just an earnest white dude in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt trying to do my best in this complicated world is to suggest that I’m not accountable for my acts of racism. And points for trying? I’m sorry, but fuck “trying” – it’s not good enough. When it comes to eradicating racism, the stakes are incredibly high. The disparities nonwhites experience at the hands of our so-called justice system, from our police, in housing and employment are literally matters of life and death. In the face of all that, for a white person to expect points for trying is, I would imagine, pretty goddamn insulting.
Similar defenses have been deployed to defend Miley Cyrus’s current nonsense and Katy Perry’s dressing up as a geisha for some goddamn awful performance (the American Music Awards, maybe?) – these white folks weren’t trying to be racist so it’s definitely not racist, according to (surprise!) a bunch of white people. My fellow white folks, we have to do better than that. Ask yourself: doesn’t it seem a little too goddamn easy to dehumanize an entire segment of humanity (by accident or design) and then, when they speak up about it, call them over-sensitive? Doesn’t that seem a little fucked up to you?
So I know I’m rambling a bit but I feel like it’s not just that “Accidental Racist” is awful music (please do remember though that it’s really awful music) – it’s that the rush to defend it based solely on the perceived intentions of the singer is a symptom of how pervasive white supremacy is in our culture. It’s so pervasive that a lot of white folks I know tend to misunderstand the definition of racism, often seeing it as a Southern stereotype with a Confederate flag on his shirt shouting the n-word. Let me take a stab at clarification: our just-mentioned Southern racist is being prejudiced by shouting the n-word at someone. But let’s say (just hypothetically, of course) that he’s from Florida and he doesn’t ever say the n-word, but he, absent of all evidence, makes the assumption that (just for instance, mind you) an unarmed African-American teenager in a hoodie is engaged in criminal activity. Now let’s say our Floridian gets away with murdering that (again, unarmed) kid by claiming that he was in fear for his life – that’s racism (if our Floridian’s jury is made up of mostly white folks, the entire defense is predicated on racism as it asks the white jurors to find it completely understandable to fear for your life from unarmed black teens). That’s prejudice with the power to enforce it broadly to the disadvantage of an entire group of people. It’s what makes it seem acceptable to certain reporters to talk about Renisha McBride’s blood-alcohol level when writing about how a white man shot her when she was seeking help after getting in a car accident, as if to suggest that the fact that she was drunk means she deserved to die.
Understand something, please: we all have prejudices, every single human does. But not all of us have the ability to institutionalize our prejudices – in the U.S. of A., that dubious privilege falls to white people. Some of us may not like it, but guess what? Not liking it isn’t enough either. We have to stop seeing a level playing field where there isn’t one and we have to own it when we fuck up, which we’re gonna do.
You came here to read about 2013’s musical highs and lows and you got this. I’m not sorry. This is what’s on my mind when I think about picking up this blog again in any kind of regular capacity – I still want to write about music, but it has to connect to all the other shit that’s out there because everything happens in context. And my context has always been that Bollocks! has to matter to me in order for it to continue. And it matters to me to look at the context in which music is made.
Here’s a thing bell hooks wrote that I like: “One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness… Many scholars, critics and writers preface their work by stating that they are white as though mere acknowledgement of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction.” I think about that a lot as something to bear in mind when I’m writing even something as seemingly frivolous (and certainly meaningless) as a music blog. Is Brad Paisley interested in interrogating whiteness through the prism of country music? Time will tell. If he is, he’s never gonna get there without learning how to be held accountable for fucking up, which is a really hard thing to do (I’m not, by the way, trying to claim that I’m an Enlightened White Person who never trespasses on folks – I fuck up as much or more than the next person).
Next time, we’ll talk more about music. Unless I wanna talk about something else.