by Joseph Lamour
I, like the rest of the internet and world (outside of the Arista Nashville offices, apparently), think “Accidental Racist” is an absolutely awful song. With a title that sounds more like a play by Neil Simon than a country-rap crossover, this misguided attempt at finding racial common ground is so terrible because it’s just so ill-considered from both sides of the duet. Being like I am, though, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when things like this happen. I try to figure out why that actor called that other actor that homophobic slur. I hold on hope for fallen starlets for about a year longer than everyone else. But, because I also Like being appalled (it gives me an excuse to make this face), I often break it down the whole process when something like this happens.
Just think: Brad Paisley and LL Cool J decided to make this song together, both wrote their parts independently, then recorded them, and producers worked on it, and label executives heard it and gave it the okay before any of us heard it…see, what I suspect happened was folie a duex. It’s the only explanation. This level of mediocre song-making goes unparalleled when it comes to songs that have tried to affect social change. If you’re invoking Starbucks in any of your music, your song is probably bad.
I hope this song was made with the best of intentions. I wasn’t sure when I first heard it. My opinion was that it was an attempt to make a buck off of a “hot button issue of today” but, since then, I’ve read more on Mr. Paisley and his forays into activism-through-music, and to be honest, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy to me. He seems like a terribly naive and lyrically misguided guy to me, but he’s not bad. I’m exactly not sure what LL was thinking, to be honest. In January, Alan Scherstuhl from the Village Voice covered Brad’s history with this type of music:
Paisley got a little misty performing “Welcome to the Future” at the White House in 2009. [During the performance], he has to wipe his eye, mid-solo; earlier, moved while addressing Obama directly, he says “My own children– you are the first president they will remember.”
In his song, amongst iPods and video phones, Brad invokes “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama, and does so with a poetic edge that works within the confines of activist music. “Welcome to the Future,”: by the way, was a song written after Barack Obama’s was first elected in 2008. He also performed it during the inauguration. See? He isn’t so bad. The YouTube comments on “Welcome to the Future”, however, are. To this day, even. When you think of other songs that have done some good when it comes to race relations, you think of a songwriter or singer in the thick of the drama they’re singing about, kind of like the feelings Brad had when living in America when history was made.
I think one of the big reasons we all turn to Grumpy Cat when we hear “Accidental Racist” is that the song sounds so inauthentic. A big part of that is the fact that Brad Paisley is from West Virginia, which was part of the Union, so this whole Yankee/Confederate dichotomy LL and Brad were trying to do falls so very completely flat. So, in regards to “Accidental Racist” (the title is so awesomely awful to me I just love to type it out) I decided to take a closer look at some of the lyrics, and like I did for the SI Swimsuit Fail in February, break down why they make the internet want to change the station. Maybe this will help Brad in his future lyrical endeavors.
I’m going to start with the title, because that in itself is one of the big problems. It sounds like Brad is excusing behavior that he should already know is going to make some unhappy. I think it’s safe to say that if you wear a rebel flag, some people are going to take that as a racist signifier. The Dukes of Hazzard even removed it from all future versions of the General Lee. But even if you didn’t know–which I’m sure some people don’t–titling your song an excuse is just going to make some people reticent to believe anything you say.
To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
Starbucks! See, this really is a problem. When you try to make yourself seem like the everyman by invoking fast food by brand name, the result is off-putting. I’m trying to pinpoint exactly why that is. You don’t hear McDonald’s or Chili’s mentioned much in music, do you?
[Editor’s note: I’m curious about this, if you guys can think of any songs that mention fast food in a non-derogatory way, say so in the comments. I’m sure someone’s said something about being the Burger King or something, right?]
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
The first line is fine. It’s an explanation. However, about the second line: the red flag on your chest isn’t somehow an elephant in the room; it has a long, well-documented history as to why it makes people of color uncomfortable. The lyrical language seems to always read a little defensive. And that may be its biggest problem.
I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Okay, let me stop right there. I think that to effectively talk about casual racism, which is what I suspect the title was aiming to do, some things are better left implied. You do not have to explicitly tell us your race. If it’s possible to write a whole song about homophobia without using the word “gay,” then its possible to talk about an issue without making the audience feel unease by explicitly expressing the issue at hand.
I was going to make a joke here about the song “Ebony and Ivory” not being called “Black and White,” but then I remembered there’s a pretty popular song called “Black and White”–silly me! I’m pretty sure tension in MJ’s song is avoided by the fact that he is using the second person in the chorus. “Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white” would sound different and a bit confrontational if he had said “Doesn’t matter if I’m black and you’re white”–I could probably go on about the intricacies of this forever. For the sake of brevity, let’s move on.
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
My only response is that this reminded me of the lyrics of another song:
Which is awesome, if that’s what you were trying to do.
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin
Again, the last line is making an excuse: “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” is a universally known saying because the concept of empathy exists. It may be hard to see what someone else’s perspective is on a situation, but it’s very possible. Words and phrases like “somehow” and “it ain’t like” serve to disregard the very sentiments the song tries to project.
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good…
With most of LL Cool J’s part, I…like…really just can’t. The problem with LL’s section is that is reduces most of the issues we cover on Racialicious to catch phrases.
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I know, I know: with rapping comes a certain amount of posturing, but if there was ever a wrong place to remind us of your net worth, it would be here.
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
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
This is the only part of LL’s that rings true to me because it feels like a true sentiment. Maybe if the whole song was that way we’d add it to the pantheon of good songs about race. However…
If you don’t judge my do-rag
I won’t judge your red flag
If you don’t judge my gold chains
I’ll forget the iron chains
RIP Robert E. Lee
Frankly I think the reason people find this bad isn’t even because LL Cool J is telling the leader of the confederate army to rest in peace, I think it’s just the truly heinous rhyming. Is that just me?
I left out LL gems “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’” and “quite frankly I’m a black yankee…” because if I tried to analyse this song any more, my brain would turn into ambrosia salad.
I’ll leave you with what I feel is the penultimate activist song regarding race in America, “Strange Fruit”:
Written by a white man, Abel Meeropol, and sung most famously by a black woman, Billie Holliday, this song shows that sometimes racial differences come together to form something completely poignant. Some people are saying that Brad’s song is promoting discussion–and I agree–but it hasn’t really been promoting any discussion about race, has it? And wasn’t that the point?