The Music Club

Brad Paisley’s Accidental Racist: The song deserved better!

Entry 9: In defense of Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist.”

Brad Paisley performs during the American Country Awards on Dec. 10, 2013, in Las Vegas.
Brad Paisley performs during the American Country Awards on Dec. 10, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Dear Geeta, Chris, and Ann,

Talk about a collapsing space-time continuum: I’d love to continue this conversation for days more, but then I’d never finish my holiday shopping. So just one more post each to round out the week.

Ann, I’m glad you pulled us back from 2013 myopia to talk about how the musical past is so very with us, whether in borrowings, movies, reissues, or archives. I stopped fussing as much about originality after I realized that half of what I’d thought was innovative when I was younger in fact had been lifted and resifted from previous generations and that half of talent is knowing what to pilfer. I suspect today’s children of the remix have fewer such illusions. A key will be in how far afield they look, and for that I cosign your reissue picks, particularly in gospel, which still spooks a lot of secular cool kids.

It was a great sign that the most ecstatic live-concert moment I experienced this year was in a tent at the tiny-but-mighty SappyFest in Sackville, New Brunswick, where a crowd of mostly white indie fans had their faces melted—and probably some prejudices, too—by Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. The troupe’s righteous, immersive groove was like a TARDIS trip into the sanctified and electrified guts of rock ’n’ roll.

It was in the same environment that I caught an uncontainable young hip-hop duo from Flatbush called The Underachievers for whom you should keep an ear cocked. Plus a beautiful set by Toronto/Montreal group AroarA, featuring Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman and singer Ariel Engle, whose settings of the words of great American poet Alice Notley on their recent record In the Pines is a dynamic rethinking of folk roots that at its best makes it seem (unlike the Avetts or Mumfords, like ’em or not) as if no one has ever done it before. SappyFest leads a tenuous year-to-year existence out there in the Maritimes, but that’s part of what makes it special—it has no reason for being but for its community’s palpable and infectious love of music. What were the live highlights of 2013 for each of you?

To Ann’s reissues list I’d also add Purple Snow, the ever-reliable Numero Group’s dig into the Minneapolis R&B scene that produced Prince, as well as I Am the Center, an ambitious effort from the Light in the Attic label to overhaul our misapprehensions about a form even scarier than gospel: new age. A lot of electronic music and even metal today—including one of my discs of the year, Tim Hecker’s Virgins—share this instrumental genre’s preoccupations with stillness, layering, and repetition, without the burdening associations with crystal healing and yuppie yoga studios. This compilation rehabilitates new age as a genuinely experimental genre that the next generation might hear afresh.

In film, Ann hit most of the peaks (Inside Llewyn Davis might be among my favorite Coen Bros. joints ever), but let’s not forget Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Along with its general pop-video-on-ketamine aesthetic, its algebraically complex gender politics, and James Franco’s definitive take on the deluded white thug-rapper, it features a rendition of and montage to “Everytime” by “ninja” Britney Spears that was as key to 2013’s ironic-sincere sensibility as Kimye’s “Bound 2” video, a satirical tribute that also reaffirmed the resonance of the most routinely maligned of pop princesses.

Speaking of condemned artists and songs: Like Ann, I won’t wade into the  “Blurred Lines” contretemps except to say that that song would play a relatively minor role in the broader and much more fraught debate you could have about sex and gender in R&B (even without getting to R. Kelly). But here, instead, I would like to raise one cautious hand in defense of another much-pilloried single, “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley.

When I first heard it, I dared to hope that Paisley, in questioning the vexed stars-and-bars iconography of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was venturing a Nashville-populist version of Georgia alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers’ incisive deconstruction of “the duality of the southern thing” in the early 2000s. (By the way, former DBT member Jason Isbell also released a lovely personal album, Southeastern, this year.) Of course, Paisley’s tune falls far short, going most deeply wrong in LL Cool J’s rap—who on earth supposed that was the right guy for the job in the first place, rather than a more nuanced thinker like, say, Mos Def?

Nevertheless, I bristled at the northeastern liberals whose think-piece dismissals smacked of ignorance of country music in general and in particular of Paisley’s past thoughtful and amiable challenges to its complacencies. It was reminiscent of the 1960s liberal reduction of Merle Haggard to “Okie From Muskogee.” (Check out David Cantwell’s new The Running Kind, excerpted on Slate, for that story.) It’s a discredit to the continuing power of Internet insta-snark that Paisley’s attempt at dialogue was so thoroughly shut down, at a time when Tea Party racial dog-whistling and red state–blue state divisions mean we really could use it. Am I naïve to wish he’d gotten a kinder hearing (as he did at least from our ex-Music Club prez)? Like Lorde, I’m not American, and sometimes we foreigners come at these matters at a bit of a cooler and more luxurious distance.

Finally, another gift from the movies this year was a parable about the old, nesting, Matryoshka-style, in the new: Anna Kendrick’s hit, spun out from last year’s Pitch Perfect teen comedy about the a cappella craze, “Cups (When I’m Gone).” This Vulture post traces the song and the dexterity game’s improbable 80-year journey to the charts, beginning with a 1930s pop version of a Carter Family number and with detours through Christian youth camps and, of course, YouTube memes. It was a Thing White People Liked in 2013 that I found much less off-putting than the faux-Harlem Shake.

It’s also on the long roster of hits that will mark this as a golden age not only of retro but of what is in some ways the opposite: novelty songs, Ylvis’ irresistibly absurd “What Does the Fox Say?” of course being another. Partly a product of technology, the novelty-song cornucopia of recent years may also indicate (as I think Chris’s chart analyses attest) that we’re still in a pop period of transition. It’s one way that our own time is akin to the early 1960s: Inside Llewyn Davis is on point in including that “Please Mr. Kennedy” romp led by Justin Timberlake’s character (with hilarious sub-doo-wop vocal effects by Girls’ Adam Driver) because, along with the folk revival itself, such goofball stuff helped fill the gap between ’50s rock ’n’ roll and ’60s rock and soul. Nothing wrong with that, I’d argue, unless you have a grudge against fun and laughter. And today’s novelty can even be tomorrow’s genre template—think of “Rapper’s Delight” on the similarly mixed-up threshold between the 1970s and 1980s.

But if the pattern holds, it could mean we’re still waiting for the voices that will ultimately define this decade in music history. After all, the likes of Jay, Kanye, and Beyonce, who’ve loomed over a lot of our exchange, are old hands now. So perhaps I’ll close by raising a mug of eggnog in thanks, but also asking if you have any nominations for newer artists and styles that might be serious contenders for that role in 2014 and beyond. And if not, is the state of music more dire than we’d like to think?

I got love for y’all, but I’m tryna murder you,