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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

There are many things to say about Brad Paisley’s new song.

The country music giant is under fire for “Accidental Racist,” about a Starbucks employee who objects to Paisley’s Confederate battle flag shirt. The song, Paisley’s attempt to metabolize his conflicted feelings as “a white man comin’ to you from the southland” trying to pick his way through the minefield of race, has generated, well … feedback.

Rolling Stone dubbed it “questionable.” Gawker called it “horrible.” CMT News said it was “clumsily written” and singled out guest performer LL Cool J for an “inept” rap.

They are being kind. As several observers have noted, “Accidental Racist” brings to this difficult subject all the emotional and intellectual depth of a fifth-grader’s social studies essay. And let’s not even get started on LL’s rap, which inexplicably finds moral equivalence between a do-rag and that American swastika, the Confederate battle flag, an act of stupendous stupidity for which somebody ought to pull his black card.

But the song also fails in a more subtle, yet substantive way. Twice, Paisley speaks of the impossibility of imagining life from the African-American perspective: “I try to put myself in your shoes,” he sings, “and that’s a good place to begin, but it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin.” As if African-American life is so mysterious and exotic, so alien to all other streams of American life, that unless you were born to it, you cannot hope to comprehend it.

That’s a copout — and a disappointment. Say what you will about his song, but also say this: Paisley is in earnest. His heart — this is neither boilerplate nor faint praise — is in the right place. Credit him for the courage, rare in music, almost unheard of in country music, to confront this most thankless of topics. But courage and earnestness will net him nothing without honesty.