If you had asked me a week ago to guess which singer was about to set off a racial stink bomb on the Internet, Brad Paisley would not have been my answer.
But there he was on Monday, releasing a single titled "Accidental Racist," about a Southern man agonizing over the fact that his Confederate flag T-shirt upsets the (presumably black) man who waits on him at Starbucks.
"I hope you understand, when I put on that T-shirt," Paisley sings, earnestness bubbling from every beat, "the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan."
The often cringe-worthy lyrics depict a white Southern man (Paisley hails from West Virginia) trying to navigate the thorny landscape of racism and slavery's brutal legacy, "caught somewhere between Southern pride and Southern blame."
Then an LL Cool J rap enters the mix, and the song lurches from baffling to bizarre ("If you forget my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains").
It's hard to imagine that either man couldn't anticipate what was to come.
The song exploded on Twitter and other social media sites. The reaction was lightning swift and overwhelmingly unfavorable.
"Brad Paisley and LL Cool J Show How Not to Sing About the Confederate Flag," was The Atlantic's headline. Other posts used phrases like "awkward," "misguided," "regrettable" and "politely toxic" to describe the song. And those were the nicer reactions. Many others all but branded Paisley an ignorant redneck and ranked "Accidental Racist" as the worst "message" song ever written (somewhere, the guys who wrote "Billy Don't Be a Hero" sighed in relief").
As for LL Cool J, people seemed stunned and angry that he would serve as the voice of rapprochement in a song that can be accused of glossing over a disturbing chapter in American history. "C'mon LL," remarked Bay Area hip-hop activist and radio personality Davey D, "the iron chains can't be forgotten ... especially since those chains never left."
But the lion's share of the anger and derision was directed at Paisley, a surprising turn of events for a man who strikes me as one of the least provocative music superstars on the planet. I can't think of even one other time when he's been in the middle of a media blowup, especially one involving charges of racial insensitivity. He has always struck me as a steady, solid, obviously ambitious guy with a knack for turning out catchy, clever Southern-fried country/rock, and whose flashiest moments come not from his mouth but from his fretwork (say what you want of him, Paisley is a gifted guitar player).
All of which made me think, "Wait a minute, is it possible Paisley could -- gulp! -- be getting a raw deal here?"
Well, maybe. A little.
I say this even though no one -- no one -- should claim to be surprised that the Confederate flag is deeply offensive and hurtful to many people. I know some like to defend it as a stamp of Southern pride and individualism, and nothing more, but you don't get to choose how symbols affect people, and this one will forever be associated with slavery and people who were willing to die to defend it.
Also, Paisley's lament that "our generation didn't start this nation, and we're still paying for the mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came" wrongly shoves the problem into the past tense. He should contact the Southern Poverty Law Center and ask researchers there if racial intolerance and hate-related violence are behind us.
Despite all that, I don't think Paisley's a hateful person. I think he recorded "Accidental Racist" with the goal of raising questions that were troubling him (and maybe sell a few copies of his new album). And so the question becomes, if a country/pop singer decides to tackle a controversial, explosive topic, should he or she get at least a little credit for the effort, no matter how ineloquent and, yes, painful the results? A friend and colleague offered the term "noble failure" to describe the song, and I see some merit to that. The only trouble is when you fail on a topic that cuts as deeply as this one, it's going to hurt.
Few, if any, of Paisley's friends in the country music business have weighed in, either to defend or correct him, probably because none of them wants to get caught in the middle of a debate about racism. But to me, country music's silence on the matter, and its avoidance of such topics in general, is more damning than anything Paisley has done.
It's easy for a smug writer such as myself to slag on a guy like Paisley who exhibits what seems a dangerously outdated perspective on racism. But that perspective exists, no doubt in great numbers, and Paisley, to his credit, put it out there, earnestly, unabashedly and without malice, knowing his reputation would take a hit (for now, anyway, although wet paint dries fast on the Internet).
Maybe the best response isn't to jump on Paisley like he's a child murderer and walk away satisfied that we, of course, hold the only acceptable attitudes about racism. Maybe a better response is to engage in the dialogue Paisley seems to be inviting, even if the invitation makes you wince. Maybe one thing we should take away from the song is one of its few winning lines, delivered by LL Cool J:
"You should try to get to know me; I really wish you would."