Brad Paisley courts controversy with “Accidental Racist”


LOS ANGELES — One sobering aspect of the heated debate on TV, radio, the Internet, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere over Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental Racist” from his new “Wheelhouse” album is that in 2013 it’s still controversial to address a social issue in a pop (or, in this case, country) song.

Anyone remember a little number called “The Times They Are A-Changin’”? Apparently not.

That seems evident in the media’s need to trot Paisley out to discuss his motivation for writing and recording the song in which he takes the perspective of a young Southerner who suddenly asks himself whether wearing his favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt — the one emblazoned with a Confederate flag — might make him appear to be a racist to the African-American man behind the Starbucks counter where he’s ordering a cup of coffee.

Paisley’s protagonist offers his thoughts about what the flag represents to him:

Our generation didn’t start this nation

We’re still payin’ for mistakes

That a buncha folks made

Long before we came

And caught between Southern pride and Southern blame

Guest rapper LL Cool J, who collaborated on writing the song with Paisley and Lee Thomas Miller, then steps in to give voice to what the black man behind the counter might be thinking and feeling:

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

Paisley’s been talking about the song on “Ellen” and on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America,” while pundits of all stripes have taken to various forums available to them to castigate or congratulate him. The Twitterverse has been ablaze with reactions that started in earnest on Monday, the day before “Wheelhouse” was released, and YouTube offers dozens of videos with reactions of all kinds. (http://www.youtube.com/results?search(underscore)query=brad+paisley+accidental+racist)

In one sense, it adds up to mission accomplished. Paisley’s long been interested in instigating dialogue, and he’s done it big time with “Accidental Racist.”

Paisley’s cannily been pushing at the boundaries of what’s acceptable fodder for contemporary country music virtually since he stepped into the national spotlight with his 1999 debut album “Who Needs Pictures.”

On the surface he’s always been an eminently likable public figure with a great sense of humor. One of his earliest singles, “Me Neither,” poked at expectations in framing a clueless guy’s multiple lame attempts to woo a woman he’s been eyeing at a bar.

Darlin’ I’ve been standin’ here just watchin’ you all night

And I think I’ve even caught you watchin’ me a couple times

If I don’t ask I’ll never know

This may sound dumb, but here we go

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Me neither

I’m glad that we agree

Three years later, he turned romantic country cliches inside out with “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” which starts out sounding like a zillion other earnest twangy ballads:

Today she met me at the door

Said I would have to choose

If I hit that fishin’ hole today

She’d be packin’ all her things

and she’d be gone by noon

Well I’m gonna miss her

In 2005 he slipped a not-so-subtle message about one of society’s biggest ills into a honky-tonk rave-up called “Alcohol”:

I can make anybody pretty

I can make you believe any lie

I can make you pick a fight

With somebody twice your size

I been known to cause a few breakups

I been known to cause a few births

I can make you new friends

Or get you fired from work

And he took sexual innuendo to new heights — and to mainstream country radio airwaves — with “Ticks,” his 2007 No. 1 hit:

I’d like to see you out in the moonlight

I’d like to kiss you way back in the sticks

I’d like to walk you through a field of wildflowers

And I’d like to check you for ticks

Race relations were on his mind in the wake of President Obama’s election victory in 2008, and evident in Paisley’s 2009 single “Welcome to the Future,” in which he traced momentous events of the 20th century in the course of a song whose message was clear even without the use of words like “black” and “white.”

I had a friend in school

Running back on the football team

They burned a cross in his front yard

For asking out the homecoming queen

I thought about him today

And everybody who’d seen what he’d seen

From a woman on a bus

To a man with a dream

“I’m getting into some subjects that don’t come up very often in country music, like racism, and I think it’s time,” Paisley told me in 2009, shortly before the release of “American Saturday Night,” the album that included “Welcome to the Future.”

“One of the things I thought about while we were working on this,” he said four years before “Accidental Racist,” “is this nagging feeling that country music had sat this one out a little too long, as far as what’s going on right before our very eyes, and in our society.”

Earlier this week he told Ellen DeGeneres “I don’t know” when she asked what the song is saying. “I don’t know if any of you’ve noticed,” he deadpanned, “but there’s some racial tension, here and there. I felt like when we were writing this song, it wasn’t necessarily up to the media, I don’t really trust Hollywood … or talk radio or anything like that to sort of deal with that anymore. I think it’s music’s turn to have the conversation.”

Instead, Paisley suggested to members of the audience that they listen to the song and decide for themselves: “Make your own mind up, that’s fine. You can throw things at me, I’m all right.”

It’s the same thing he’s been doing on his own Twitter feed: “This is what I love about albums,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “Especially country albums. So many different topics can be explored. So many conversations can start here.”

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Brad Paisley: ‘Accidental Racist’ not a stunt

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