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 last Monday, the day before “Wheelhouse” was released, and YouTube offers dozens of videos with reactions of all kinds.
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.
Three years later, he turned romantic country cliches inside out with “I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song).”
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.
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.
“One of the things I thought about while we were working on this,” he said, “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.”
Last 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.”
This is what I love about albums. Especially country albums. So many different topics can be explored.So many conversations can start here..— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) April 9, 2013