Good Intentions but No Imagination: The Schlock of ‘Accidental Racist’

I. The Accidental Narcissist

In a recently released commercial for AT&T’s HTC First phone and its Facebook Home app, a young couple stands at attention in front of a painting at a museum, listening to a docent’s lecture. Well, the woman in the ad is trying to listen, but her eyes are drooping. This is boring. Luckily, an update arrives on her phone: a fun photograph from her friends’ wedding. Maybe she couldn’t go because her boyfriend dragged her to the museum. Maybe she wasn’t invited, and this photograph is a rather mean way of rubbing it in. Anyway, as infantile thumb-piano music trickles along, she looks up and—lo and behold!—the painting has been replaced by the photograph of her friends.

This isn’t just any painting, it’s Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. These tourists are at The Uffizio Gallery in Florence, Italy. Ah, it becomes clear now: because the couple is in Italy, they were unable to attend the…

It doesn’t matter. You’d have to watch the commercial closely a few times to parse out these details, and they don’t redeem this slap in the face to museums, galleries, art schools, art programs, and artists both young and, well, long dead. As the tour continues, the woman replaces a sculpture of a voluptuous and possibly mythic woman (I can’t place it) with a photo of her friend, who has taken a “selfie” of her new haircut and helpfully captioned it, “New Haircut!” Finally, an elderly docent leans over and says, “Us girls are going dancing tonight. You in?” As if by magic, the same message appears on the woman’s phone, “You” replaced, inevitably, by “U”.

Set aside for a moment the thinly-veiled, sexist implication that women are hopelessly social and, well, a little vapid. There’s a whimsical, childish look on the actress’ face, as if centuries-old art is interesting but can’t possibly compete with her friend’s new do. And set aside, sort of, the larger implication that art (and thinking, for a moment, outside of one’s self) is boring.

What’s at the heart of this message is the utter narcissism of our heavily mediated culture, or at least a particular segment of our culture able to afford the latest smart phones, trips to Italy and so forth. “If I don’t see myself, why am I bothering to look?” We know what we want, after all, and we know what we think we need. The objective world in front of us cannot possibly have anything to bring to one’s life. If it does, we should be able to process it in a couple of seconds. And so we transfer onto it our own images. This is an old story, but social media has tweaked it. The woman doesn’t put her own image up there. This is about friendship and community…right? Even so, it’s still her circle, confined, closed off to experiences different from her own.

I don’t know how many people intend for this to happen, how many are turned off by the way art is taught in K-12 (or, increasingly, defunded and done away with), or how many of us can truly say we’ve never made ourselves our own greatest objects of worship through the mirror of our friends.

I just know this advertisement celebrates the heck out of our desire to see only ourselves in the world. If no one else is watching us through social media, at least we’re watching ourselves.

II. The Man Behind the Counter

Ultimately this same flattering self-regard contributes to the gumminess and rancid taste of Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”. Dressed in the clothes of self-critique and earnestness, good intentions all around, the song seeks to flatter itself, the singer, and the listener. From its too-precious acoustic guitar to its languid tempo and saccharine, heroic melody, the song drips with self-pity.

Even though Paisley’s voice is indistinguishable from another hundred or so contemporary Nashville pop country singers, he’s wildly popular, and you can imagine him and his songwriting team of James Todd Smith and Thomas Lee Miller crafting this song for a summer stadium tour. The sky is clear, the wind warm, and everyone’s holding hands. “Hey, Brad,” we say, “thanks for caring enough to write a song.”

But the character singing the song, the guy who buys his coffee at a “Starbucks down on Main” (pause for a moment to consider all the economics and geography and history this one phrase alone suggests) and who offends the presumably black individual working behind the counter…this guy, well, he’s a little defensive. No sooner has he laid out what’s happened than he’s blaming the Confederate flag that “somehow” is “like the elephant in the corner of the South”, which besides pleading ignorance and belying a privileged point of view, has got to be one of the clunkiest similes ever used in mainstream country music. And that’s saying something.

From that point in the song, there’s really no attempt to understand what the black man working the counter of Starbucks might be thinking or feeling. Maybe this story is from Paisley’s own experience, and maybe he got into a conversation with the man, or maybe he said nothing and went home and wrote this terrible song. It doesn’t matter. There’s no dialogue in the song with the man behind the counter. (At least, maybe, not yet.) No, right now, the narrator’s got to tell us who he is. Sure, he’s “got a lot to learn” but, but, but…”from my point of view”—and we’re off and running.

This is essentially the ‘white gaze’ focused on the ‘other’ and responding by seeing the white gaze looking at itself. It introduces the possibility of black subjectivity—the African-American voice, responding, possibly, gosh, disagreeing—only to shut off that conversation right away, unless, as I alluded to above, LL Cool J is supposed to be the guy behind the counter. (I’ll come back to that.) There’s no sense that Paisley or even his fictional narrator are aware of the overall social privilege whiteness provides.

By comparing the song’s narcissism to the narcissism of the woman in the TV commercial, don’t think for a minute I’m going to pass this off to the general cultural brand of self-regard. That’s just a place to start, a wide diagnosis, and “Accidental Racist” is a particularly pernicious strain, distinct but related. I don’t think they—meaning Paisley and his songwriting team—believed this is an anti-racism song. I think they full-well understood the title.

This is an apology for racism, not an end to it, and they’ve embraced that. Even the song’s title deflects responsibility or the necessity of change. This song has all the good intentions of the drunk fratboy who wanders up to you on campus around 2AM, lost from his party, and wants to tell you why he doesn’t hate women, just the ones who won’t sleep with him. The whole situation confuses him. What can you do?

The song just throws its hands up in the air. History? “It ain’t like you and me can rewrite” it, sings Paisley. But, the song suggests, we can ignore it, and won’t we all be better off that way? The only reason I could try to get behind this song is the message about moving on toward a new understanding. We can’t rewrite history, true enough. But the song says that in moving on, you cut the anchor of that pesky history and reclaim the symbol of sedition and racism. (Even the lone surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynrd doesn’t want to be associated with the Confederate flag anymore. (See “Racists Ruined the Confederate Flag for Lynyrd Skynyrd”, by Alexander Abad-Santos, The Atlantic: Wire, 21 September 2012.)

I just came from a conference where I presented a paper on the graphic novel Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, a comic containing two graphic lynching scenes set in the early ’30s. Preparing my research, I read the horrifying collection of lynching photographs titled Without Sanctuary by James Allen, which documents the more than 3,000 murders that took place primarily in the South of primarily African Americans. Writing about the ways we read single, static images in both photographs and comics, I had to read this book. It sat on my desk for a month before I would crack its covers. I couldn’t open it.

And so hearing Paisley sing a line like “They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears” sounds like an atrocity. That’s an overreaction, sure. The real atrocities took place in broad daylight, in public squares, and after victims were disembowled, castrated, and burned alive. White southerners stood by the charred lumps of the bodies and posed with all the cheer and righteousness that comes from believing unerringly in the justness of your perspective and the license to kill one can imagine it provides.

This history is entirely absent in “Accidental Racist”. It’s as if racism ended after slavery, in the same pat fashion some claimed it would end after President Obama was elected. And besides the infuriating sentimentality of a phrase like “dried some tears”, you’ve got to wonder about the sincerity of a song that places the focus of any attempts at reconciliation and progress on buildings, not people.

In “Accidental Racist”, history is a generic blob, a “back then” that can safely take the blame for vague injustices while more recent history—say, the vicious murder of James Boyd by three white men in Texas in 1998, or the recent challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or Trayvon Martin’s senseless killing, or the fact that “the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years”—is completely overlooked. Paisley either ignores or is capable of recognizing how race affects the economic status of the man behind the counter, who for all we know is managing a part-time job while he goes to college. If the song is autobiographical, Paisley leaves out the part where he’s a millionaire, and if the song isn’t, then why not address a successful black businessman (or, shockingly, a black woman)?

Those questions get lost in the song’s foggy hall of mirrors (see Henry Louis Gates Jr.), where to see someone else is to essentially see yourself, which is much easier when you’re part of a privileged white community.

That’s why the most disappointing aspect of this song, beyond its misguided appeals to a flatulent tolerance that only maintains the status quo, beyond the saccharine lies-upon-lies that is the song’s composition, performance and production, and beyond the complete obscuring of racism as the result of institutionalized policies and laws, is that it celebrates a lack of imagination.

That’s what’s going on in that smart phone commercial, and it’s going on here with much more dire consequences.

“I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin,” sings Paisley, “But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin.” Well, no, not literally, but you can read a book, watch a movie, or, you know, talk to people who are different than you. One can use imagination and compassion to realize what a life beyond one’s own might be like. But in the world of this song, just like that TV commercial, any engagement with art or education is futile.

This reminds me of why I don’t like the advice “Write what you know.” Too often we assume this to mean we should write only from our direct experience because that’s all we’re capable of understanding and thus expressing with any degree of truth. I’m a bigger fan of the line attributed to the writer Eudora Welty: “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” In other words, get in the muck of difference, of not-knowing; celebrate it, realize how much bigger the world is than you thought it to be, and then investigate. Think!

Increasingly, our media-besotted culture excels at giving us exactly what we expect. Facebook mines your “Likes” and suggest more of the same. YouTube lines ’em up on the right-hand column of the screen. While there’s something to be said for the way this has destabilized hegemonic corporatism, it’s not much to say because, well, corporations have adapted just nicely, thank you.

If we know what we think, and know how to get what we expect, the necessity of real dialogue ceases. It’s crucial that in “Accidental Racist”, Paisley and LL Cool J don’t really talk to each other. As Paisley tried to make clear in a too-comfortable interview on The Tonight Show, it’s meant to seem like a dialogue is happening, after Cool J’s rap begins and then is spliced between Paisley’s singing, but nothing one says refers to the what the other has said. They’re just speaking.

(Cool J’s rap? Yech. Besides the insane line about forgetting the iron chains, there’s also “R.I.P. Robert E. Lee.” You mean rest in peace the man who fought to keep millions of African-Americans slaves? Maybe that takes a bigger man than me. Slavery was an American genocide. There’s no way around it. No one who perpetuates a genocide deserves to rest in peace.)

Neither Paisley or LL Cool J are much interested in the man behind the counter. I’ve entertained the idea that the rapper is supposed to be giving us that guy’s point of view, but Cool J is all bling and the hood, rhyming about his do-rag when he could have been calling out the perceived threat of the hoodie that raised the suspicions of George Zimmerman. To the country star and the rap star-turned-actor, it’s all about a glamorous version of wealth, or at the least, you getting yours and me getting mine.

As these two rich guys bemoan how they’re each misunderstood, it’s hard not to think of people in America for whom those misunderstandings are catastrophic, life-altering events. Paisley could go on The Tonight Show and blather on about his good intentions, still missing the point, while some don’t get a chance to explain themselves at all.

In the end, imagination fuels political change. Caring about someone other than yourself is not merely an ideal, it’s a pragmatic way to build coalitions with the power to enact positive change in the world. Instead of leading to the accord “Accidental Racist” claims as its message, its lack of imagination leads to utter defeatism. Touring the museum of culture, content to see only what it wants to see, living in bad faith all the while, this is the most nihilist, hopeless song of the year.

I don’t think they give Grammys for that, though.