It’s been a busy week for country music and the post-Black Lives Matter, post-Trump, post-white-nationalists-insurrection America. Country music is having its come to Jesus moment, and proving yet again that their Jesus is a blue eyed white man.
A music form that is aggressively dedicated to being white had to reckon with the presence of race this week, which it really hates doing. The occassion is one of the biggest up-and-coming stars in country, Morgan Wallen, was caught being racist on tape.
In the footage, Wallen looks drunk. He is being loud, obnoxious and likely not for the first time. You can tell because his neighbor starts recording the event. Wallen can be heard saying n*gger, with the hard -er, several times, referring to himself and to his buddies, over and over and over again. What we learn from this is that in addition to having a penchant for being racist when he gets drunk — according to him, that’s the only time it happens — Wallen is also a horrible neighbor. Your neighbor doesn’t pull out the cell phone to video tape the first time you piss them off. They pull out the cell phone to video tape after you have pissed off the neighbor more than once
Wallen had looked like he was already just a royal screw up in the lineage of the country music bad boy era. I think Wallen sees himself in that mode, the Outlaw Country era from the late 1970. The problem with that is, in the 1970s, Waylon Jennings didn’t have to worry about cell phones.
I am sure that Wallen is not the first self-styled country music outlaw with a few drinking problems to be heard being casually racist for effect. He thinks it makes him sound cool and hip. And a guy with a mullet in the year 2021 needs all of the help he can get sounding cool. Because what’s more transgressive than saying the N-word out in public? It’s got to give white guys are very elicit sort of thrill, the kind of which only a drug or sex can compete. Wallen has demonstrated he has a problem with substance abuse. It makes sense that he also would not have much impulse control with a loaded racist word that gives a little racism woody.
The Wallen news gave country music a chance to prove that it was not the country music of old, that there is a hard line for the industry. That “hard line” is somewhere around 1) telling an international audience that you’re ashamed of George W. Bush and 2) screaming n*gger over and over again outside in your driveway. For anybody who’s unclear, those are the hard lines for country music.
Wallen’s record label suspended him, whatever that means. And, country music superstars and gatekeepers are either rushing to defend him or very slowly walking to condemn him. In the middle, there are those who are the great redeemers. Those are the both-sides sympathizers who dress their mushy morality up in Christian rhetoric about forgiveness and redemption. Country music, like this country’s ruling classes more broadly, love this convenient perversion of Christian nationalism. It is the maxim that no one is ever responsible for the things that they do because Jesus died to save you and cleanse you of all of your sins.
A small subset of the industry, particularly those that are more progressive and left leaning, decided to go full throttle and say, “This is not just a problem with Morgan Wallen, but a problem with country music, and with the industry, and the American culture writ large.” You know what side I come down on.
Regardless, my friend Roxane and I ended up looking very prescient this week because we had an episode on Hear to Slay with Rissi Palmer. She’s the host of Color Me Country on Apple Music, which is a type of antidote to the problem of somebody like Morgan Wallen.
Rissi is one of a few black women to ever chart on the country music charts. She was on the show to talk about race, class, and gender in popular country music this week. I know my girl Rissi has had a tough week dealing with the very overt message that so many people in the industry where she makes her living made it clear that they would continue to make excuses for overt racism, especially when there is money on the table to be made.
In the same week, country music star Eric Church was paired with soul R&B star Jazmine Sullivan for the national Anthem at the Superbowl. The odd-couple left many people to wonder why there are very few country music stars that can hang with a Black soul singer. And Jazmine is not even a regular Black soul singer, she is an exceptional Black soul singer. That is to say that she made Eric Church just blend into the paint, honey. He looked like he was painted onto the field, like one of those numbers marking the yardage. Eric Church seems like a fairly decent guy, I’ve played some of his music. Of country musicians, he is probably part of the so-called progressive left. But his appearance alongside Jazmine was telling this Superbowl audience, there are no good and bad guys in America. There are, to quote a former President, “bad people” on both sides.
It was a visual both sides-isms for a conservative leaning Superbowl audience on a conservative leaning network (CBS). They didn’t have the sister singing it solo, especially not in what would have been her natural soul register, which would have aesthetically felt too Black for that audience. With everyone still so raw after the insurrection on January 6th, it probably didn’t feel like a good move for the Superbowl and for CBS, and so they paired her with Eric Church. It made absolutely no sense, unless you’ve been paying attention to what had been happening in country music as an avatar for what is happening in the soul of white America right now. And then it made tons of sense.