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"Accidental Racist"

jack_solomon
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Call it the meme that isn't quite a meme yet. That's one of the interesting things about the new Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song that is all over the news, the Net, and Twitterland: look for it on YouTube and you will find lots of personal reactions to the song, but not a performance of the song itself—not, at least, as I write this blog.  That's understandable; with so much advance publicity that no amount of money could buy, the copyright holders can be forgiven for wanting to get a chance to see some album sales first before free versions will be allowed on the world wide web.  But the lyrics are out there, as well some news clips of the song and its performers discussing it, and that will be enough for me to work with here. As I cannot repeat often enough, a semiotic analysis must begin with the construction of a relevant system in which to situate the sign that you are interpreting.  The construction of that system entails the identification not only of significant associations but also critical (one might say "diacritical") differences.  In the case of "Accidental Racist," then, we can start with the system of popular music. Within this system a particular association immediately leaps out at us: "Accidental Racist" even explicitly draws attention to that association when the "white" voice in the song notes that his Confederate battle flag* t-shirt only means to signify that he is a Skynyrd fan.  Yes, of course: there hasn't been this much fuss about the racial overtones of a pop song since Lynard Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."  And the fact that so much attention is being paid to Paisley and Cool J almost forty years after Skynyrd's lucrative experiment in racial provocation is certainly a sign that race relations in America are still quite fraught. But that doesn't take us very far.  It is the differences that can reveal even more.  In this case we can look at the differences in popular music genres.  Skynyrd is a "rock" band ("Southern rock," to be more specific), while Paisley is a "country" singer, and Cool J is a rapper.  Now, rock music was co-created by black and white performers (Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins are essential names in this history), so, even in the face of racist distinctions in the 1950s between white "rock-and-roll" and black "rhythm and blues," classic rock music does not have powerfully apparent racial identifications (even among Southern rock bands, groups like The Allman Brothers—the greatest of the bunch—were anything but segregationist: Lynyrd Skynyrd had gone out on a limb, and they knew it).  But country music and rap do.  As the Paisley side of "Accidental Racist" makes very clear, country music is, first and foremost (though not exclusively) the music of the white South (note the requirement that country music singers, male and female, must sing with some sort of southern twang).  And rap music (now more commonly called "Hip Hop") is still regarded, in spite of its huge non-black audience, as the music of the black inner city, as is made clear by the LL Cool J portion of "Accidental Racist," which is filled with many stereotypical features of urban black popular culture. And here, I think, is where the significance of the song lies.  Paisley and Cool J know who their audiences are.  They know their genres, and the symbols that belong to those genres.  More importantly, they know their audiences' attachments to those symbols.  The Confederate battle flag is one such symbol, and a significant portion of Paisley's audience is still quite attached to that symbol, even as (especially as) that symbol is being taken down (finally) from State Houses throughout the South.  If he wants to keep his audience, Paisley can't come out and denounce the CBF (things haven't changed that much), so, instead, he is trying to change its meaning, turning it into a symbol of proud young southern manhood, not wanting to offend.** This is a lot different than the Lynyrd Skynyrd gambit.  They knew perfectly well that they were waving a red flag, literally as well as figuratively, in the face of America with their prominent adoption of the Confederate battle flag.  That was confrontation.  Paisley is looking for negotiation. And that's why there has been so much reaction to the song even before many of us have heard it performed in full.  Because the question is whether or not the meaning of the CBF can be negotiated.  Since the reaction so far has been more against LL Cool J's complicity in this negotiation ("If you don't judge my gold chains .  .  .  I'll forget the iron chains") than against Paisley, the indications are precisely that, even in the light of what I am willing to grant as Paisley's and Cool J's good intentions (they state in interviews that they only want to open a healing racial dialog), there are some symbols whose histories, and thus their significance, can't be rewritten.  If young southern white men want to display their pride, wearing the CBF is not going to be an uncontroversial way of doing so.  Not today.  Probably not ever.   *A great fuss is made by defenders of the public display of the Confederate flag over the fact that most such displays are of the Confederate battle flag, not the national flag.  The distinction, presumably, is to mark the difference between the national symbol of the Confederacy, which stood for the defense of slavery, and the battle flag of the Confederate armies, which supposedly stood for valorous men simply doing their duty and defending their rights.  Frankly, I don't buy it: the Confederate soldier (often a conscript, not so incidentally) was fighting for the Confederate nation, which was created in the defense of slavery, so the difference is meaningless in my book. **There is an irony here.  Brad Paisley is from West Virginia, which was created during the Civil War when the western, mostly non-slave owning, counties of Virginia seceded from secessionist Virginia with the help of the Union army.  He may be merely role playing in the song, but I can't help but wonder whether he and his fans are aware of the irony.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.