Monday, August 02, 2010

Hallelujah (or, one of these days I'm going to have to actually mail these)

Dear The New Yorker,

It is totally awesome that you had a profile of Brad Paisley in your most recent issue. I realize that for very good reasons, all of your letters this week will be about Atul Gawande because oh my God, but I have some thoughts about Mr. Paisley that I've been thinking for the better part of a year and this is as good a chance as any to express them. My thoughts in a nutshell: you blew it.

For the reader who lives without any knowledge of contemporary country music (which, to be fair, is probably the average New Yorker reader, fine), the article does a perfectly adequate job explaining who Brad Paisley is, why his songs are good, and why lots of people who don't subscribe to The New Yorker care. But, it skates only lightly and superficially over the gonzo, bonkers radicalism that Paisley espouses. Seriously, American Saturday Night is a nuts album. It is a stealth bomb thrown into the current heart of country music and a peppy refutation of an entire socio/cultural/political outlook. It is, I believe, the most important artifact of popular culture from the last twelve months (sorry, everyone who liked The Kids Are All Right). I cannot overstate how seriously you whiffed while writing about this shit, structuring the whole thing as a general "hey, there's this guy in middle America who writes a bunch of hit songs and this one time he decided to write about race" profile. Opportunity = lost.

To hear Kelefa Sanneh tell it, the shocking thing about Paisley's hit song "Welcome to the Future" is its final verse, in which the election of a black president is contrasted with the racism Paisley's friend experienced in high school. This third verse comes after a first verse described as "goofy nostalgia" and a second verse that goes entirely unmentioned.

No! No! No! No!

I am trying to be restrained here, but dude missed the entire point. Yes, race is a big deal in a country song, and yes, a pro-black-president message is fascinating and daring. But, it's not just writing about race (as Sanneh points out, Tim McGraw's "Southern Voice" contains a list of multi-racial shout-outs), it's how this song writes about race: it's about racial progress. Unlike 99.99% of the country music currently on the radio that grapples in any way with the past, "Welcome to the Future" is decidedly NOT nostalgic.

Verse 1: You used to have to go to the arcade to play video games -- now you don't! Because stuff got better!

Verse 2: The narrator's grandfather fought in WWII. The narrator has a video conference with Tokyo. Which is better -- killing people or trading with them? Trading with them!

The standard contemporary country orientation toward the past is one of rue, regret, or gentle headshaking at these crazy modern times (example: Bucky Covington's "A Different World" in which the reasonable universe of his childhood where you got "daddy's belt when you misbehaved" is contrasted with our current, coddled, every-kid-gets-a-trophy times). And why does Paisley's unique challenge to this nostalgia matter?

Because this is the backbone of the current Republican message: stuff was good once, now it's bad, make it like it used to be in the '40s or the '50s or the '60s, what do you mean it used to be bad, everything was easy and folks knew how to be and now it's all a mess.

And this attitude isn't just limited to Republicans; I can find you plenty of liberals who would agree with the sentence "everything was better in the '60s and kids today suck." It's an attitude that fears progress, fears change, makes a lot of sense right now, and I think is super-comforting and totally dangerous.

So what does crazy, radical, out-there Brad Paisley say to all of us in the midst of the mishegas of 2010, when we long to go back to those simpler days?

Things are different now. We can't put them back.

Besides, things used to be pretty bad.

Now, they're better.

And if The New Yorker doesn't notice what this is or what it means, honestly -- it's probably all for the best. Keep being crazy, Brad, I won't tell.



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