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Brad Paisley's risky song on race

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 5:41 AM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: Brad Paisley's song "Accidental Racist" provokes criticism
  • Granderson: It was brave of Paisley to try to address racial issues in country music
  • He says that "Accidental" raises provocative questions, but Paisley did it awkwardly
  • Granderson: If we're going to usher in more tolerance, we have to allow for "mistakes"

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- In 2009, Brad Paisley released the song "Welcome to the Future" from his album "American Saturday Night."

In it, he sings about all the cultural changes he's witnessed in his life, including the evolving demographics of the country. He includes glowing references to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The election of Barack Obama inspired him to write it.

It's important to keep all of that in mind because for some, Paisley's latest song, "Accidental Racist," is making him look like an intentional one. I am reminded of an adage (but with a twist): No good ditty goes unpunished.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

"Accidental" attempts to address a subject matter so few artists in country music are willing to do, which makes Paisley a brave man in so many ways.

Paisley, LL Cool J team up for song

Country music fans are notorious for excommunicating those whom they perceive as undesirable (see Wright, Chely). Despite Paisley's immense popularity, if he makes one misstep, everything could be snatched away. And attempting to bring a blue state conversation to red state radio could be one of those missteps.

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"I'm not proud that people's ancestors were beaten and held in bondage," Paisley told USA Today. "But I am sure as heck proud of the farm I live on and the Confederate soldier buried there."

Infusing such a dichotomy into a song can be powerful. Unfortunately, "Accidental" sucks as a song. The chorus reeks like a '90s boy band ballad.

But its greatest sin is that in Paisley's effort to push for racial harmony, it miscasts the country's racial tension -- with emphasis on the Confederate flag and Abraham Lincoln -- as a distant thing of the past. A relic.

Meanwhile, those of us in the real world are reading stories about an elected official referring to Mexicans as "w-----." No, it's not the 1960s.

But if racial tension was really that far back in our rearview, why are students at Wilcox County High School in Georgia fighting to desegregate its prom?

Or why was the notoriously liberal Harry Reid impressed with then-Sen. Barack Obama's lack of a "Negro dialect"?

There is a way to talk about race without being consumed with the past or denial of our present. But obviously "Accidental" did not find that route.

As a result, Paisley is getting hammered for pouring faux apologies on top of a stack of syrupy denials. The most scathing review came from Gawker, which said, "Brad, I don't think you're the one paying for the 'mistake' of buying and selling human beings."

The song is bad.

But the intention is not.

His heart is not bad.

The questions that "Accidental" raised are worth asking. Paisley just did it so awkwardly.

Part of the problem with addressing racism is that white people are so afraid of saying -- or in Paisley's case -- singing the wrong thing. But if we're going to usher in the next wave of tolerance, allowing for these "mistakes" is important.

Besides, minorities don't have all of the answers on the topic either. Case in point. LL Cool J, who is featured in the song, sings:

"Now my chains are gold but I'm still misunderstood. ..."

Damn LL -- really dude?

LL Cool J's proud of 'Accidental Racist'

Anyway, I hope "Accidental" doesn't scare Paisley away from continuing to push himself or his audience. He could've gone the vacuous love song route, but he aspired for something more.

Looking at the results of the 2012 election, the resources being allocated by the Republican National Committee to reach minorities, and the push by both parties for immigration reform, I'd say a song about racial harmony performed by two men from opposite sides of the track was worth pursuing.

Yes, the mockery and "Saturday Night Live" skit will come. But let's hope the usual knee-jerky "he's a racist" label is left behind because Paisley is not a racist. In fact, he's one of the most kindhearted people you could meet. And over the years he's recorded some incredibly powerful songs such as "When I Get Where I'm Going" and "Letter to Me."

Paisley performed "Welcome to the Future" in the White House for the president. And the song hit No. 2 on Billboard's country music chart.

Given that, I'd say the impetus behind "Accidental" was worth chasing -- even if he and LL tripped and fell along the way.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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