Their well-meaning but aesthetically hamfisted duet on "Accidental Racist" aside, country singer Brad Paisley and rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J are normally two of the least offensive entertainers in the business.
Many know their shtick by now. LL Cool J made his name spitting non-political rhymes and battling rival MCs back in the day when such hijinks didn't escalate into shootouts at clubs and studios. Now he's best known for playing a cop on CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles."
For his part, Mr. Paisley has always been one of country music's most thoughtful and easy-going iconoclasts. Like many of his contemporaries, he wears a white Stetson, but that's where the similarities end. Mr. Paisley is equally comfortable questioning country music's sacred tropes as he is celebrating them. He's no Johnny Cash, but he's no Billy Ray Cyrus, either.
When the country artist who has performed at the Obama White House twice and is widely believed to be relatively liberal in his politics approached the Republican-leaning hip-hop icon about recording "Accidental Racist," it was an unlikely duo with an unusual backstory that sounded better as a concept than what emerged from the studio.
The song opens with Mr. Paisley explaining to a Starbucks barista freaked out by the image on his T-shirt that embracing the Confederate flag -- the nation's most notorious symbol of racial oppression and sedition for 150 years -- doesn't make him a racist: "The only thing I meant to say / is I'm a [Lynyrd] Skynyrd fan," Mr. Paisley sings in his reassuring burr before stumbling to the chorus:
"I'm just a white man comin' to you from the south land / trying to understand what it's like not to be. / I'm proud of where I'm from / but not everything we've done. / It ain't like you and me can rewrite history. / Our generation didn't start this nation. / We're still pickin' up the pieces, / walking on eggshells, / fightin' over yesterday. / Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame."
There's a strange mix of self-awareness and naïveté in these verses, but nothing patently offensive. Mr. Paisley's inability to connect the dots between the Confederate battle flag on his shirt and the things that trouble him about the South is stunning -- even typical, but not malicious. He comes across as a well-meaning but clueless dolt, which is way better than being a racist, I suppose.
Things don't get aggressively dumb until LL Cool J weighs in with the stupidest verses of his career: "Dear Mr. White Man / I wish you understood what the world is really like / when you're living in the 'hood. / Just because my pants are sagging doesn't mean I'm up to no good. / You should get to know me; I really wish you would. / If you don't judge my doo-rag / I won't judge your red flag."
When Mr. Paisley heard those lyrics for the first time, his heart must've sunk. Somehow he had managed to find the one hip-hop artist alive who knew less about America's entrenched racial politics than he did. The country singer had to be kicking himself for failing to recruit someone on the caliber of Mos Def or Talib Kweli. He couldn't bring himself to tell such a prominent colleague that his lyrics were devoid of even a scintilla of insight.
Put aside the facile ignorance of equating sagging pants and other ghetto tropes with a symbol of political and cultural defiance that resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers; the rapper's willingness to overlook legitimate historical grievances as long as he gets to wear his gold chains is truly appalling. He was more concerned about making the words rhyme than in making any sense.
Sagging pants, doo-rags and gold chains in the 21st century are clear evidence of any black person's idiocy and racial self-loathing, but nothing like the political abomination that the Confederate flag represents. I understand that Mr. Paisley wants to get past the residual politics of that odious flag to spark a larger discussion about racial reconciliation in America, but waving a symbol of treason and slavery is a funny way to go about doing it.
During an interview with ABC News, LL Cool J insisted that contrary to all the criticism of "Accidental Racist," he didn't want Americans to experience a collective memory loss about slavery. He said he only wants blacks to give up what he calls a "slave mentality."
"Forget the bitterness," he said as Mr. Paisley looked on. "Don't get bitter -- get better."
He's right, but "getting better" should also mean artists responsible for the most fatuous song to come out of Nashville in 50 years pull up their own sagging pants and get serious, too.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.