Despite Lil Wayne and Kid Rock, Is Country Music Still Racist?
Unless you had taped episodes of Gossip Girl, True Blood, 30 Rock, The Office, Skins, and Yo Gabba Gabba! to watch (like me), then Wednesday night’s Country Music Awards was txt-yr-BFFz appointment television. Why? Well, it sure as hell wasn’t for scintillating thunder-and-lightning cohosts Brad Paisley (forgot to wear his lifts) and Carrie Underwood (can’t remember her last meal), who reached John McCain-like levels of cue-card clumsiness.
Nor was it for the latest in an endless parade of promo spots by warbling blonde teen automoton Taylor Swift (is there any artist, aside from maybe Led Zeppelin, who more unites aging white-guy rock critics?) No, the big CMA hype was for faux-Martian axeman/MC Lil Wayne, who was scheduled to appear with faux-redneck axeman/MC Kid Rock, and perform the shit-kickin’ millionaire’s werewolves-of-Alabama blight on 2008, “All Summer Long.”
Admittedly, the idea of Weezy crashing the country-music megachurch and potentially rapping about venereal disease and Xanax prisons and oh, the devil, was pretty enticing. Unfortunately, it was a massive non-event, as Mr. F. Baby simply stood onstage innocuously in a football jersey and shades and fedora and pretended to pluck at the strings of his guitar (imagine Jim Belushi at a Blues Brothers concert circa 1997). He didn’t rap, nobody introduced him, and he barely looked up at the non-plussed audience. At best, he was Kid Rock’s cred trophy, like Run-D.M.C. years before. All Wayne’s no-show revealed was how awkwardly lily-white the country world remains. He’s never looked more like an alien.
So clearly, a lot of questions were raised afterwards, beyond the usual CMA heckling, like, “What the hell is the deal with Trace Adkins and is there any reason not to be scared shitless of him?” (Adkins, whose 2005 smash “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” was a stupefying jock-jam spoof of hip-hop slang/imagery, complete with butt-quaking in-da-club video and synth-funk beat, looked like Hulk Hogan’s mean-ass little brother at the CMAs, and turned the beautiful, nostalgic ballad “You’re Gonna Miss This” into a weirdly menacing threat.)
Anyway, here are the Top 10 most pressing questions that came to mind post-CMA before I went back to obsessing over that shapeshifting dog and Helter Skelter hippie chick on True Blood.
1. Why is it easier in 2008 to elect a black president than to have a legit black country music star? I mean, Charley Pride scored 36 No. 1 country hits in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but other than that, the handful of African-American country singers who’ve gotten any notice — O.B. “The Chocolate Cowboy” McClinton, Stoney Edwards, Cleve Francis, Rissi Palmer, Trini Triggs, Carl Ray, Vicki Vann — have been marginalized despite obvious talents. It’s certainly not a white-rapper situation, where the vocal abilities of the would-be crossovers are, generally speaking, embarrassingly derivative, overmarketed garbage. With a decent song, it’s been proven repeatedly — literally anybody can have a country hit. C’mon Nashville, it’s time for change we can believe in!
2. Since the Lil Wayne debacle means that Cowboy Troy is still the only African-American to ever rap on the CMAs (See Big & Rich’s “Rollin'” in 2004), shouldn’t we be investigating whether the hick-hopper cut some backroom deal to shut Weezy up? Really, what other explanation is there?
3. Why does Kid Rock keep getting credit for cheesily integrating the most hackneyed, Southern-strategy aspects of “white” culture with the most obvious, minstrel-like qualities of “black” culture? The only thing that blowhard should ever be acknowledged for is the fact that he still patronizes Waffle House.
4. Has there ever been a more pathetic tribute to a punk legend than Kid Rock’s troll-like guitar player wearing a “Joe the Strummer” t-shirt while hacking through the riff from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”?
5. How bummed is Nelly that nobody even remembers that “Over and Over” song he did with Tim McGraw back in 2004, breaking the hip-hop/country barrier?
6. I hate to ask so bluntly, at this glorious stage in our nation’s journey toward racial equality, but is country music still just flat-out racist? I’d be more artful about it if I didn’t still remember MCA Nashville exec Tony Brown’s bizarrely damning admission in The New York Times in 1996? “Country basically is white music,” Brown said. “Why would black people want to sing those straight notes…? To me black music is about feeling and white music is about no feeling.” Then he complained about his own fruitless efforts to find a worthy African-American country singer: “It’d either be some black kid trying to sing like Charley Pride, only a really bad version of that. Or it’d be somebody who really sings like James Ingram, who decided he couldn’t make it in pop music so he could make it in country.” How fucked-up is it that one of the most prominent producers and tastemakers in a genre claims, on the record, that the vocal tradition in that genre is about “no feeling”? And has much of anything changed?
7. Could Warner Bros. please re-release the awesomely eye-opening 1998 compilation, From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music, so people don’t have to buy it from random vendors online for $110 to $229? If nobody on a major label can sign and develop any new African-American country artists, the least they can do is recognize the few who existed in the past.
8. Does the Johnny Cash Remixed travesty, with Snoop Dogg butchering “I Walk the Line,” increase or decrease the likelihood that we’ll elect a black country star by 2012? I think you know the answer.
9. Percentage-wise in 2008, who used Auto-tune more — Billboard Top 100 country or hip-hop artists? In the midst of the T-Pain Epoch, I would’ve initially said the latter, but after watching this year’s CMAs, I’m not so sure.
10. When I interviewed Fred Durst in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1998, he passionately told me that his dearest dream was to record a rap song over the “breakbeat” from “Sweet Home Alabama,” bringing together at last the two worlds — white and black — in which he said he grew up as southern boy. Later, transcribing the tape, I physically recoiled at the prospect. But is there any justification for thinking that Fred’s version (and pray God it doesn’t exist) might not be as bad as “All Summer Long”? You know, at least he wouldn’t have included that whole “Werewolves of London” train wreck…
Um, forget I asked.