Brad Paisley and LL Cool J Show How Not to Sing About the Confederate Flag

Musical treatments of the South's legacy aren't all as horrible as "Accidental Racist."
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Poor Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. They set out to make an earnest song about race relations and the legacy of slavery in the south. They put their heart and soul into it. They released it with the title "Accidental Racist." Unfortunately for them, the result was, well, accidentally racist.

There are quite a few problems here, some of which have been tackled by smarter writers. I just want to focus on a few that appear to be about the Stars and Bars, the familiar Confederate battle flag. Here's Paisley, early in the song:

When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south

Seriously, who calls it "the red flag"?

And here's LL Cool J:

If you don't judge my do-rag
I won't judge your red flag
If you don't judge my gold chains
I'll forget the iron chains.

It's pretty insane to compare an inoffensive piece of headgear to a flag that represents a treasonous secession movement devoting to maintaining the practice of slavery. It's even more insane to compare jewelry to, you know, slave shackles.

What's sad about this is that the two of them so clearly seem to have believed that this was a positive gesture, a real attempt at understanding. But this is exactly how not to write a song about the Confederate flag. To see the right way, you've got to go back 20 years to the Bottle Rockets. They've got as much southern cred as Paisley -- the band is from Festus, Missouri, they're as likely to have steel guitar on their records as he is, and they write songs about trailer parks, $1000 cars, and Loretta Lynn. In other words, this isn't like Ontario-born Neil Young blasting backward racists in "Southern Man" (though he was right, too, no matter how it infuriated Lynyrd Skynyrd) -- it's a critique from within. Here's how songwriter Brian Henneman handled it in 1993:

Here's the first verse:

Look, here comes another one, 4-wheel drive 
Look there in the window, man, sakes alive!
That good ol' boy's waving the stars and bars.
It's a red, white, and blue flag, but it ain't ours.

And the chorus:

Wave that flag high, wave it high,
Do you know what it means, do you know why?
Maybe bein' a rebel ain't no big deal
But if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?

So which of these do you think goes farther toward reckoning with the legacy of racism in the south: Paisley's watered-down pleas to accept the flag as a sign of his musical taste, or Henneman's stark insistence that southerners recognize where the symbol came from and what it means to others?

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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