“Accidental Racist” Was a Missed Opportunity: The Depressing Similarities Between Hip Hop and Country

By now we’ve all marveled at Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist.” But as we were considering the song yesterday, we got to thinking about the fact that pretty much every report about it has described Paisley and LL as an “unlikely duo,” an “odd couple,” or something along those lines. At first glance, of course, they are — a white southern country star and a black MC from New York. But then again, maybe not, because their respective genres have lot more in common than perhaps either realizes. Both sounds started off as the voice of a social class without a voice in mainstream culture, and have been subsequently commercialized, glitizfied, and sold back to that same demographic as an aspirational consumerist ideal. Happy days.

Given the sort of ultra-commercial juggernaut that country music is these days, with gazillion-selling stars and hideously overblown Grammy performances, it’s easy to forget that, like hip hop, it has its origins in what we might these days call DIY culture: it was the music of the Appalachian mountains, played on whatever instruments were available. It was a sound pioneered by a class that had no representation in mainstream culture — a fact to which the genre’s early, derogatory designator “hillbilly music” is a testament. (In this respect, it shares a great deal in common with the blues, a genre that would eventually serve as a distant ancestor of hip hop.)

For several generations, country music remained exactly that: country music. Sure, it became progressively more polished and popular, finding a home at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and evolving various subgenres along the way, one of which would become what came to be called “folk music.” But it wasn’t really until the 1970s that country really started along the road to being the hyper-commercialized genre that it is today; Dolly Parton, bless her, is largely responsible (although not to blame), along with the likes of John Denver, Kenny Rogers, and various others. Clearly, music is like any other aspect of culture — it changes and evolves over time, otherwise it’d become stagnant and ultimately irrelevant. But still, it’s striking how little resemblance commercial country music these days bears to what would have been called country music even a generation ago, let alone two.

The increased commercialism of the genre has been reflected in its politics, too. As befits a genre that was the sound of the rural working class, “old” country was rather left wing, in some ways at least. It was socially conservative, of course — the genre’s Christian roots saw to that — but economically, it was based around ideas of representing the working man, the poor, the disenfranchised. Even a few decades ago, it wasn’t as nationalistic as it is these days, either — take Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black”: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/ Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.”

There’s little of that today, not in the age that gave us songs like Toby Keith’s ultra-jingoistic “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” — and look at the shitfight that ensued after the Dixie Chicks made their notorious comments about George W. Bush. The evolution of country music politics is neatly embodied in the difference between Hank Williams and Hank Williams, Jr. — the older man a largely apolitical singer, the latter a right-wing cheerleader who’s called Barack Obama a socialist and compared him to Hitler. (We’ll leave you to ponder the cognitive dissonance required to make those two statements about the same person.)

Clearly hip hop hasn’t moved anywhere near this far to the right, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever would, but it’s definitely less socially radical than it used to be. The genre’s obsession with materialism has been well-documented over the years, and what began as a reaction against the establishment has slowly metastasized into the establishment itself. Where once rappers dreamed of changing the game, these days they largely dream of winning it. The genre now speaks little of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, preferring instead to stay on the right side of that gap. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s telling that in 2013 “socially conscious hip hop” tends to get thought of as a separate subgenre. Once, most hip hop was socially conscious. These days, it’s more about selling an aspirational consumerist ideal to its target demographic — if you’re lucky, you too can have the material trappings of success.

As with country music, this shift has coincided with a dramatic commercialization and increase in popularity. What started as an experiment with two turntables at Kool Herc’s apartment in the Bronx has become the world’s single most popular genre, a massive business that’s responsible for shifting vast amounts of money worldwide. This isn’t to suggest that it’s a spent force creatively — it’s is still a relatively young genre, and there’s plenty of creative life left in it, once you peel back the glitzy commercialized facade. (And, for what it’s worth, the alt-country scene, such as it is, has demonstrated that there’s creative life left in country music, too.)

But in terms of their commercial trajectories, both genres have a great deal more in common that one might think. Ultimately, perhaps, it demonstrates that basically every subculture ever (see also: punk, rave culture, innumerable others) has followed the pattern: starting out as a countercultural force, then being slowly subverted, commercialized, and sold back to the masses as a neutered form of what it started out as. Still, it suggests that if Brad Paisley and LL Cool J were willing to have a real conversation about their music, fans, and lifestyles, they’d have far more in common than “Accidental Racist” lets on.