Of all the things Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist" is accused of being (among them: The Worst Song Ever™, awkward and earnest, actually just racist, brave), there are at least two things that the song unarguably is. First, it is important –- like it or not, this song the pop culture story of the week, if not the year. It packs the one-two punch of social relevance and diversion. Whether you like it or hate it, we are all talking about it. Many on the internet who claim to despise racism are clearly and perversely riveted by it.
"Accidental Racist" is also, unarguably, an expression of white privilege and the cognitive dissonance it causes. "When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is that I'm a Skynrd fan," sings Paisley of rocking a Rebel Flag, his white identity allowing him to easily ignore the broader implications of his fashion decisions. "I'm just a white man comin' to ya from the Southland / Tryin' to understand what it's like not to be," he sings in the chorus. Brad Paisley is 40 years old -– if he's just getting around to thinking about this it's because he's never really had to. "It ain't like I can walk a mile in someone else's skin," he says elsewhere. Well, right, but Paisley seems to throw up his hands instead of challenging himself to empathize.
In a case of musical synchronicity that's weird enough to suit the next described act very well, Shaking the Habitual, the immensely difficult fourth studio album from Swedish duo the Knife that was released this week to acclaim, is also explicitly about privilege. A key difference between Paisley's foray into the subject and that of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer is that the latter are discursively advanced enough to actually use the word. It appears several times in the obtuse manifesto they released in advance of the album:
The honor system is corrupt, just another privilege.
Like how it's a privilege to make an album, to move freely.
Now we have to start. We choose process over everything else.
Letting go of outcomes is another privilege.
In the album's brooding synthwave closer, "Ready to Lose," Dreijer Andersson sings that she is "ready, ready to lose a privilege" in a voice pitched down electronically to make her sound like she has a mouth full of mashed potatoes. She moans of a "fear of suffering, fear of loss / Sucked in your birth rights." In case you haven't quite gotten the point, the pair told Spin that, they read a lot of queer and feminist theory prior to recording.
As far as their intentions, Dreijer Andersson told Pitchfork:
It's important to question my story and my way of telling it, too. It's good to ask questions instead of serving answers.
Astonishingly, albeit appropriately, this is virtually the same thing Paisley said in response to the "Accidental Racist" backlash:
We aren't answering [questions]. We're just asking them.
What's frustrating about Paisley's questions is how willfully naïve they are-–he should get this shit by now. The misstep of his only discernible corrective action, inviting the decidedly apolitical rapper LL Cool J to share in the song's dialogue when more qualified musicians abound (like Chuck D, KRS-ONE, Talib Kweli and several others, as the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates points out) reveals itself in LL's embarrassing lyrics like, "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."
The Knife, on the other hand, say they have modified the way they work to account for privilege -– for example, they've hired an all-female group of designers and choreographers to produce their next tour. "It's important to show that it is possible to work feminist in the way you organize yourself," Dreijer Andersson told the Guardian.
What we have with the Knife and Paisley is essentially a culture divide -– I hesitate to use the high/low binary because I think it fosters snobbery and anyway, we're talking here about popular music. Paisley's song panders with its lowest-common denominator treacle. The Knife suffocate their longstanding pop tendencies with an arsenal of hook-less, 8+ minute songs that slide off traditional Western musical scales. But both communicate in a language made fluent by our culture, provoking with verses and choruses and melodies.
Really, the difference comes down to sensibility. The Knife's rendering of privilege is more opaque, but more illustrative. The explicit acknowledgement of their position in the world is accompanied by tense, fraught, often furious sounds. It is deeply esoteric, relevant largely to an academic elite. Shaking the Habitual is an album of privilege about privilege for the privileged. It's a privilege to make an album; the Knife have make an album. Letting go of outcomes is another privilege; here the Knife are stepping way outside of pop, seemingly without a care for how their work is received on a mass level. Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer may be doing great things for the world behind the scenes, but their on-record engagement amounts to a spinning of their wheels.
Brad Paisley, on the other hand, stumbled upon a discursive goldmine with "Accidental Racist," which, at a minimum, provides an easier listen than Shaking the Habitual. But it also provides a simpler analysis—partially because it is plainspoken, partially because racism is a more common topic of discussion than privilege at large, and partially because Paisely is so vulnerable. He's calling himself a racist, if an accidental one, and that word is a pejorative to a sizable section of the population. That he seems so unaware of his shortcomings when it comes to the exploration of race and power is an even bigger boon to discussion–-his clarity is a compass we use to judge where we fit on the scale of tolerance. Paisley's usefulness transcends his art; the Knife meanwhile, just made art.