Editor's note: Every couple weeks, Alan Scherstuhl, the film editor at our sister publication The Village Voice, will be taking a hard listen to the music in which millions of Americans soak. We're happy to share his findings.
By Alan Scherstuhl
Brad Paisley, Southern Comfort Zone Current Billboard Country Singles Chart Position: 10 The Verdict: Holy shit, songs on the radio can still be important!
So, here, in a shimmering single whose title buzz markets a godawful no-whiskey whiskey liqueur, we have a black gospel choir belting "Dixie" while a Nashville star shreds his guitar and sings "I know what it's like to be in the minority." This is the future, people, and it's beautiful.
This one takes a little backstory.
The last time a black man got elected president of these United States, Brad Paisley pissed off some of the country-music constituency by offering something of an endorsement. Paisley's eager puppy of a hit "Welcome to the Future," penned on election night 2008, was so upbeat an appraisal of where we're all headed that it could have been crafted by the fungineers at Epcot.
As he marveled at Skype and iOS games, Paisley also celebrated Obama, sneakily, the way that one Seinfeld celebrated masturbation: by doing everything except coming right out and saying it. Almost as daring was Paisley's "American Saturday Night," a great Trojan horse of a single: Here, in the guise of yet another Nashville cuttin'-loose-on-the-weekend jam, Paisley called upon his listeners to toast their margaritas and Coronas for the history of immigration that brought those margaritas and Coronas here.
Paisley got a little misty performing "Welcome to the Future" at the White House in 2009. At 8:27 or so in the remarkable video below, he has to wipe his eye, mid-solo; earlier, moved while addressing Obama directly, he says "My own children -- you are the first president they will remember."
But being a country star is like being a network news anchor: You're never allowed to have opinions about anything except truths your audience already holds. Paisley told CNN that none of this has anything to do with his own politics, and he next released This Is Country Music, a tradition-minded album/state-of-the-genre address that paid tribute to Clint Eastwood, wearing camo, and the dumb fun of drinking, tanning, and singing along to Alabama. Still, for the apostasy of being so patriotic he'll even wish well to a Democrat, Paisley gets called a commie in YouTube comments.
Paisley's always tacked between the Target and the Walmart, a whip-smart songwriter and guitar virtuoso upscale enough for the former but sufficiently down-home for the latter, where the majority of country CDs get sold. (Many country fans still buy physical media.) Recently, he's tacked back again toward Target, if not Trader Joe's. But he still honors each of his target demographics, even when once again performing at the Obama's pleasure. He wrapped a set at an inaugural ball with a "God bless our president!" And a shout-out to the troops. And a joke about a drunk Joe Biden hitting the beach and doffing his trunks.
Meanwhile, Paisley's "Southern Comfort Zone" is getting as much play on country radio as accusations of Obama's fascism are getting on the all-talk stations. The fleet rock track samples Jeff Foxworthy and The Andy Griffith Show, shimmers with U2-style God-on-the-face-of-the-water guitar, and boasts a skip-rope beat engineered for cardio -- all before the choir starts in with the "I wish I was in the land of cotton" stuff.
In the opening verses, Paisley notes that not everybody everywhere is devoted to church, NASCAR, or gun-ownership, all signifers of real Americanness familiar from country songs and Republican politicking. The twist: Paisley doesn't than flatter his audience that anyone not holding to these rural/suburban American traditions is failing to honor this best of all possible lifestyles. Instead, he insists that such beliefs can be nourished by exposure to other ways of living, that by daring to leave his "southern comfort zone" he not only got to see the world but that he also learned to appreciate where he's from all the more.
That's a rousing sentiment and not necessarily an original or controversial one. Paisley, like most of today's male country stars, is an ace re-assurer, committed to telling his audience that, no matter how much time we spend staring at flickering screens, our lives right now still stand in the tradition of all that hard work and integrity our nation ascribes to previous generations. Unlike other country stars, though, Paisley is as optimistic about the future as he is enthralled with the past. Like a TED talker or a barker working outside a Worlds Fair, Paisley wants to welcome his fans to the world ahead; like the leader of a diversity workshop, he's asked them to hallelujah the multiculturalism that red-state politicians have, to be polite, at times resisted.
Now, he's pushing it further. "I know what it's like to be the only one like me," he sings of his jaunts abroad. More to the point, he tells us he knows what it's like "to take a good, hard look around and be in the minority." Suddenly, Paisley isn't just singing about the beneficial aspects of travel. Just months after Bill O'Reilly moped that "The white establishment is now the minority" we have a million-selling country star spreading the message that it ain't no thing that someday white folks will be outnumbered -- in fact, they might even be benefit. "I can see how much I've grown," Paisley sings, "outside my southern comfort zone."
The gospel choir over the final choruses comes on like some sound collagist has mashed in scraps of Song of the South. It's ridiculous, shameless, way too much, and touched with brilliance. Just because the old minstrel tune "Dixie" peddles the most loathsome of antebellum nostalgia doesn't mean that "Dixie" is something that can or should be left behind. It's a damn fine tune, and Americans have worked variations of it for almost 200 years.
Paisley's treatment of it is joyous and nostalgic but also admirably critical. First of all, he's sharing it with a black choir, and acknowledgement that this heritage, no matter how painful, is owned by all Americans. Second, Paisley himself only sings two words of the traditional tune, two words right in line with his imperative that the country-music audience should take every chance to relish the world beyond the limits of the station signal: "Look away," he urges.
Yes, look away and out and around -- capital advice. And rest assured that as you do so Obama won't take away "Dixie," sweet tea, evangelicalism, or any of the rest.
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