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It Doesn't Matter If Jason Aldean Is From a Small Town
What matters is that he's a racist piece of shit.
Image: Jason Aldean by Gage Skidmore, CC
Last month country music singer Jason Aldean released a vicious white supremacist song that not very subtly hinted that lynching was cool. Many people responded by pointing out that racism is evil and ugly and that Jason Aldean is a garbage fire of a human being.
Others, though, pushed back against Aldean by saying he was racist...but not authentically racist.
It may seem odd to criticize a racist for not actually being true to his racist posturing . But it's not that unusual. US culture in general, and country music culture in particular, tends to compulsively conflate and confuse "authenticity" and morality. We often talk as if the only real sin is hypocrisy. If you mean what you say, it doesn't really matter what atrocities you advocate for.
Obviously, as an ethics, that approach is confused. What's worse is that "authenticity" is an entirely subjective designation—and one that's very much influenced by sexism, racism, homophobia, and a range of other prejudices.
It may be fun and satisfying to dump on Aldean for not being the rugged small town bigot of his songs. But when authenticity is the measure of morality, then people like Aldean—white male wealthy bigots—end up being morally validated and preferred to people the culture default designates as fake. If we want a society that is less hateful and more equitable, we have to at some point stop caring so much about who is "real", and start caring more about who is good.
Jason Aldean, Small Town (Racist) Hero. Or Not.
Aldean's song, "Try That In a Small Town" is, inevitably, obsessed with its own authenticity and its own vision of who counts as a "real" American. The lyrics position Aldean as a typical small town heartland American, quintessentially decent, quintessentially under siege, and quintessentially violent.
Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it's cool, well, act a fool if ya like
Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you're tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road
Around here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won't take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don't
Try that in a small town
And so forth. The video included scenes of Black Lives Matter protestors (which were later edited out) as well as footage from the front of the Maury County courthouse in Columbia TN, site of a racist riot in 1946 and of the lynching of teenager Henry Choate in 1927. The message is too unsubtle to even call a dogwhistle. Aldean is saying that leftists, protestors, and Black people are troublemakers, and that god-fearing small town whites will unleash righteous violence against them if they dare to get out of line.
Again, numerous people (such as Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Ashton Pittman) pointed out that the video was evoking the history of lynching and racial violence. Alt country music singer Jason Isbell took another tack, however. He attacked Aldean for...not writing the racist song. "Dare Aldean to write his next single himself. That's what we try in my small town," Isbell said. He then added,
Seriously how do you defend the content of a song you weren’t even in the room for? You just got it from your producer. If you’d been there when it was written, you’d be listed as a writer. We all know how this works.
Writer Charlotte Clymer expanded on this, pointing out that Aldean had attended private school in Macon. She concluded
So, essentially, with Mr. Aldean, what we have here is a prep school dilettante who was raised in a big city, singing a song he didn’t write about an experience he never had, accompanied with a music video of which much of the footage was filmed in Canada.
I like Isbell's music and Clymer's commentary in general, so this isn't meant as an attack on either of them. But I think this kind of response is really unhelpful. Obviously, it's fun to sneer at Aldean. But attacking his authenticity inevitably buttresses a version of autenticity which redounds to Aldean's benefit, and redounds against the people Aldean wants to hurt.
Who Gets to Sing Whose Songs?
Isbell and Clymer are kicking Aldean for not being who he says he is. He's not really from a small town; he's not really poor, he's not really the one who wrote the words in the song. He doesn't have the standing or the authority to speak for small town people, or to articulate their perspective.
Let's start with Isbell's argument that real small town authentic voices of the people should write their own songs. The idea that real artists have to be songwriters as well as singers is a staple of post-Beatles boomer rock criticism. Isbell is trying to use it to delegitimize racist country music. But it's more often used to delegitimize music by Black people and women, who historically have had less leverage to record their own material and who (in part as a result) have been less likely to be songwriters.
As just a very obvious example, Billie Holiday did not write "Strange Fruit." It was penned by Abel Meeropol, a Russian Jewish immigrant. Does that mean Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" is not authentic? Does she not have the standing to speak to the experience in the song because she didn't write it?
Or, as a more country and western idiom, what about Sonny Rollins' version of "I'm an Old Cowhand"? I'm pretty sure Rollins was not a cowboy at any point.
Of course, Rollins' rendition of the western song is something of a joke; he's playing with the fact that it's not his song. But he also appears to have genuinely liked cowboy music—it's his song because he's made it his song. Part of what musicians do is play with identities, exploring their own distance from and investment in the material.
Demanding authenticity doesn't generally hurt white guys, who are often celebrated for their genius eclectic ability to appreciate and assimilate diverse genre and perspectives (see Dylan, Bob.) But it can be weaponized against marginalized people, who are given less latitude to explore or defy stereotypes.
Jack Hamilton in his book Just Around Midnight discusses how white rock critics targeted Jimi Hendrix for vitriolic racist abuse when he refused to fit into the sincere bluesman box and instead played with white sidemen in the (supposedly white) subgenre of psychedelic rock. Along the same lines, Black, queer and female disco performers were villified for undermining "real" rock with their sold out synthesizers and (supposed) lack of grit.
Aldean's a poseur, obviously. But all singers are poseurs to some degree. Even if a song is confessional, there's a performative aspect to performing it. Etta James probably wouldn't actually rather go blind than to see you walk away; Nas isn't thinking life's a bitch and then you die every single time he gets high.
The question isn't whether your pose is the real thing; the question is what you're saying with your pose and your reality. And if you forget that and decide authenticity is the most important thing—well, the people who end up losing status, losing money, and losing options aren't generally the people who look like Jason Aldean.
Being From a Small Town Doesn't Make Racism Okay
It doesn't really matter that Aldean didn't write "Try That In a Small Town". Similarly, it doesn't really matter whether Aldean is actually from a small town himself.
When Clymer points out that Aldean was from a (relatively) large city and a (relatively) affluent background, she's trying to show that Aldean doesn't speak for people in small towns. And it's certainly true that Aldean doesn't speak for all small town residents. There are a lot of people who live in small towns who are Black; there are many who are leftists; there are many who do not like mediocre country radio pap.
At the same time, though, the fact that the song is ugly and evil is in large part because Aldean is in fact, speaking for an American tradition. That tradition is not limited to small towns, but very much includes them. Aldean's song evokes Sundown Towns—communities mostly in the midwest and west which posted signs telling Black people they were not welcome; white vigilantes in such towns would shoot Black visitors on sight after nightfall. Part of the reason Black communities are centered in cities is because they were deliberately forced out of small towns by white terrorism. Larger Black enclaves in cities were harder to dislodge (though racist whites tried.)
Racists, conservatives, and Republicans love to conflate small town white America with real America. In the right wing imagination, a millionaire New York real estate heir like Donald Trump is the true avatar of small town values because he's white and racist. Aldean is to some extent engaged in the same kind of deceit and hypocrisy.
But it's important to recognize that the main problem is not the hypocrisy or the posturing. The main problem is the racism. There's nothing wrong with being from a city. There's not even anything wrong with being from a city and singing about the experiences of rural people, a la Cincinnati-born Roy Rogers.
Aldean's song attempts to locate virtue in identity; he claims he is a good person with the right to use violence because he's standing in, or near, a small town. Isbell and Clymer attempt to steal that virtue from him by contesting the identity; they concede, implicitly, that small town identity is virtuous, but deny that that identity belongs to Aldean.
The problem, though, is that if you link small town identity to virtue, you implicitly concede Aldean's main point, which is that there's something wrong with multiracial cosmopolitanism, and with the people who live, work, and love in urban centers. Given the history and the demographic landscape of the US, once progressives agree that the small town is the real center of American morality, they've already lost.
Aldean isn't a bad person because he's from the city; urban dwellers are Americans too. He's not a bad person for singing a song he didn't write about an experience that's not exactly his, either. He's a bad person because he's a racist piece of shit. And if you're a racist piece of shit, you're a bad person no matter where you're from.
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