• Alana Conner

Lyrics on the Mind in The New York Times

Alana and Hazel opined on “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate.”

Because popular music lyrics are so memorable and pervasive, they powerfully shape individuals’ thoughts, feelings and actions. How many of us could not recall, even if our lives depended on it, the basics of algebra we worked so hard to memorize, and yet know every word of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” even though we’ve tried hard to keep it out of our heads?

Like many social and cultural forces, once lyrics weasel their way into our unconscious minds, they subtly direct our behavior. And so it is good and right to examine what LL Cool J and Brad Paisley are crooning about in a heavily promoted product of the musical industrial complex. Both artists are naïve to think that other people should look past their cultural accoutrements — the do-rags and red flags — to “get to know me.” The notion that our cultures and our selves can be cleanly separated is a myth.

Behind this naïvete, however, are two well-intentioned people attempting to negotiate their cultural differences in front of an audience of millions. Their duet is one of the more socially salubrious entries in our collective playlist, which is otherwise clotted with racist, sexist, classist and regionist warblings. And unlike the “Ebony and Ivory” of yore, “Accidental Racist” does not conclude that “people are the same wherever you go.” Instead, the song begins to grapple, however clumsily, with the fact that people are deeply different. One group’s cherished cultural symbols are sometimes another group’s heartaches or nightmares. How we as a multicultural society can reconcile these culture clashes is a much longer conversation.

What do you think about the duet? Is it really a cross-cultural bridge-building, or a poorly timed apology for the Confederate flag?

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