(Pictured: Morgan Wallen, on stage in Nashville last month.)
If you do not A) live most of your life online and B) listen to country music, you might not know who Morgan Wallen is, or why he’s been Topic A among online country music people the last few days. Last week, a video of an intoxicated Wallen shouting a racial slur at a companion went viral, which prompted radio stations, streaming services, and websites to yank his music, and his record label to “suspend” his contract. This is notable for a couple of reasons: first, Wallen’s album Dangerous has been #1 on the Billboard 200 for the last four weeks, making him quite literally the #1 star in country right now; and second, it’s not the first time he’s been in embarrassing public trouble.
I am not going to rehash the whole case here, nor am I going to link you to much stuff that other people have written. I refer you to the Twitter feeds of Marissa R. Moss, Andrea Williams, and WOMAN Nashville, all of whom have been writing and thinking about and discussing what happened, and the controversy that has followed. Here’s what I think I think.
Friday morning, a couple of days after the scandal broke, I logged onto Facebook to see white fans defending Wallen. “Other people have done worse and they didn’t get canceled.” These same folks are unlikely to agree that two wrongs make a right, however. They also say, “What about all the rappers who use that word?” First: whatabout-ism is the lowest form of argument. And second, the word in question hasn’t been normalized in rap and hip-hop in the way white folks think. There are Black critics of the word, and there are questions of context and ownership to consider regarding its use. It wasn’t like The Weeknd was gonna casually launch it during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Some defenders pointed to Wallen’s iTunes sales figures—Dangerous increased over 1200 percent after the scandal broke—as vindication. (They didn’t say how it vindicated him, exactly; they just pointed out the numbers as if they made a sufficient argument for … something.) But right and wrong isn’t decided by a vote, in the marketplace or anywhere else. And also, thinking “Morgan Wallen is in trouble for using a word a lot of people find abhorrent. I need to go to iTunes and get some of his music” doesn’t vindicate anybody of anything. Journalist Bill Werde wrote, in a thread highly worth your time, “Those are protest buys. And it’s upsetting to think about what’s being protested.”
Corporate country did what it had to by removing Wallen from the air and “suspending” his contract. (Interesting word, “suspended.” Will they refuse to pay royalties on everything sold since the “suspension”? If you think so, perhaps I can interest you in this bridge I own in Brooklyn.) But Wallen’s fellow artists haven’t exactly gone along. Many have chimed in with expressions of support, as if the racial-slur incident is something that happened to him, and not something he did to someone else. Meanwhile, many of country’s black artists stand gobsmacked at the spectacle of their fellow performers dismissing the significance of casual racism, something they deal with every day.
Nashville will declare its intent to do better by people of color, but let’s not confuse declarations of intent with action. “Raising awareness” only serves to take the heat off unless it’s followed by concrete steps to address specifics. Canadian country artist Donovan Woods tweeted over the weekend, “Nashville is a corporate town, top to bottom. They’d rehabilitate Ted Bundy if it meant they’d all make $50.” So I worry that this is what will happen: at some awards show in the intermediate future, Morgan Wallen will come onstage with a guitar, sit on a stool, sing a ballad that mentions regret, smile ruefully, get a standing ovation … and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.
If Morgan Wallen truly repents and changes his behavior, good for him. (Good too if the Nashville power structure commits to real change.) If the incident prompts some of Wallen’s white fans to interrogate their own unconscious racism, good for them. But if all it does is to make the general run of white people clutch tighter to the phrase, “This is not who we are,” we’ll end up no better off.
I submit that unless you’re a person of color in America, you don’t really know who “we” are, as least as far as race is concerned. And if you can’t see why Wallen’s slur should be a problem . . . that’s a problem.