Morgan Wallen’s country music redemption arc is a sad sign of the times
Less than a year after a video went viral of country singer Morgan Wallen repeatedly shouting a racial slur, he announced an eight-month tour of the country. As a country music fan, I am disappointed. But I wish I could say I’m surprised too.
As a country music fan, I am disappointed. But I wish I could say that I was also surprised.
After Wallen’s video leaked on TMZ, the country music machine acted with unusual speed. For a genre steeped in a history of racism, Confederate flags, and good old boy sensibilities, country music collectively decided the N word was one step too far. Within a few days, Wallen was wiped from radio stations, wiped from streaming playlists, abandoned by his booking agent, suspended from his label, and declared ineligible for the Academy of Country Music Awards.
For a moment, it seemed that the industry might be interested in doing the difficult but important job of tackling the structures and attitudes that have long allowed racism, both overt and subtle. For a while, there was hope that country music could try to be an inclusive music community. But what might have been an opportunity for introspection for one of America’s favorite genres has largely dissipated, eclipsed, arguably, by Morgan Wallen’s personal redemption story.
Since its origins, country music has long defined itself as white. In the 1920’s, the commercial recording industry separated music from the South, a genre that at the time was enjoyed and played by black and white alike. Instead, the industry has decided to define âblack musicâ as racing music and âwhite musicâ as old-time or hillbilly music. Over the decades, country music has continued to double the white identity, eventually intersecting it with “God bless the USAâPatriotism which led to the cancellation of The Chicks (then The Dixie Chicks) in 2003.
When it comes to opportunities for performers who are not male and white, the game is still mostly rigged. A study showed that between 2000 and 2020, only 3.2 percent of artists signed to major country labels were artists of color, and only 2.3 percent of radio airtime was devoted to artist music of color. Look no further than the 10 Best Country Songs of the Day on Apple Music to see how it goes. As of the day this article was written, nine of the songs on the list are sung by white men (with a song by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood as a duet). Three of the Top 10 songs are sung by one man: Morgan Wallen.
In February, before the TMZ video, Wallen was also topping the charts. His recently released second album, “Dangerous: The Double Album”, was pretty No. 1 since landing the previous month. After the video went public, the popularity of “Dangerous” skyrocketed, and within days sales soared over 500 percent.
“Dangerous” has become one of the biggest albums of 2021 – in any genre. Meanwhile, country music members criticized Wallen’s use of racist language, but split into factions about what he said about their business: some, like artist Kelsea Ballerini, tweeted that Wallen’s lyrics made “”does not represent country musicÂ»(She has since backtrack on this tweet, calling it a âfaux pasâ and the situation with Wallen an opportunity to learn about racism in the industry). Others, like Mickey Guyton, one of the rare traditional black artists in the genre, had a different take. âWhen I read comments that say ‘that’s not who we are’ I laugh because that’s exactly what country music is,â Guyton tweeted.
Initially, Wallen apologized, go to rehab and swear redemption was possible – or at least, remorse. He says he also gave $ 500,000 to black-led groups (but that figure is now under surveillance). But quietly and fairly quickly, country music welcomed Wallen back to the club. In May, the Country Music Association, one of the most powerful forces in the genre, decided that even though Wallen would not be allowed to attend his awards show in November, he would still be eligible for a nomination (and appointed it was). By June, most radio stations replayed his music. In July, Wallen was interviewed by Michael Strahan on ABC’s “Hello america“, sounding a lot like a guy sorry he got caught, not sorry for what he did.
âI was with some of my friends and we say stupid things together,â Wallen told Strahan. Adding: “In our mind, it’s playful.” When Strahan asked Wallen if he thought country music had a racial problem, Wallen replied, âI didn’t really sit down to think about it.
Wallen’s lack of introspection is far from the only problem here. As Guyton said, “that’s exactly what country music is.” Guyton, whose music strongly expresses his identity with songs like “Black Like Me”, has not been supported by country radio. The relative success of other black country artists – like Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown – is an exception, not a marker of significant change in the industry. Darius Rucker, one of today’s hottest black country artists, has spoken openly about his own struggles to fit in with the country’s followers. âHate mail is a part of my life,â he said. The Wall Street Journal. “People don’t want me to sing country music.”
Making forays along the back roads of the traditional country is a challenge, but the good news is that many organizations and individuals (especially black women) are committed to opening new, more inclusive avenues. Artist Rissi Palmer directs the podcast “Color me countryWhere she highlights the under-represented voices in the genre. Journalist Andrea Williams has tirelessly reported racism in the industry for years.
Organizations like Black Opry, Country Any | Way, and Change color are fighting to make the country more inclusive for artists who are not just white, straight and male. “The CMA is complicit in an industry that usually devalues ââand dehumanizes blacks and our important contributions to country music”, Color of Change wrote recently, also taking part in the CMA’s all-whiteboard and the criteria that support systems that exclude both women and people of color. That Jimmie Allen won New Artist of the Year at this year’s CMAs only the second black artist to do it is awesome – but like williams tweetedLittle surprised that the CMA sees the Blackening of his Awards scene as a marker of real progress, when they could have drawn a hard line on the N word and didn’t. “
As Wallen prepares to go on tour again, his redemptive arc appears to be, at least in the eyes of the country music establishment, over. He’s had his day, said he’s sorry, and now his show can go on. The conversation centers on Wallen’s accomplishments – what he learned, where he will play, if he has changed. Country music has had a real and obvious chance to grow, to welcome new voices, to draw a hard line on racism and discrimination. Instead, it allowed the status quo to triumph, driven by the desires of a hard-core Conservative base that relishes what Wallen apparently stands for.
So, does country music have a race issue? Seems like the powers that be “haven’t really sat down and given it some thought.” And they don’t want to do it any time soon.