Currently stirring the culture war pot is a new, incendiary, “almost comically offensive” pro-lynching anthem by country singer Jason Aldean, who posed with his redneck band at the site of an infamous Tennessee lynching to flash videos of protesters and bray that if you “cuss out a cop” or “stomp on the flag,” “See how far you make it down the road,” which isn’t threatening at all so why is he being “cancelled”? Maybe ’cause he’s a racist “garbage fire of a human being”?
Try That In A Small Town argues that if you in any way “act a fool”—“Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk/Carjack an old lady at a red light/Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store…Cuss out a cop, spit in his face/Stomp on the flag and light it up”—vigilante justice will find you: “See how far ya make it down the road/Around here, we take care of our own.” In a later verse Aldean, who was on stage when a gunman opened fire in 2017 at a Las Vegas music festival, killing 60 people and wounding over 800 in this country’s worst gun massacre, sings, “Got a gun that my granddad gave me/They say one day they’re gonna round up/Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck/Try that in a small town.”
As he sings, images of rowdy protests, including post-George-Floyd BLM actions, flash frantically onscreen; at one point, a Fox News chyron screams, “State of Emergency Declared in Georgia”—though it turns out much of the footage is from protests in Canada and Europe.
Most egregious, Aldean’s backdrop is the stately Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where in 1927 a white lynch mob strung up and murdered 18-year-old Black man Henry Choate after dragging his body through the streets with a car. One goon reportedly taunted the teen by holding up the rope beforehand and sneering, “Well, that sends you to hell—here you go!” before they hanged Choate and threw his body over the balcony; the rope dangled there for several weeks. The violence is said to have haunted Maury County: At least 20 Black men and boys were lynched or “disappeared” by the local Klan in that era, and it was the site of the 1946 Columbia Race Riot that almost saw the lynching of Thurgood Marshal.
It’s unclear if the producers of Aldean’s flag-waving video—American, not Confederate, so good on him—chose the site because of or (improbably) unaware of its history, though some critics argue that would be even worse: “It just reinforces that Tennessee’s racist history is truly inescapable.” Regardless, the song has enough Birth of a Nation, extrajudicial law and order dog whistles—his small town is “Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right/If you’re lookin’ for a fight”—horror-struck critics have deemed it both “an ode to sundown towns” and “a modern lynching song.“
Predictably, Aldean denies this. While the song was released in May, the video—and outrage—wasn’t released until July 14. “When u grow up in small town, it’s that unspoken rule of ‘we all have each other’s backs and we look out for each other,'” he wrote at the time. “It feels like somewhere along the way, that sense of community and respect has gotten lost…I hope my new music video helps y’all know that u are not alone in feeling that way.” Cue wizened old guy in video musing “what this community and a lot of farm communities stand for—somebody needs some help, they’ll get it.”
Awww. That sounds so sweet. Given the song’s menacing imagery and belligerent rhetoric—”Ya think you’re tough/ Well, try that in a small town…You cross that line, it won’t take long/For you to find out…Try that in a small town”—it also sounds like disingenuous bullshit, ugly light years away from “community” and “respect.” Aldean’s “angry cocktail” of country music, willful blindness, nostalgia and paranoia about anything “other” or “from away”—Nikki Haley’s pining for the “simple” days of “faith, family and country” when marginalized people had no rights—is a perfect, heedless distillation of what MAGA world wants this country to be: Make America White (also straight and Christian) Again.
As usual, rural (white) towns play a key role in this well-burnished mythology, serving as the defenders of America’s heartland against a perilous, communist, dystopian landscape—big cities, bad crimes, foreign food, weird ideas, dirt, noise, people of color. But painting small-town America as a pristine, peaceful utopia is more bullshit. In small towns, poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, lack of health care, boarded-up businesses, mean-spirited scapegoating of “others” and the opioid/fentanyl epidemic are rampant; food deserts are growing, farm communities are shrinking; vigilante justice still isn’t justice, and local politics are often inept, corrupt, racist, rich-centric like the rest of the country.
Deaths from the “unholy trinity (of) cars, guns and drugs” are 20% higher in rural small towns than big cities. Gun violence is everywhere: Uvalde, Newtown, Parkland are small towns, their shooters were young local (white) men, the Las Vegas shooter was an angry white man from Iowa, 2/3 of all fatal shootings involve rural white men—who often shoot themselves—with no “marauding bands of BLM protesters” in sight, and to paint gun violence as a big-city, left-leaning issue is “dog-whistling past the graveyard.” It’s also, says Nashville’s Sheryl Crow, “just lame.”
.@Jason_Aldean I’m from a small town. Even people in small towns are sick of violence.There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting.
This is not American or small town-like. It’s just lame https://t.co/cuOtUO9xjr
— Sheryl Crow (@SherylCrow) July 19, 2023
The country music that supposedly represents these communities likewise boasts its own hypocrisies, discrepancies and racist history. An art “created around whiteness,” its executives segregated country music from the start into “race music” and “hillbilly music,” thus perpetuating a white-dominated genre that “borrowed from Black musicians but rarely centered on them,” or even gave them credit. While it long had its progressive exceptions—Jimmy Rodgers, Mother Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, with many more upcoming—it was historically reactionary.
Enter Aldean, dubbed by some country purists “barely a country artist” but more a “mid-tempo arena retro rocker” whose hot new song is “a clownish, poorly-written, trite and reactionary piece of audio refuse,” a “dated, untimely, unnecessarily strident… grandstanding embarrassment” without charm and a “poorly-attempted cultural statement that has clearly proven counter-productive,” though it’s making tons of money “being marketed well to people with terrible taste in music.” The song is now #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, with views of the video soaring from 350,000 to 16.6 million. Capitalism loves controversy—and evidently lots of lies.
Aldean, it turns out, may be crazy about small towns, but he’s not from one, nor does he live in one. He grew up in Macon, where he attended private school, and he lives in Nashville, a city of over 700,000. He also doesn’t write his own songs—”he picks them out of a catalog like a karaoke singer”—nor did he write this one: It’s written by Neil Thrasher, Kurt Allison, Tully Kennedy and Kelley Lovelace, “none of whom are Jason Aldean,” so “you’d have to ask them if it’s about Blacks, Jews, Antifa, homeless people, or they’re just mad some teenager stole their flag.”
“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,” writes Noah Berlatsky. He adds the song nonetheless remains “ugly and evil (because) Aldean is in fact speaking for an American tradition (that) is not limited to small towns but very much includes them, and Aldean remains “a garbage fire of a human being.” Still, he questions condemning Aldean as a fake, thus conflating authenticity with morality: “It’s odd to criticize a racist for not being true to his racist posturing, for not being the rugged small town bigot of his songs.” At some point, he suggests “we stop caring so much about who is ‘real’ and start caring more about who is good.”
The consensus: Aldean’s neither. After a few days of backlash, Country Music Television pulled the video. Aldean squawked the critiques were “meritless,” he doesn’t even mention race and, “Cancel culture is a thing…if people don’t like what you say, they (try) and ruin your life, ruin everything.” More squawking from the loathsome likes of Marcia Blackburn—”I stand with Jason Aldean”—Jesse Watters—”(This is) “open season on all of us”—and lying Sarah Huckabee: CMT “caved to the woke mob.” Then the video re-appeared, with BLM protests edited out.
Meanwhile, Aldean kept touring, whining and sounding like a vengeful, dumb-as-a-rock thug. In Boston, he inexplicably compared his song to the Marathon bombing: Boston should understand his message “better than anybody…Any of you guys that would’ve found those guys before the cops did, I know you would’ve beat the shit outta them…It’s about people getting their shit together and acting right.” In Hartford on Sunday, protesters gathere —”There is comfort in breaking bread together”—to don gowns and bear photos of Aldean in rainbow glory: “Try That In A Ball Gown.”
Critics had thoughts about “societal expectations” for the chunky singer. “I am sure he looked beautiful in that gown without the photo-shopping” and “the belt buckle really ties it all together.” Talk about taking care of our own.
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