Recently, having watched several Catholic bishops make internet fodder of themselves due to ill-chosen words or phrases, I (having learned a great deal about foot-in-mouth disease through similar self-ambush over the years) presumed to offer them some sound advice, along with a friendly adjuration to “Do better, hierarchs!”
I reminded the bishops that anticipating how an insta-reactionary world might receive what they said, or how they said it, could go a long way toward reducing the need for later clarification.
It was useful advice — admittedly easier to follow with a pen than in those dicey moments when there is a microphone in one’s face.
It’s advice even easier to take when you’re leisurely writing a song lyric and planning out the video that accompanies it.
Which leads me to Jason Aldean, about whom — not being a fan of his musical genre — I know only one of two things: He is either a sentimental and well-meaning yokel who is terrible at anticipating the effects his words and images might have on people, or he’s a cynical provocateur of the “any publicity is good publicity” school who intended to garner the exact notice he’s received from his song, “Try that in a Small Town,” and its accompanying video.
For the uninitiated, “Try that in a Small Town” boasts lyrics about Grandad’s shotgun, handed down and waiting in readiness in case any miscreants currently shoplifting, sucker-punching and otherwise diminishing our cities show up on his turf. “Try that in a small town,” Aldean sings. “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 …”
As they say in the movies, “them’s fightin’ words,” full of bravado and just daring someone to take him up on it. In the accompanying video they’re juxtaposed against images of protestors of all stripes fighting with the police, or rioting — and all of it interspersed with cuts of the artist, who lives in Nashville, standing before the Maury County Courthouse. An American flag hangs from the very balcony upon which, in 1927, a mob hanged a battered young African American, 18-year-old Henry Choate, after a white girl accused him of attacking her, though she could not actually identify him.
“Full of good ol’ boys, raised up right/If you’re looking for a fight/Try that in a small town…” Aldean further explains, seemingly deaf as to how a phrase like “good ‘ol’ boys” might land on a still tender, if not raw, national wound and those who feel it keenly.
The music video’s producers told the Washington Post that Aldean didn’t choose the location, which they added has also been featured in some innocuous television programming. Aldean himself tweeted out a somewhat defiant clarification stating that the charge of racism against the song is “not only meritless, but dangerous. There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it — and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage.”
That might be so. But as a New Yorker, I know that phrases like “the boys,” or “the goodfellas,” will instantly invite thoughts of cement shoes, garrots and a box of cannoli, carried primly by the strings. Did the producers and artists working with him never anticipate that “good old boys” might conjure up gut-wrenching thoughts of lynchings and cross burnings for some, who would then call Aldean out on it?
Against well-meaning yokels, I offer no judgment; it’s a hyper-sensitive world out there, and few of us are experts at freely speaking without havoc-wreaking.
Our society feels upside-down to many — particularly in the cities, where lawbreaking increasingly seems to be met with shoulder-shrugs by district attorneys. It’s a real concern for many; people know that when little crimes go unaddressed, the bigger crimes will follow, and they feel unsafe. But surely an artist wishing to address the issue might constructively do so without a chest-thrusting celebration of gun cultures and reactionary mob mentalities.
Rooted in love or fear
With maturity comes a realization that most of our human action is rooted in either love or fear. After listening to Jason Aldean’s song and watching his video, I suspect he is neither a yokel nor a sly provocateur, but a man showing his fear about a perceived threat to what he loves. His video concludes with a news clip showing farmers leaving their own holdings to help another in need. “It’s what this community stands for … somebody needs some help, he’ll get it,” a man in a wheelchair says.
If American cities need help — and yeah, they do — I’m not sure they feel at all assisted by this song, or this video.