I don’t know why the New Yorker is suddenly doing anthropological research on red-state America … but as this week’s profile of Brad Paisley reveals, it’s not bad research.
Staff writer Kelefa Sanneh, who once penned reviews for the New York Times, contributes a thoughtful piece on Paisley, whom the author describes as “by some counts, the best-selling singer in American history.”
Maybe it’s the persistent popularity of red-state institutions like country music and NASCAR (racetrack star Danica Patrick was also the subject of a recent New Yorker profile) that makes them so intriguing to the magazine staff … none of whom, presumably, would ask their colleagues, “Hey, did you see the ACM’s last night?” or, “Did you watch the Daytona 500?”
Which is what makes it so welcome when the magazine uses its resources to examine aspects of American pop culture that the intelligentsia often ignores. The magazine ventures outside its traditional world of sipping lattes at Starbucks, browsing Proust at the Strand and watching Audrey Hepburn at Film Forum. The results make for entertaining prose. Paisley, Sanneh reveals, disdains agave syrup and venerates Andy Griffith, whose show’s “balance of wry humor and old-fashioned decency has become a touchstone for (Paisley’s) life, and for his career,” Sanneh writes.
When Sanneh goes beyond the external details, however, the results are intriguing. Sanneh has chosen a good subject to reveal the complexity of country music today. Paisley occasionally sings about topics that both blue-state and red-state audiences might find interesting. For instance, his song “American Saturday Night” evokes terms incorporated from other countries to show us how the melting pot works (“Spanish moss, Italian ice, French kissing in the moonlight … Just another American Saturday Night.”) It’s hard to imagine Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer groovin’ to that song.
Sanneh finds Paisley similarly thoughtful on the issue of race. While the author claims that country music, while “not strictly rural music” and “not strictly Southern … remains white music, by and for white people,” this is challenged by Paisley’s song “Welcome to the Future,” which honors the work of advocates for equality such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and denounces the Ku Klux Klan for its racial-intimidation tactics. Sanneh notes that African-American Darius Rucker is now a country star, and observes that Tim McGraw evokes “a multiracial form of Southern pride” in his song “Southern Voice,” which also mentions Parks and Dr. King.
Songs such as “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome to the Future” helped endear Paisley to yours truly. When first listening to him on WKLB-FM (102.5) in the Boston area, I found little to distinguish one of his songs from another. Toby Keith had his brash conservative politics (even if I disagreed with them, I found them entertaining), Garth Brooks had his lyricism, Martina McBride mixed toughness with sensitivity. It was only when Paisley started doing the same thing the New Yorker did -- exploring the wider story of America -- that he began appealing to me.
So let’s appreciate Paisley as he is: an entertaining, sometimes thoughtful guy who makes good music. And let’s appreciate Sanneh and the New Yorker for a thoughtful profile.