On Morgan Wallen, Reckless White Men, and America’s Imperiled Future
In vino veritas.
Loosely translated from Latin to English, it means that a person tells the truth under the influence of alcohol.
In the past six months, the number one pop music artist in America, country star Morgan Wallen — while inebriated — has, via his unsavory behavior, told many truths about himself. For pop’s top star, these truths have had considerable life and career consequences.
However, Wallen’s latest error — uttering the word “n***er” out loud while being filmed, on the first day of 2021’s Black History Month no less — is too shocking to sweep under the rug as a youthful indiscretion.
Depressingly — even if it’s appallingly bigoted to a frustrating level — if it aids in selling everything from musical albums to fried chicken, it’s celebrated in the annals of country music. However, in the wake of 2020, this essential tenet of country music’s success has potentially become a blanket condemnation of the genre overall.
Though beloved in the genre’s history, country music’s tradition of turning a blind eye to reckless white men who — even unintentionally — spew harmful language must end.
Wallen’s not just another countrified “aw shucks” yokel talking slow and singing slower about trucks and whiskey shots. He’s a 27-year-old native of Sneedville, Tennessee. On the strength of digital streaming being roughly a decade late to gaining popularity in country music’s circles, the 2014 contestant on the television program The Voice has emerged from also-ran status to having Dangerous, his new, 30-track double-album, get streamed over a half-billion times, worldwide, in under a month since its release.
This success makes him the most relevant pop star in the entirety of popular music at-present. When reaching that level of excellence, the standard to which your behavior is measured — especially when in public and especially in manners of racial acceptance, for instance — must be faultlessly peerless.
Wallen’s are not.
Like so many other country music acts, Wallen arguably gets passes because, throughout the genre’s history (the entire “outlaw country” movement, for instance), white men engaging in coarse, uncivil behavior is seen as a charming character flaw that creates humanizing star power for the genre’s predominately white fanbase.
“Never stand in the way of a hit” is the typical logic applied by music veterans regarding anything that’s headed to the top of the country charts. Even if it’s George Jones — who noted critic Robert Christgau ironically once called “honky-tonk’s greatest honky” — once drunkenly painting the letters ‘KKK’ on groundbreaking Black country superstar Charley Pride’s car, he’s still allowed to have over 150 hit singles in a six-decade-long career.
Even in the wake of increased racial sensitivity in the modern era, country’s boorishness has persisted. In July 2014, Dallas Davidson — a notable Nashville singer-songwriter — reportedly “screamed racial and homophobic slurs” during a bar fight in Nashville, “because someone sent him into a blind rage.” Regarding his behavior, Davidson told TMZ that he wasn’t racist or homophobic and that although he could not defend what he said, he apologized for his “insensitivity.” In 2020, Dallas Davidson co-wrote “Down to One,” a song recorded by Luke Bryan.
Again, never stand in the way of a hit.
Like Davidson, Wallen apologized for his slur. To PEOPLE, Wallen stated, “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”
However, unlike Jones or Davidson, this is Wallen’s second major public apology in four months.
Major red flags began to appear around the emerging star when his appearance as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live was canceled, then re-booked. This occurred after videos appeared online showing him unmasked, partying, and cavorting with coeds during a weekend at the University of Alabama.
Drunkenly sneaking kisses with teased-haired twenty-somethings is Morgan Wallen play-acting the hooks and choruses of his seemingly limitless stream of Billboard hit singles. Comparatively, Morgan Wallen drunkenly ribbing one of his friends by calling him a “pussy ass ni**er” — at a time when he’s the lead torchbearer for globalized American pop and country music when America is suffering through tremendous racial unrest — is damning.
George Jones was drunk and joking insensitively. Dallas Davidson was in a blind, inebriated rage. Morgan Wallen was likely similarly three sheets to the wind and acting absentmindedly. What differs from George Jones to Morgan Wallen is the nation's state into which Wallen said a disgusting word.
Because this is America in 2021, maybe now is the time for country music to finally “stand in the way of a hit.”
Racism is the Sword of Damocles that swings over the imperiled, infected, and rapidly depleting carcass of the United States. 2020 saw Black murders and chronic, manic, African-American existential crisis dominate the nation’s headlines. When a rising white, Southern pop icon is allowed to yank at grievously harmful racism metaphorically — the weapon currently swinging over our collective national heads — in a reckless manner, it is an instantaneous call for alarm.
Ultimately, people perceived as racists extolling racial togetherness virtues in a non-performative manner would be immensely beneficial to strengthening what remains of our American future. White men like Wallen smartening up, shutting off their inner dialogues, and exercising reparational accountability in the wake of their unprecedented success would be ideal.
Fascinatingly enough, by being a country artist, it’s easier to be a tremendous ally for America’s racial reparation than ever before.
At present, more African-Americans are employed as singers and songwriters in country music than ever before. In that number include pop-rock icon Darius Rucker, whose 90s era acclaim from Hootie and the Blowfish has buffered his successful decade-plus crossover run as a country artist. As well, 2021 finds veteran country vocalist Mickey Guyton as the first Black woman to be nominated for a country music Grammy since the Pointer Sisters won Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for their 1974 single “Fairytale.”
Moreover, when white female country star Maren Morris accepted an award for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2020 CMA Awards, she boldly thanked Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens, all pioneering Black female country artists. The act and moment set a simple yet profound precedent for behavior from white country artists.
There was once a time in country music where because the music venerated America’s then governing principles and social mores, a level of ill-mannered behavior towards people valued at 60% of their humanity in the Constitution fit the billing of blindly acceptable racism. However, Black Americans who survived 2020 certainly have proven resilient, valuable, and gifted enough to be granted equity as citizens of this nation. Thus, the days of drunk white men in black ten-gallon hats being willfully allowed to denigrate Black people’s heritage are over.
Because African-Americans are more essential to the United States’ future than flawed standards, and living on an imperiled planet presents far graver truths than any wine could ever inform lips to speak, Morgan Wallen’s egregious error has ended country music’s 90-plus years of domination by drunken, reckless white men.
It’s finally time for country music to “stand in the way of a hit.”