Poll 31: End Note, Part 1 (Misrecognitions)

You probably think of Elvis Costello as a genial presence in pop music: a sophisticated lyricist and concept-master, and an occasional thoughtful talk show host, too. But in March 1979, Elvis Costello was an idiot. He referred to James Brown and Ray Charles as “ignorant niggers”, and once his vicious blue streak made it out into the public, there were press conferences, there were apologies, there was embarrassment all around. When your dad feels the need to write letters to the editor to assure your fans that you aren’t a racist, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve stepped in it hard. Elvis wasn’t exactly cancelled, but he did substantial damage to his commercial prospects. His ’78 and ’79 albums both went platinum in the U.K.  After the incident, he’d never go platinum again.

I didn’t become a superfan of Elvis Costello until many years afterward, so I can’t say how bugged out I would have been by his early edgelord activities. His early albums make his anger manifest — there’s an assaultive quality to that music that was intrinsic to his initial appeal to audiences. Students of his album know that the working title of Armed Forces was Emotional Fascism, and he liberally peppered his lyrics with references to Hitler, Quisling, goon squads, concentration camps, decapitation, puns about the final solution. The hit single, written in response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, contained the phrase “white nigger.” In retrospect, it’s apparent that he was spoiling for a confrontation. Somebody was going to read him the riot act.

Lyricists understand the power of words; that’s the business, and if you’re trying to make yourself an attraction, you light the fuse on the loudest firecrackers you can find. It’s not possible to argue that Morgan Wallen is a great lyricist —  he’s far too willing to advance his narratives via Music City cliché. He’s an effective one nevertheless. Halfway through the first disc of Dangerous, you’ll have a character portrait in full. You’ll know exactly what sort of an ornery character you’re dealing with, and you’ll have a pretty good measure of the chip on his shoulder and the strip-mine depth of his resentment. You might see Morgan Wallen as a shit-kicking Appalachian analogue to Elvis Costello in the late ‘70s: a talented, opinionated, red-assed guy with an urge to provoke that often outpaces his desire to entertain.  

In February, Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using the n-word.  Industry reprisals were immediate: he was kicked off of satellite radio and streaming services, his major label record contract was suspended, and Dangerous, his album, was disqualified from CMA consideration. Nevertheless, the records kept selling. Dangerous held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for ten weeks, and songs from the set remained on the streaming charts; much as gun sales spike in the wake of school shootings as ammo enthusiasts fret that the government will use the controversy as a pretext to take their weapons away, Wallen fans raced to get their hands on his music before he got shipped to entertainment Siberia. Those who don’t like contemporary country music were sure they knew what had happened: recalcitrant red-staters were sticking it to the virtuous and censorious, and infuriating the social-justice warriors by standing by their man, no matter how insensitive he might be. Even those of us who do like contemporary country music had to acknowledge that, yes, some spitework was going on.

But we also know that’s an insufficient explanation. The real reason why the Morgan Wallen album keeps selling is because of the state-of-the-art craftsmanship it contains, that, and the sincerity and strange purity of its sentiment. A shocking number of the 32 (!) songs on the set are keepers; they’re undeniable, even when they’re unpleasant. Dangerous, which is appropriately titled, reveals Wallen to be a messed-up person — one conscious of every sneer directed at the sticks, suspicious of the condescension of outsiders, and defensive of his way of life; i.e., “country-ass shit.” Not since Jamey Johnson’s Guitar Song has a mainstream artist expressed such tacit contempt for coastal city slickers. But while Johnson was convinced that California would soon burn, and only those who’d gotten back to Macon (love allll night) would survive the meltdown of the liberal order, Morgan Wallen grudgingly accepts that none of his vengeance fantasies are going to be realized. The girl at the beach bar isn’t going to follow him back to the Eastern Tennessee hills, beer isn’t really colder or tastier in the mountains, a “little ride around the farm” won’t pry anybody away from the metropolis, and all of these realizations magnify Wallen’s insecurity and bitterness. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the past decade, it’s that Wallen is speaking for an awful lot of Americans here — maybe not Americans who you want anything to do with, but your neighbors nevertheless, determined to impose an ill will on a country that they share with you. We ignore them, and shame them into silence, at some peril.  

This isn’t to excuse Morgan Wallen’s (or Elvis Costello’s) stupidity. Hitmakers have big platforms, and when the sensitivity and openness that the job requires turns them into a channel for ugly stuff, they ought to be called out on it. Most good artists recognize that they’re vessels for volcanic forces, and when they’re pulled back from the edge, they tend to be grateful to those who do the yanking. Elvis Costello has spent decades apologizing to Ray Charles in various ways; Morgan Wallen was quick with contrition, agreed with his critics, and dropped off his summer ’21 tour to work on himself, which, given the context surrounding the incident, probably mean some kind of detox. And I can’t help but think of another legend who loved to make the normies uncomfortable — David Bowie, who claimed to have no recollection of his mid-‘70s praise of Hitler and fascism, and his bizarre fascination with Nazi memorabilia and iconography. Convenient, yes, but I doubt that was a case of selective amnesia. During the Thin White Duke period, Bowie was zonked out of his mind on every pill and powder in Eurasia. Costello, too, was drunk and high when he went on his tirade; ’79 was probably the apex of his speed ride. Morgan Wallen’s n-bombs were dropped near the bleary end of a three-day bender. Intoxicants don’t just make people stupid. They corrode morals, too. Give a nonstop supply of whiskey and coke to St. Peter, turn the digital recorder on and roll the camera, and it’s dead certain you’ll catch him saying, or doing, something regrettable, and maybe even cancellable.

We’re reluctant to lean too hard into this, because we don’t want to accidentally argue that the fault is in the bottle and not in the man. Maker’s Mark did not create our racist society, and perhaps the hippies are right that puffing on a spliff might have improved Hitler’s disposition. But in our rush to expunge bigoted discourse from the public sphere, we keep missing salient details that might help us evaluate the offenders, and their offenses, fairly. There’s very little chance that Morgan Wallen is a member of the Klan, or a legitimate threat to race relations, or much more prejudiced than the next self-identified Tennessee redneck lout, but anybody who gives Dangerous a cursory listen can tell that the guy has a ferocious drinking problem. It shouldn’t have taken a national scandal for his handlers, and his listeners, to acknowledge this and attempt some sort of intervention. All the evidence of a booze-induced mind meltdown is right there in the lyrics, and in the star’s occasionally scary performances. When Wallen sings that living the dream is killing him, and runs down a list of the pharmaceuticals that have been propping him up as he tours, his voice is heavy with that precise combination of fear and exhaustion that any addict, or even a friend of an addict, will immediately recognize.

Unfortunately, the default position for fans — and not just country fans! — is to cheer their heads off at any mention of alcohol. Self-destruction brings the house down. When Wallen tells the bartender to set ‘em up, over and over, this is supposed to be a thrilling recapitulation of bad boy tradition; when the chickens come home to roost, and Wallen acts the goat and says or does something idiotic, we’re all supposed to turn on a dime, assume the moral high ground, and wag our fingers. Can you see how we’ve lost the sense of proportion necessary to respond to Wallen, and Wallen’s fans, in a manner that suits the offense? We encourage angry, talented young men to broadcast recalcitrance and indulge in anti-social behavior, and then act shocked when those young men stumble over the line into the widening sphere of the problematic. When this happens, we’re being as dumb as Morgan Wallen on a bender, because we, too, are failing to see the obvious consequences of our actions. Ultimately, cancellation is a fantasy of direct audience control that doesn’t actually exist: it’s easy enough to make PWR BTTM vanish, because they were always a media-driven mirage, but Wallen, like Costello and David Bowie, is actually talented, and talent is no cheap commodity. If he takes himself off the table, it won’t be because of anything he says. It’ll be because of what he does — to himself.

Ideally, our pop heroes would be unimpeachable people as well as magnificent singers and writers. I’m not sure it ever works that way. Most good artists are deeply troubled people: they’re driven to do what they do because of some unquenchable desire that they can’t satisfy through sane means. Elvis Costello, famously, cited revenge and guilt as his motivations; someone with such an ill wind in his sails was always going to head straight into trouble. Morgan Wallen is driven by furies, too — that’s hard to miss, and it’s what makes Dangerous more than just typical Nashville machine music. It’s not incumbent on you, or anybody else, to accept Wallen’s apology. If a slip of the tongue keeps him civilian, he certainly wouldn’t be the first drunk to mess up his life while he was blacked out. I just wish we were all a little more honest about what we ask of these guys, and a little less stunned when they go ahead and give us what we want.