The country has largely forgiven country star Morgan Wallen for uttering a racial slur after a night out in Nashville last year. But The New York Times won’t let it go. In last Sunday’s “The Morgan Wallen Conundrum,” music critic Jon Caramanica spent a staggering 2,400 words condemning Wallen all over again for the one offensive word.
The story was keyed to Wallen’s appearance at the Grand Old Opry a year after the N-word incident. Admitting Wallen’s album, “Dangerous,” was the most commercially successful release of last year, Caramanica sounded bitter the cancellation had failed, and that the incident had not filled the singer with overwhelming shame and remorse.
Wallen’s continuing dominance, so shortly following the nationwide reckoning with racism that marked 2020, has been a source of here-we-go-again frustration for those working to bring change to Nashville, including many Black performers and observers, who see his success as a reflection of the racism that has long framed country music as a preserve and amplifier of whiteness. “The hate runs deep,” tweeted Mickey Guyton, the Black country singer.
That Wallen is being welcomed back by the industry -- appearing on its most revered stage, popping up in photos with its big stars -- is particularly conspicuous given the strides made by Black country performers in recent years, and the increasing awareness, even in a cloistered company town like Nashville, of the longstanding inequalities that have relegated Black artists to the margins.
Apologizing isn’t enough, apparently. (Nor are large monetary donations to black organizations.)
Wallen apologized, but has done little to directly and publicly atone. He has largely opted for gestures of soft reconciliation over those of hard accountability, attempting to garner trust by proximity rather than action, largely shifting the burden onto Black people to forgive him and to do the work of public vouching.
Caramanica sounded petulant that Wallen is allowed to have a career, then implied that his fans are racists too: “For people who abjure racism and bigotry, there is no listening to Wallen without the simultaneous awareness of his infractions. But plenty of people apparently have no such qualms.”
Wallen had to take on his defenders as well:
When Black country music stakeholders -- particularly Black women -- voice their concerns on Twitter about the ease of Wallen’s redemption arc, they’re bombarded with bigotry and suggestions that country music would be doing fine without them and their complaints. Wallen has never directly dissuaded such behavior weaponized on his behalf.
The Times even had to work in the fact that they loves to use Covid facemasks as moralizing (click "expand”):
But what’s most revealing is how Wallen behaves when no one is watching, or more specifically, when no one who might rebuke him is watching.
On Dec. 3, Wallen played the first of three sold-out nights at the 20,000 capacity Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., part of a sprinkling of warm-up shows before the start of his proper tour next month….even though the country was in the thick of the Delta variant, and a prominent sign in the arena read “masks are encouraged at tonight’s event,” almost no one wore one. (The arena staff did, though.) There were about as many nonwhite people in attendance as those with face coverings.
Sounds like the 2021 Met Gala.
He faulted Wallen for failing to “stop the political nastiness,” except what was his sin? Not condemning his fans for cheering “Let’s go, Brandon!” So Wallen has to police not only himself, but everyone who buys a ticket to his shows? But what The Times found most disturbing of all was “he declined to reveal himself a changed, or evolved, person. There were no tables in the lobby promoting racial justice organizations.”
How utterly ridiculous.