The Morgan Wallen Conundrum

The country superstar Morgan Wallen took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry earlier this month, joining his longtime collaborator Ernest for a performance of their new single “Flower Shops,” and the fallout was swift. Black country performers and advocates spoke out against the Opry, widely perceived as hallowed ground in the genre, for giving a platform to Wallen, who nearly a year ago was caught on tape using a racial epithet.

A few days later, Wallen stepped on another stage in Nashville, joining the rapper Lil Durk at Bridgestone Arena for a performance of their new single “Broadway Girls” at a hip-hop event called MLK Freedom Fest. Durk introduced Wallen as someone who was “genuine at heart.” Blowback, if there was any, was muted.

Wallen, who retreated from the spotlight in 2021 after his rebuke by the music business, has been inching back toward it in recent months, via multiple twisted and potholed roads. He is simultaneously, depending on the lens, a hero or a scourge, an upholder of racist hierarchies or someone who works across racial lines, on a rehabilitation tour or just simply on tour, the most dominant musician of 2021 or the most reviled.

Wallen’s second album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” was the most commercially successful release of last year, with 3.2 million album equivalent units, outpacing Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and even Drake. After his career was put on pause, he went back on the road, sold out arenas and remained, more or less, the most popular performer in country music. Though major awards shows avoided him and radio abandoned him (for a while, at least), his fans didn’t: His album has placed in the Top 10 of the all-genre Billboard 200 chart every week but one since its Jan. 8, 2021, arrival. On Feb. 3, he’ll embark on a 46-city arena tour that includes multinight stands in Nashville, Atlanta, Alabama and New Hampshire, as well as New York and Los Angeles.

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.

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.

That said, Wallen simply may not need such assurances to remain at the top of country music. 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.

The kerfuffle over Wallen’s Opry appearance only underscores how badly country music institutions have misread the situation, or perhaps, how uninterested they are in understanding why their approach is shortsighted. Swaddling Wallen in the Opry’s respectability emphasizes the us/them nature of country gatekeeping, which has long been activated on gender and political lines as well. (The Opry didn’t release any statements about the Wallen booking.) Moments like that make clear that change in the genre is an illusion, always doomed to take a back seat to commercial expediency, as Black progress is set aside to assuage white comfort.

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.

Fan-funded billboards supporting Wallen on display in Nashville in June 2021.Credit…Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In a self-filmed video released soon after the Jan. 31, 2021, incident in which Wallen was filmed outside his Tennessee home, drunk and referring to a friend by a racial slur, he asked fans not to defend his actions. Subsequent to that, his sole effort to publicly address the situation, a July interview with Michael Strahan of “Good Morning America,” who is Black, was grimly awkward.

Wallen admitted to using the word casually within the circle of friends he was with that night. “In our minds it’s playful, you know. I don’t know if that sounds ignorant but that’s really where it came from,” he said. “I think I was just ignorant about it, I don’t think I sat down and was like, ‘Hey is this right or is this wrong?’”

It was a dismal performance from someone ill-equipped to explain his own foibles, to say nothing of his motivations, to say nothing of the centuries-long historical struggles around race which Wallen had inscribed himself into. He was simply a light bulb struggling to flicker, desperately hoping the room would light up.

When Strahan asked Wallen if country music had a race problem, all Wallen could do was shrug: “It would seem that way, yeah. I haven’t really sat and thought about that.” It was a gut-punchingly honest answer from a star who likely had not previously considered the plight of Black performers in Nashville, or perhaps Black people in general.

His use of the slur echoed the callous and unthinking way in which many white Americans toy with the signifiers of Black culture with no sense of their history. It was glib and, in Wallen’s description of his use of it among friends, a feel-good transgression for private spaces.

The number of white pop stars who have been revealed to have used that epithet is staggering, simply because it is not zero. In addition to Wallen, there are at least three: Eminem and Justin Bieber, who were both caught on recordings from their youth that surfaced when they were famous. And then there’s John Mayer, maybe the most telling example, who said it in a 2010 Playboy interview. Each faced condemnation, but the harm to their careers was brief, surprising especially because all three work in traditionally Black idioms. But while Wallen is vocal in his love of hip-hop, and has on occasion dipped into rap-singing himself, he rarely nods directly to contemporary Black music in his own songs, and country itself has largely erased Black foundations of the art form from its self-historicizing.

Before the January incident, Wallen generally avoided presenting his politics in overt ways, unlike some of his genre peers. In 2020, he was booted from performing on “Saturday Night Live” for violating its Covid-19 protocols. (His appearance was rescheduled.) In November 2020, in response to public celebrations of the election of Joe Biden, he wrote on Instagram that “If it’s OK for us to party in the streets with no ‘social distancing’ then we can book shows right now.” Late last year on the podcast hosted by his collaborator Ernest, he and the host poked fun at President Biden mannerisms.

But the spike in Wallen’s album sales immediately after the video of the incident went public prompted and maybe necessitated his emergence as a culture-war cudgel. Listeners leaned in to Wallen’s music as a kind of protest against how he was treated by the country music industry. (Wallen said he donated $500,000 to Black charities, the approximate amount he netted from his sales spike; how much money has reached those organizations has been challenged.)

Wallen, the biggest star in country music, was primed to be the kind of breakout figure that extends the reach of the genre into the pop mainstream, akin to Shania Twain or Garth Brooks. That seems unlikely now.

But in country music, he has been, if not redeemed, then largely reabsorbed. In April, he posted a picture taken on a fishing trip with Eric Church. Jimmie Allen, one of country’s few Black hitmakers, spoke out publicly early on Wallen’s behalf. On June 23, Wallen shared a video on his Instagram of an acoustic rendition of “Sand in My Boots,” joined by the singer-songwriter Hardy and Church. Darius Rucker, country music’s only current Black superstar, is sitting on the couch, too, tacitly approving. (In an August interview, Rucker handled questions about Wallen with kid gloves.)

Wallen hasn’t given any proper media interviews since “G.M.A.,” but in early December, he appeared on Ernest’s podcast. It was for the most part listless, heavy with conversation about high school baseball while Wallen spat tobacco juice into a plastic water bottle. When discussing the virtues of patience, Wallen said, perhaps with just a flicker of indignation, “I’ve had to learn a lot of it this past year.” He was perhaps most animated when describing his first car, a white-and-gold mid-90s Jeep Grand Cherokee with tinted windows, and the music he’d listen to in it: Starlito, Yo Gotti, Gucci Mane.

Later in December, Wallen found oxygen in a perhaps unlikely place: hip-hop. “Broadway Girls” which came about after Wallen posted a demo excerpt on Instagram and Lil Durk commented “me” on the post, went to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Lil Durk has since made casual sport of defending Wallen, whether onstage at the Nashville concert or when peppered with questions by a TMZ reporter: “I vouch for him and he’s good. If I say you ain’t canceled, you ain’t canceled.”

On Dec. 29, Wallen participated in a chat on the social-audio app Clubhouse hosted by the Black comedian Druski. In an hourlong conversation primarily full of softball questions (“What’s the coolest fish you ever caught?”), there was just one token mention of his conflagration, a question about his promised disbursement of $500,000 to Black charities, to which Wallen had a circumlocutious reply: “I didn’t want to just throw money at something, so I just tried to be genuine and tried to see people who were like-minded and just tried to make a real impact.”

It was a strategic opportunity to display comfort in a Black-led space. Wallen spoke about his love for Moneybagg Yo and Young Dolph, a pair of Memphis rappers hugely popular in the South. Asked about how “Broadway Girls” came about, Wallen averred, “Me and Durk didn’t charge each other nothing,” presenting it as a linkup of equals, both with something to gain.

Wallen guffawed when the hosts affectionately poked fun of the way he pronounced the rapper Gunna’s name (more like “Gunner”) and his general country demeanor, deploying that intimacy and familiarity with Blackness as a proxy for actual accountability.

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. More than a handful of fans were doing Wallen cosplay, wearing sleeveless flannel, a mullet or both. And 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.

Before Wallen came out onstage, the crowd killed time with several cheers of “Let’s go, Brandon!” — code for a crass insult to President Biden — and then the arena speakers blasted a song with some familiar lyrics about rascally outsiderdom: “We need a little controversy/’Cause it feels so empty without me.”

Wallen onstage at Rupp Arena in Kentucky, where he played three sold-out shows as part of the warm-up to his full arena tour.Credit…Ryan C. Hermens

Eminem’s “Without Me”: The crowd roared knowingly. Putting Wallen’s sentiments in Eminem’s mouth saved him from having to say anything himself. And the cheekiness of the choice implicitly painted those protesting Wallen as cultural prudes, as if he hadn’t been the agent of his own undoing.

During the show, occasionally Wallen would stir up the room with a rowdy rock number, or display alignment with a particular kind of Southern identity (“I don’t know about y’all, but I got called a redneck my whole life and I ain’t never been more proud of it than I am right now” he said before “Redneck, Red Letters, Red Dirt”). But he’s far more sure-footed as a soft-edged crooner taking the touch points of country masculinity and rendering them with dexterous tenderness, more Brett Young than Toby Keith.

Here’s what Wallen didn’t do, though: When the crowd was chanting expletives about President Biden, he didn’t stop the political nastiness. Even when obliquely referring to what he’d been through — “Wish I could go back and change it a little bit,” he said. “I try not to dwell on it” — Wallen did not appear particularly chastened. (At an earlier show in Arkansas, Wallen teared up. “I know a lot of y’all have stood up for me,” he said. “Y’all didn’t have to do that, so thank you.”)

He did not bring a Black performer on the road as an opening act. (He did, though, add a Black musician to his core band: Chris Gladden, who plays keyboards and mandolin, among other instruments.)

But most revealingly, in front of his dedicated fans who would just as soon forget what happened last January, or maybe never even saw anything wrong with it, he declined to reveal himself a changed, or evolved, person. There were no tables in the lobby promoting racial justice organizations. There was nothing said onstage to indicate that Wallen had anything on his mind beyond picking up where he’d cut himself off.

It would have been a far greater risk, and therefore a far greater gesture, to use his platform to bring that audience along on his alleged path of learning and evolution. But instead, he retreated into his safe space and didn’t risk introducing dissonance into it, for fear he might lose what ignorance had failed to take from him.

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