Songs of White Privilege and White Supremacy
We don’t have to “cancel” them all. Let’s just listen and learn.
Songwriters are so misunderstood — especially around election time, and usually by Republican candidates. In 1984, Ronald Reagan tried to pitch Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” as patriotic anthems. Donald Trump attempted to do the same in 2016 with Canadian Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Both failed to realize they were blasting rockers that eviscerate, not celebrate, the so-called American dream.
Then there are songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — a Bob Geldof/Midge Ure co-composition that meant well but in the end, made some ghastly lyrical missteps. Band-Aid’s UK charity single characterized Africa as a vast wasteland desperately in need of a Western (i.e., White) rescue mission, making it essentially a White-savior narrative masquerading as season’s greetings.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was a massive hit over the 1984 holiday season and soon inspired USA for Africa’s “We Are the World.” In that 1985 call to alms, co-writers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie thankfully avoided characterizing the entire continent as “a world of dread and fear,” and the song itself, unlike the earlier hit, prominently featured Black voices.
Alas, in 1984, as Reagan was misinterpreting rock hits, Band-Aid’s patronizing Whiteness was nothing new. White privilege and White supremacy were chart and radio mainstays well before “Do They Know Its Christmas?” and have remained staples ever since.
The Unbearable Unwokeness of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
It kicked off the era of all-star do-good pop but sounds totally tone deaf today.
Will the current racial reckoning finally get us to change our tunes? The jury is still out on that one, but here are some songs that could serve as cautionary tales. We don’t have to cancel them all. Let’s just listen and learn. This isn’t about being “Leftist,” “progressive,” “PC,” “woke,” or a “snowflake” (simplistic buzzwords defensive conservatives often drop to avoid having to look in the mirror and face the devil inside — or to avoid having meaningful debate); it’s about being conscious and sensitive. We don’t need history repeating.
“Accidental Racist” Brad Paisley featuring LL Cool J
A Black rapper’s presence on this song doesn’t save it from being what it is: an embarrassingly hollow and jejune “I beg your pardon” for passive racism that lays half the blame for racial strife at Black feet. Sorry, Brad. It doesn’t matter where your heart is. If it’s beating underneath a Confederate flag shirt, you are celebrating a short-lived country formed on pro-slavery and White-supremacy principles that tried to vanquish the U.S. The country-rap hybrid casts racism as past-tense, suggesting we’re just dealing with fallout as Blacks brand Whites with the scarlet R merely for sins of their forefathers.
Nope. Whites are not paying for sins retroactively. As we’ve seen in the seven years since this song was released, racism is a contemporary scourge, not just a historic one, and Blacks are still suffering under the weight of it, sometimes literally. We are not “fighting over yesterday,” as “Accidental Racist” suggested in 2013. We’re fighting over today, an America where, in 2020, a White cop can kneel into the neck of a handcuffed Black man for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while three other policemen watch and onlookers are powerless to do anything but film a White man strangling a Black man.
“If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains,” LL Cool J raps on his verse. As usual in America, the Black man is expected to make the much bigger compromise. Gold chains don’t enslave. Iron chains did.
“Bengali in Platforms” Morrissey
I often skipped over this Viva Hate track back when I was otherwise loving and living for the former Smiths frontman’s 1988 solo debut album, but each time I didn’t, I knew there was something off. Decades later, in light of Morrissey’s recent racist rhetoric, it’s impossible to listen to lyrics like “Bengali, Bengali/Bengali, Bengali/Oh, shelve your Western plans/And understand/That life is hard enough when you belong here” and not squirm.
“Brown Sugar” The Rolling Stones
Imagine a song by the biggest rock band in the world that uses antebellum imagery of White masters beating and bedding Black slaves going to number one today. Sadly, as many Black women and men know from personal experience, Black fetishism and objectification by White people persist, and just because they have sex with us — or want to — doesn’t mean they respect us.
What were the Stones thinking? Even Mick Jagger isn’t sure.
Should Black Women Hate ‘Brown Sugar’?
The Rolling Stones hit launched countless debates and sleepless nights.
“China Girl” David Bowie
I adore David Bowie. He remains my favorite interviewee ever, and I have immense respect for his songcraft. I loved this follow-up to his global smash “Let’s Dance” when it was ascending towards the U.S. top 10 in 1983.
But my ears weren’t as discerning in the ’80s as they are in 2020, and now when I hear the song, the more Bowie refers to the object of his affection as “my little China girl,” the more it begins to sound like an insult. While it’s not quite on par with “Chinese virus,” when he sang, “I’ll give you television/I’ll give you eyes of blue,” he and his co-writer Iggy Pop summed up White privilege and White supremacy in two lines.
No wonder when he gets excited, his little China girl says, “Oh baby, just you shut your mouth.” Who can blame her?
“Dixieland Delight” Alabama
“Dixie” hasn’t always been a don’t-go zone, but times have changed since this song went to number one on the country singles chart in 1983. Listening to it through the post-George Floyd lens of 2020, one particular line stands out: “A little turtle dovin’ on a Mason Dixon night.”
“A Mason Dixon night”? What is that exactly — an evening when White lovebirds toast the Mason-Dixon line, which historically separated the states in the North where Blacks were free from the states in the South where Blacks were slaves? How romantic. We probably can assume these lovers were on the wrong side of the line.
I admire Cher’s spunk and staying power, but despite her natural tan, she’s clearly benefited from being a White woman. In 2017, her defense of her number-one 1973 hit indicated that, like so many self-proclaimed liberals, she might not fully grasp the nuances of White privilege. Having an Armenian-American father and a mother who has some Cherokee blood, didn’t give her the authority to sing the trials and tribulations of a “half-breed” with a White father and pure Cherokee mother in first-person. It’s like Kim Kardashian using Harriet Tubman as her avatar.
Cher’s ’70s specialties were gypsies, tramps, thieves, and dark ladies, and each of her number ones that decade revolved around them. “Half-Breed,” though, wasn’t her story to tell. The moment she straddled a black and white horse scantily dressed as a belly-baring “Indian squaw” to promote it, she transformed the lamentation of racism into a cheap marketing gimmick.
“In America” The Charlie Daniels Band
A love-it-or-leave it “Make America great again” anthem from 1980 that only a privileged white person could truly love. The song meant well, but it simplified the problems the U.S. faced during the final year of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, ticking Watergate, inflation, unemployment, and the Iran Hostage Crisis, while conveniently failing to mention racism, sexism, homophobia, or any problem that didn’t affect the lives of straight White men.
Morrissey and the Red-State Music of My Youth
As race politics evolves, how do I listen to the songs that shaped me?
“Indian Outlaw” Tim McGraw
I interviewed McGraw in 2005, and he proudly revealed he was a Democrat, so to me, he always has been one of our more enlightened country superstars. But with this song, he might as well have put on blackface and a Native American headdress. The song runs into a common problem whites encounter when they assume exotic identities. They often end up simplifying the lives and speech of minorities to the point of being patronizingly racist.
Lyrics like “They all gather ‘round my teepee/Late at night tryin’ to catch a peek at me” drip condescension and cluelessness. When the song became McGraw’s breakthrough hit in 1994, it once again revealed the inability of some White artists (and their fans) to understand the complexities of non-White cultures, a failure exhibited by a British superstar (and his fans) 19 years earlier in the next song.
“Island Girl” Elton John
The man born Reginald Dwight sang a song about a Jamaican transvestite sex worker in New York City and watched it soar to number one. While that may make both John and his fans seem pretty progressive, “Island Girl” was actually the opposite. Maybe everyone was so hypnotized by the calypso-ish beat that they didn’t even bother to pay attention to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, in which a Black man offers to save the aforementioned Jamaican transvestite sex worker from her life of degradation in America.
Only a lyricist with no real-life experience as a sexual, racial, and foreign minority would think it’s perfectly fine to write a love song about two Caribbeans, using ungrammatical and agonizingly patronizing and simplistic lines like “What you wanting with the White man’s world?” and “Black boy want you in his island world.” John and Taupin probably should have stuck to the yellow brick broad.
“One in a Million” Guns ’N’ Roses
In the band’s controversial 1988 song, Axl Rose spared few targets of discrimination: Blacks, gays, immigrants all ended up on the receiving end of his rage. Sure he was singing it from the point of view of a naive White punk new to the big city (himself circa 1982), right down to the N word, but he must have been even more naive if he thought some Guns ’N’ Roses fans wouldn’t think he was speaking for them.
The song’s racism, homophobia, and xenophobia were surprisingly graphic for nine Presidential election years ago when many in the U.S. were still pretending racism was ancient history. If it weren’t for its blistering attack on the police, “One in a Million” would make a perfect re-election campaign song for Donald Trump in 2020, and this time, he wouldn’t be misinterpreting its meaning.
“Right Here, Right Now” Jesus Jones
In the opening lyrics to Jesus Jones’s 1991 hit, the band’s frontman Mike Edwards sings: “A woman on the radio talked about revolution when it’s already passed her by.” Anyone who owned a radio at the time knew he had to be singing about Tracy Chapman, a Black American singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut had scored critically and commercially just a couple of years earlier. The Grammy-winning album, which kicked off with the track “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” lamented the state of a nation beset by inequality, poverty, domestic abuse, and racism.
By 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Edwards, apparently, thought that development meant all was right in the world. Inequality, poverty, domestic abuse, and racism had ceased to exist. We weren’t rapidly approaching the height of the AIDS pandemic, and South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid. Correction: The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t fix the world. The revolution was still being televised.
One might be tempted to give Edwards the benefit of the doubt since he is from the UK and might not have been educated about the racial history of the United States, but it’s not like all of the things Chapman was singing about in 1988 weren’t/aren’t relevant in the UK, too, in 1988, 1991, or 2020.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
The version of the Francis Scott Key composition that’s sung at major sporting events and became a Whitney Houston hit in 1991 includes only the first section of a much-longer song, conveniently leaving out the following couplet: “No refuge could save the hireling or slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” It’s hardly shocking that a country with racism at its core would adopt as its national anthem a song whose lyrics promise death to runaway slaves while celebrating “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Instead of debating Gone with the Wind’s romanticizing of white supremacy in the antebellum South, perhaps Americans should be focusing their attention on finding a new national anthem, preferably one with lyrics that weren’t written by a slave-holding White supremacist.
“Sweet Home Alabama” Lynyrd Skynyrd
Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Southern pride, but when it’s expressed in song by a band from Jacksonville, Florida, who used to perform it with a Confederate States of America flag as a backdrop, Alabama, we’ve got a problem.