When Strahan asked Wallen if country music had a race problem, all Wallen could do was shrug, “It would seem so, yes. I didn’t really sit down and think about it. It was a frankly honest response from a star who probably hadn’t previously considered the plight of black performers in Nashville, or perhaps black people in general.
His use of insult echoed the ruthless and thoughtless way in which many white Americans play with the signifiers of black culture without any sense of their history. It was flippant and, in Wallen’s description of its use among friends, a feel-good transgression for private spaces.
The number of white pop stars who have been revealed to have used this epithet is staggering, simply because it doesn’t suck. Besides Wallen, there are at least three: Eminem and Justin Bieber, both of whom were surprised by recordings from their youth that surfaced when they were famous. And then there’s John Mayer, perhaps the most telling example, who said so in a 2010 Playboy interview. Each faced condemnation, but the harm to their careers was brief, mostly surprising. because all three work in traditionally black idioms. But while Wallen expresses his love of hip-hop and has occasionally dabbled in rapping, he rarely nods directly to contemporary black music in his own songs, and country itself has largely erased the underpinnings. blacks of the art form of its self-historicization.
Prior to the January incident, Wallen generally avoided presenting his politics openly, unlike some of his peers in the genre. In 2020, he was kicked off the show “Saturday Night Live” for violating its Covid-19 protocols. (His appearance has been postponed.) In November 2020, in response to public celebrations of Joe Biden’s election, he wrote on Instagram that “If it’s OK for us to party in the streets without ‘social distancing ‘ so 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’s mannerisms.
But the spike in Wallen’s album sales immediately after video of the incident was made public prompted and perhaps necessitated his emergence as a cudgel of the culture war. Listeners leaned on Wallen’s music as a kind of protest against the way he was treated by the country music industry. (Wallen said he donated $500,000 to black charities, the approximate amount he made from his spike in sales; how much money went to these organizations has been disputed.)
Wallen, country music’s biggest star, was designed to be the kind of personality that extends the genre’s reach into the pop mainstream, akin to Shania Twain or Garth Brooks. It seems unlikely now.