America's historical racial inequities and social divides are often simmering just below the surface of popular culture. The recent controversy over Jason Aldean's song "Try That in a Small Town" has laid bare these fissures, prompting us to take a deeper look at the intersection of art, politics, and social justice in our country today.
Photograph: Wade Payne/Invision/AP
Released in May, Aldean's song has stirred up controversy due to its lyrical and visual content, which many interpret as promoting vigilantism and a troublingly narrow vision of small-town America. Set against a backdrop of a divisive political climate, this hit country song has shot to the top of the Billboard charts, highlighting the deeply ingrained societal norms and biases that still pervade the nation.
"Try That in a Small Town" presents an idyllic, almost sanctimonious image of small-town America, where "we take care of our own." The song's refrain serves as a veiled threat against anyone who might "disrespect a cop or engage in any sort of protest," reinforcing a law-and-order narrative that undermines the foundational right to peaceful protest in a democratic society. The pointedly aggressive tone and the implied consequence of violence if one deviates from the norm is deeply unsettling.
Moreover, the song's music video complicates matters further by invoking imagery that cannot be ignored. Filmed in front of the Maury County Courthouse in Tennessee, the video unavoidably reminds us of the notorious history of the site. It was here in 1927 that a Black man named Henry Choate was lynched, a victim of racial terror in a so-called "sundown town" where people of color were warned to leave town before sunset. The video's juxtaposition of Aldean singing in this historically charged location with footage from recent Black Lives Matter protests fuels the flames of racial tension, hinting at a romanticized version of a "wholesome" America that excludes the realities of the country's diverse demographic and historical struggle for racial equality.
The fact that Aldean chose to film at this location is noteworthy. Sundown towns and lynchings are among the darkest chapters in America's history, serving as brutal reminders of racial segregation and systematic oppression. The symbolism of Aldean, a white country singer, performing at the site of a historical racial atrocity and blending it with clips from the Black Lives Matter movement is not lost on us. This provocative choice appears to be an attempt to capitalize on the division rather than seek unity or healing.
Yet, despite these contentious aspects, the song has found fervent support, climbing to the top of the charts and receiving endorsement from prominent GOP lawmakers. The song's popularity and its critical reception from conservative figures demonstrate a concerning endorsement of divisive rhetoric and the undermining of social justice movements. The pushback against "wokeness," as they call it, reveals a troubling unwillingness to address systemic racism and social inequality.
The appeal of Aldean's song and its resonance with a large section of the populace illuminates an uncomfortable truth about America. It brings into focus how ingrained racism and resistance to progressive change are within certain segments of our society. America, unfortunately, is complicit in promoting such a message by endorsing and elevating this song, despite the controversy surrounding it.
Photograph: Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Critics might argue that Aldean's song is merely an artistic expression, not intended to provoke or divide. Yet, as consumers of music and citizens, we cannot ignore the subtext and the historical context it draws upon. Music is a powerful tool for shaping perceptions and reinforcing social norms, and it's essential that we remain conscious of the messages we promote and consume.
Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town" is more than just a country song; it's a stark reminder of the work we still need to do in addressing the deeply rooted biases and divisions in America. The controversy around the song should prompt us to scrutinize our collective social conscience, spark dialogue about race and social justice, and question the narratives we endorse in popular culture. Ultimately, it is a call to recognize and confront the systemic racism that persists within our country today.
Lyrical Deep Dive
Firstly, the chorus:
"Cuss out a cop, spit in his face … Well, try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road. / Around here, we take care of our own …”
This excerpt epitomizes an aggressive stance against any perceived disrespect towards law enforcement, threatening severe consequences. The implication is a promise of swift vigilante justice in small towns, indicating intolerance for challenges to the status quo or authority figures. It implies a sharp division between "us" (small-town inhabitants) and "them" (city dwellers), and seems to celebrate a certain type of violent justice meted out by citizens.
Next, these lyrics:
"Got a gun that my grandad gave me / They say one day they’re gonna round up. / Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck.”
This suggests a deep-seated fear of governmental control and an almost conspiratorial belief in imminent gun confiscation, a common narrative among some right-wing circles. Again, it draws a distinction between urban and rural settings, implying that the latter would fiercely resist such an action. The reverence for gun ownership and its connection to personal identity and legacy ("a gun that my grandad gave me") underscores the perceived threat to cultural heritage and individual freedom.
"Small towns are wholesome, the message is. Full of “good ol’ boys” who were “raised up right”. Cities, meanwhile, are hotbeds of violence … and diversity."
The lyrics don't spell it out explicitly, but the implication appears to be a preference for homogeneity and tradition (small towns) over diversity and change (cities). It's a problematic dichotomy that tends to marginalize diverse groups, labeling them as agents of violence and disruption.
When analyzed in conjunction with the music video — particularly the fact that it was shot in front of a courthouse where a horrific racial crime took place and includes footage from the BLM protests — the lyrics seem to reinforce the unsettling message of exclusion and veiled racism. Taken together, the lyrics, music video, and historical context amplify a narrative that, whether intentional or not, echoes racist undertones and divisive sentiment.