Can country music solve its Morgan Wallen problem?
When bad behavior is good for business, what needs to change is the business itself
Halfway through the second disc of Morgan Wallen's new 30-song double album, Dangerous, there's a track called "Whatcha Think of Country Now?" In it, Wallen's downhome, good ol' boy persona charms a big city girl into falling in love with the rural South by driving her along its dusty backroads and taking her on moonlit fishing trips (his "country boy arms" help too). In the chorus, Wallen teases his partner with the rhetorical question, "Now you know what it's about/Whatcha think of country now?"
Listening to the song today, it's a tainted question. For many who aren't followers of country music, Wallen is now best known for casually using a racist slur in a video published by TMZ earlier this month, an incident which seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes about the "hillbilly" genre — and its fans. In the aftermath, Wallen's record label suspended him, and radio stations removed his songs from their playlists. Jason Isbell, who makes money off of Wallen's cover of his song "Cover Me Up," pledged the proceeds to the NAACP. Yet alarmingly, instead of having repercussions for Wallen's popularity, his on-camera use of the N-word has seemingly left his star status virtually unaffected ... or possibly made him even bigger.
It's a strange situation, one of the rare cases where the institutional reaction seems to be out in front of a popular backlash to Wallen's comment. His use of the word was despicable; that part is not up for debate. But the fickleness of fans this time around just goes to show that if getting canceled isn't always bad for business, then what needs to change is the business itself.
Described by The Ringer as "easily the biggest new country artist in years," 27-year-old Wallen was no stranger to controversy by the time TMZ got a hold of his video this month. Last October, the singer was tossed from appearing on Saturday Night Live after recklessly making out with strangers mid-pandemic; he apologized, and was later invited back on the show. The crackdown on his use of a racial slur has, justifiably, been less forgiving, at least by the music industry.
That distancing from Wallen hasn't trickled down to a corresponding social condemnation, though. For the fifth week in a row, Dangerous was the No. 1 album in America last week — nearly two full weeks after TMZ published the video. Physical sales of Dangerous were actually up 49 percent, Consequence of Sound reports, while Wallen's first album, 2018's If I Know Me, jumped to No. 10 on the chart, its highest-ever position according to Billboard. There are a number of explanations for the surge, including that Wallen is simply on more Americans' radars now, due to the scandal. But industry insiders are also "already speculating on Wallen's eventual comeback" and "plenty of fans are unabashedly supporting Wallen" in light of his comments, USA Today writes, adding: "Why is someone who used a racial slur suddenly the anti-cancel culture hero?"
For the time being, Wallen appears to be regretful of his actions. Despite the evidence indicating that his fans would back him up even if he was more defiant — as his sister has been — Wallen has instead apologized twice, including with a five-minute video where he attributes the use of the N-word to being "on hour 72" of a bender. He also confirmed that at the time of his apology he'd been sober for nine days, and that he'd accepted invitations from "Black organizations, executives, and leaders" to learn from the incident. More importantly, Wallen tried to call off the fans who were defending him: "I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me, but for today, please don't," he says in the video. "I was wrong. It's on me to take ownership for this and I fully accept any penalties I am facing."
There's a potential scenario, though, where Wallen eventually gets tired of offering mea culpas to an industry that has decided to use him to make the point that it isn't racist. It's happened before with pariahs like Louis CK, who turned the sexual misconduct allegations against him into part of his act, or someone like Tana Mongeau, a controversial YouTuber who leaned into "chaos and controversy" to make scandal after scandal part of her brand, Insider reports. Wallen, already labeled a bit of a country music bad boy, could make the same calculation at any point; the TMZ video hasn't evidently hurt his popularity, so what's to stop him from leaning into his outlaw reputation?
The answer to that question will have more to do with Wallen's character than anything else. But the fact that it can be posed at all illustrates the limits of waiting on popular backlash to sort these matters out. As Helen Lewis has argued in The Atlantic, there's a tendency to "cancel" celebrities because their missteps are seen purely as "a moral flaw among individuals, rather than a product of systems. It encourages personal repentance, rather than institutional reform."
The label and radio stations did the right thing dropping Wallen, making it clear that country music no longer has a tolerance for racism. But they also did so because, despite the sales keeping Wallen in the charts for the time being, it's a move in line with the broader, more enlightened popular discourse about race in America today — one that last year prompted the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum to wake up to the Confederate nostalgia embedded in their names.
But such displays have to be more than about making a superficial example of a band or singer. It seems unlikely, for example, that the same radio stations that have made a show of dropping Wallen's music are equitably platforming Black country singers — a change that might actually contribute to a future for country music where uttering a slur loaded with trauma for Black fans and stars would be unthinkable. It's not far-fetched to wonder, if we'd started having this conversation decades ago, would the rising star of country music even be saying the N-word today?
The corrective work is so much bigger than punishing an individual person. The truth is, it's simpler to make a show of banning Wallen, or, if you're someone with no stakes in the genre, to dismiss country music as hopelessly racist (though that's uninformed and inaccurate), than it is to put into motion real industry-wide change. Look no further than the fact that the gesture of "canceling" Wallen appears to have had little effect at all, beyond potentially driving more people to seek him out.
The genre deserves for that question of whatcha think of country now? to be a smug, rhetorical one. But it's up to country to make sure that it is.