Update your playlists accordingly: Jason Aldean is canceled. Following howls of online outrage, CMT has pulled Aldean’s latest video from rotation. The song, “Try That in a Small Town,” was released in May, but the video dropped just days ago. It features Aldean singing in a small-town square at night, American flags in the background, news footage of riots, looting, and violent crime projected onto the county courthouse behind him. A sample lyric:
“Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you’re tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road.”
To a legion of outraged urban critics, Aldean’s song promotes lynching. That’s a heavy charge, but the mob has its evidence: The video was filmed in front of the Maury County courthouse, where a real lynching did take place in 1927. Surely, this is a racist dog whistle! Surely, the choice of location signals Aldean’s longing to return to one of America’s darker chapters when summary justice was dispensed in the streets!
Or – bear with me – maybe Maury County is part of Greater Nashville, and for a video-production crew, it is a short drive from Music Row to a set that offers an authentic small-town aesthetic. You know the left, though. They’ll never attribute to practicality what they are oh-so-certain is better explained by bigotry.
I’m not the first to point out that Aldean’s new single treads a well-worn path. For decades, country music has pushed back against the cultural and rhetorical excesses of the urban left. In an America where the “correct” art is produced in cities for other city folk, country music has sounded a consistent note of defiance. Think of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” or Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Think of Willie Nelson joining Toby Keith in “Beer for My Horses.” Each of these classic songs – and hundreds more – push back against urban disorder and violence. (Left-leaning music critics will argue that Merle and Willie never really meant what they sang. Willie Nelson is, after all, now a darling of the left, and his indiscretions can be excused.)
If Aldean is walking such a familiar road, why the upset now? The first answer is that we live in a much-more polarized culture than we did when Merle, Hank Jr., and Willie topped the country charts. To the contemporary urban liberal imagination, shaped as it is by the hysterics of MSNBC and the only slightly-more sober pronouncements of The New York Times, angry white rural men now constitute the Great Existential Threat. Aldean’s song is part of the soundtrack that sustains and inspires that threat. (“Albert, I bet those January 6 insurrectionists were listening to Jason Aldean as they marched into the capitol!”) Therefore, the song must be canceled, its listeners re-educated, its singer exiled.
The second answer is less about paranoia and more about power. In Variety this week, Chris Willman declares “Try That in a Small Town” to be “the most cynical song ever written about the implicit moral superiority of having a limited number of neighbors” and “the most contemptible country song of the decade.” (I remember, wistfully, when editors at the flagship journal of American entertainment still tried to rein in hyperbole.) Willman’s foaming denunciation seems wildly over-the-top until you remember that country music is one of the very few types of popular culture that the left does not yet control. Willman, CMT, and the other supreme arbiters of acceptability hate Aldean’s fan base. They hate that Aldean’s support for Donald Trump hasn’t cost him dearly in terms of streams, sales, and tour revenue.
In early 2021, country singer Morgan Wallen was caught using the “n-word” in a drunken conversation captured on video. In a post-George Floyd world, this should have been a career killer. Wallen rightly apologized, but his critics wanted more: They wanted his music off the airwaves. Country radio, controlled as it is by urban corporations, complied. Morgan Wallen’s fans, however, had other ideas. His music set streaming records, and his recent tour became the highest-grossing in recent country music history. The left was outraged – they had pronounced an artist unclean, and the fans had said, “We don’t care.” To the enlightened minds, Wallen’s enduring success (he is still at the top of the charts) is evidence that there is something deeply deplorable about country music and its fans.
Having failed to cancel Wallen – and now, likely to fail to cancel Aldean – the left’s response is to play the long game. That longer game involves identifying, promoting, and celebrating singers and songwriters whose politics match the left’s party line. If canceling conservatives isn’t working, what about more effectively subverting the genre from within?
Subversion is the clear intent of a long article in this week’s New Yorker: “Country Music’s Culture Wars and the Remaking of Nashville.” The Emily Nussbaum piece opens with an account of a Nashville benefit concert for “trans rights,” featuring a who’s-who of left-leaning artists. Backstage, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires — the power-couple darlings of the country left, as critically acclaimed as they are politically correct — debate how best to fight “anti-trans” legislation in Tennessee. Jason suggests focusing on local elections, his wife muses about anarchy. It’s a revealing moment: the left fights the culture war with complementary tactics — unrest in the streets and consolidation of power at the ballot box. The New Yorker reader smiles. Maybe country music is redeemable, after all?
Nussbaum saves her greatest praise for Adeem the Artist, a “non-binary” country performer who uses they/them pronouns. Adeem’s first record, Cast Iron Pansexual, was released in 2021 to wide acclaim; the follow-up, White Trash Revelry, earned Adeem a spot opening for Isbell, a gig at the Opry, and some airplay on alternative country stations. A talented songwriter, Adeem is the poster non-binary person for those eager to anoint an anti-Aldean figure. In the song “Heritage of Arrogance,” Adeem offers the ideal anthem for those who want a country-inflected encapsulation of grievance. Sample lyrics:
Mom and dad tried to teach me wrong from right
But their compasses were bad…
I’ve been listening
Trying to keep myself from dismissing
Perspectives that I struggle to relate with
And I’ve been learning our true history and I hate it
Two sides of a coin
Jesus Christ and white supremacy
It don’t make any sense to me
It’s a four-minute screed but a catchy one. Imagine, the New Yorker asks, how good and great the world would be if we could replace Jason Aldean with Jason Isbell and Morgan Wallen with Adeem the Artist? If country music is the soundtrack of white supremacy, what if we could seize the studios and the venues and the streaming sites and the radios? What if we could conquer the last bastion of conservative culture? My friends, we are so close!
Total Cultural Hegemony
It is easy to imagine that decades ago, social conservatives might have protested Adeem the Artist. A transgender singer declaring that Jesus and white supremacy are two sides of the same coin? That American history is a “heritage of arrogance?” It’s offensive, it’s outrageous, and no matter how cleverly sung, it’s a lie. Yet conservatives are not picketing Adeem’s shows or demanding “their” songs be pulled off the air. It is the left, not the right, that deploys cancel culture against art that it regards as dangerous. It is the right, not the left, that understands pluralism.
In America, people are free to go where they feel welcome. If you don’t like the politics of your neighbors, you get to move somewhere more congenial. It is clear which side is winning that argument, as Americans pour out of “blue” states like California and New York and flock to “red” Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. The small-town values that Jason Aldean celebrates in his video are the values that millions of exhausted, frightened, over-taxed city dwellers would like a chance to embrace. Every year, hundreds of thousands of them move out of San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Minneapolis to seek a place safe and sane for their families, hoping perhaps to find a small town where thugs are not coddled.
The left’s answer to this demographic rebuke is to try to erase the culture and heritage of those red states. If they can convince fed-up urbanites that small towns are not a refuge but instead hotbeds of hate, they figure they can stem the outflowing tide. If they can’t stop the exodus, they can change the facts on the ground in those small towns, making them more and more like the urban centers. If they can cancel the Aldeans, and replace them with the Adeems, they can have the total cultural hegemony that has eluded them for so long.
Maybe you like Jason Aldean; maybe you don’t. Maybe “Try That in a Small Town” strikes you as a banger, or maybe it leaves you cold. It doesn’t matter. They’re coming for him because they’re coming for you, and, as the old saying goes, he’s in the way.
Go stream the song.
This article has been updated since publication.