If Toby Keith is an unabashed patriot, bad boy and unapologetic hawk, Brad Paisley represents a cuddlier, more cosmopolitan tendency in contemporary country music. While songs like “Camouflage” and “This is Country Music” shore up his good ol’ boy credibility, “Welcome to the Future” and “American Saturday Night” present a vision of a globalized, interconnected world. In stark contrast to the solipsitic bent of Toby Keith’s “Made in America”, Paisley’s lyrics invoke America’s immigrant past, multicultural present, and globalized future. Rather than viewing social change as evidence that the country is “rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell” (to quote Merle Haggard’s contribution to country’s “American decline” sub-genre), Paisley’s lyrics evince an appreciation for the multiplicity of cultural influences that have shaped America, and an excitement about the possibilities of global connectivity enabled by technology.
Granted, the cultural references in “American Saturday Night” are pretty tame and vanilla: “French kiss”, “Italian ice”, “Spanish moss”, “Amstel Light”, “Canadian Bacon”, “German car”, etc. “Brazilian leather” and “Chinatown” are the only mentions of anything non-European. Still, it gets the job done. Paisley makes the (pretty uncontroversial) argument that diverse cultural influences have contributed to the richness of American life, and that America wouldn’t be America without them.
The virtues of cultural assimilation and tolerance are integral to the message of “Welcome to the Future”. Paisley contrasts a childhood during which he longed to watch TV in the car and his football-team buddy was the victim of vicious racial prejudice to a hopeful present in which international video conferences are the norm, and little brown kids (girls, at that!) can realistically dream of becoming architects, lawyers, even the President of the United States. Instead of decrying the dilution of a fictive, monolithic and unchanging Americanness, Paisley embraces the novel possibilities of a world in which Japanese people perform country music, enjoy line dancing and appropriate the Confederate flag. Instead of a destructive force that compromises traditional values, technology is presented as a harbinger of positive change, breaking down barriers to connectivity and mutual understanding.
As opposed to the crusty-reactionary persona affected by many country music stars, Brad Paisley comes across as a wide-eyed ingenue, delighted rather than exasperated by the irony and contradictions inherent in a rapidly globalizing world. Although I can’t deny the appeal of Toby Keith’s macho bluster, Brad Paisley’s vision strikes me as a lot sweeter, more inclusive, and more hopeful. The video for “Welcome to the Future” makes me, cynical pessimist though I am, tear up every time.