Country singer Jason Aldean is denying that his vigilante violence anthem “Try That in a Small Town” is specifically an ode to lynching after filming the video for the song outside a courthouse that was the site of a brutal lynching in 1927. According to Aldean’s video production team, the Maury County Courthouse was merely a “popular filming location outside of Nashville” with no historical reference intended. But go figure, when a rabidly right-wing musician stands in front of the site of a lynching and sings about using his granddad’s gun in response to a litany of offenses including, “Cuss out a cop, spit in his face/Stomp on the flag and light it up,” he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Despite his various protestations of innocence, Aldean is likely thrilled with how this whole thing is going as he gets to play the victim while watching a frankly terrible song shoot to the top of the country charts. (It’s one of the less rousingly anthemic anthems you’re going to find—the tone is more of a whine. Honestly, when I first read about it I was imagining a much better, if still repugnant, song. Songs that make you want to sing along and simultaneously make you feel dirty about that are well within the wheelhouse of country.) Aldean and his wife have repeatedly sought right-wing hero status, with his wife posting social media pictures of herself and their kids wearing anti-Biden clothes. In today’s political environment, with the Republican base defining itself through “own the libs” politics and flagrant bigotry, a song threatening violence in response to protests against the police is a sure winner, and one that almost guarantees Aldean a role at an inauguration concert if a Republican wins in 2024. He’s already drawn a defense from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Aldean is implicitly invoking right-wing white identity politics—not that he’d ever call it that—in which only small towns and rural areas are real America; religious affiliation, specifically as an evangelical Christian, is more about partisanship than faith; and where country musicians have cultural cachet because of their perceived association with rural areas (and whiteness). And the song’s threats highlight the ties between right-wing white identity politics and violence. The two are basically inseparable, with the violence framed by narrators like Aldean as the right to self-defense of a people under attack, but in reality serving to affirm that they are the only group with a right to violence, and that violence to preserve their role as the embodiment of real America is legitimate and indeed necessary.
CNN’s coverage of a critical tweet by Sheryl Crow uncovers another dimension of this: “I’m from a small town. Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting,” Crow tweeted. “This is not American or small town-like. It’s just lame.”
CNN noted, “Crow grew up from Kennett, Missouri, which has a current population of roughly 10,200. Aldean was born in Macon, Georgia, which has a population of about 156,000.” Wikipedia adds the context that Aldean spent summers with his father in Homestead, Florida—population 80,000. These are not small towns. Aldean is a poser trying to lay claim to the title of defender of small-town whiteness even though he grew up in a fair-sized city and summered in a large suburb of Miami. But his effort shows the cultural power of the small-town narrative.
”There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it- and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage -and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music- this one goes too far,” Aldean tweeted in response to the parallels being drawn between his lynching-flavored song and the actual historical lynching that took place where he shot the video.
About that: Michael Harriot dissected the claim that “[t]here is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it,” showing how the specific types of violence Aldean frames as reasonable cause to pull out granddad’s gun draw on longstanding myths about Black violence. Aldean didn’t have to work “Black people, I mean Black people” into his already tortured lyrics to get the point across.
And “there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage”? Sorry, Jason! Activist Destinee Stark found two examples in just the first 30 seconds of the video. One is a real picture of someone giving police the middle finger, but it happened not during a protest in the United States but at a May Day festival in Berlin, Germany. Another is an image of someone lighting a Molotov cocktail, but that one was professionally created as stock footage. In Bulgaria, by the way.
Aldean, like Crow, referred to his personal history as a survivor of a mass shooting. He was on stage at the Route 91 Music Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in 2017 when Stephen Paddock shot and killed 60 people and injured hundreds more. That’s not a kind of violence Aldean talks about wanting to run out of his imaginary small-town home. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to do macho posturing about how tough you’d be in response to violence if you admit that you can be killed from hundreds of feet away by someone you never see. For another thing, Aldean is committed to treating guns as the solution, not part of the problem.
It would not be possible to lift the history of lynching out of how Aldean’s song is received, either by its fans or its critics. But even if you could do that, it remains a promotion of vigilante violence. It remains a valorization of the protest of small towns, which are coded as white, in contrast to the protest of urban areas, which are coded as not-white, where the former has a legitimate right to violence that the latter can never have, even if the violence is simply words directed at a police officer. So even if you believe Aldean’s denials that he was intentionally invoking lynching, the song remains a gross, violent piece of white identity politics by a ridiculous poser.
Check out Destinee Stark’s breakdown of the imagery in Aldean’s video. It’s worth a watch: