Lady Antebellum Sings the Blues: A Culture War Story

When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May, protestors took to the streets, rioters took out whole city blocks and looters took everything else. But all took one unmistakable stand: they would longer tolerate country music groups with semi-obscure names!

Well, no, nobody said that. Or even thought it. 

Except for Lady Antebellum. In a year of gratuitous displays of progressive virtue, none has been as embarrassing (and thus as satisfying to watch) as this cautionary tale of woke gone whack — a politically correct nightmare in which these well-meaning white liberals appropriated the stage name of a struggling black woman blues singer.

Maybe the trio really were “regretful and embarrassed,” “that they didn’t previously take into account the Antebellum South’s associations with the pre-Civil War slavery era,” as The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr relates in a long Nov. 11 piece about the ensuing “controversy.” Or (more likely) they saw a quick way to get into the headlines and stroke their liberal vanity. 

Either way, they released one helluva cringe-inducing statement announcing that “Our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality and biases black women and men have always faced and continue to face everyday … Now, blindspots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.” And they were acting accordingly, changing their name to Lady A, a “longtime nickname,” according to Yahr.

A better name would have been Lady AA “Anticipatory Appeasement.” It describes the group’s self-inflicted wound and, barring the odd Scandinavian death metal band, it wouldn’t have already been taken. I’ll let Yahr pick up the story. I defy you to read it without laughing:

In the cautious world of country music, a genre that often advises its acts to stay quiet on controversial topics, this passed for an unusually progressive act. But soon, any goodwill the band hoped to achieve was demolished: The band was unaware of a 62-year-old Seattle blues singer named Anita White, who has performed under the name Lady A for nearly three decades.

They negotiated with White, thinking they’d buy her off with a collaboration record or some such. She wasn’t having it and “White’s lawyers asked for a $10 million payment.” So the contrite white liberals sued because they have the trademark. The black blues singer countersued. 

“With two lawsuits pending, it’s hard to imagine a situation that more accurately captures the tension in the music industry in 2020,” Yahr says. “The legal debacle also highlights the diversity issues in the overwhelmingly White world of country music (hosting its biggest night on the national stage Wednesday with the Country Music Association Awards on ABC), as the genre faces painful truths about its history of sidelining musicians of color.”

And Yahr has to face the painful truth that country’s contemporary “diversity issues” stem mainly from self-sorting. Maybe she’s discovered some hitherto unsuspected black fanbase for country ready to send scores of black musicians and producers to Nashville. If so, she should share its location with the industry. They’d love to know.

“And, with the unexpected intersection of two musical acts with drastically different journeys, it’s a modern-day story of privilege — a microcosm of who is able and who expects to triumph in the music business,” says Yahr.

You can see it through a racial lens (there’s one right in the top drawer of your desk when you start at the Post, next to the paper clips.) Or you can actually try to understand the marketplace. Unfortunately, blues is a niche genre these days — a folk music, not pop. Country music is a behemoth pop industry (as is rap and “urban” music.) Marketplace demand “privileges” country and hip-hop in the way it used to do rock n’ roll and, before that, crooning. Ms. White and hundreds or thousands of others out there making a living, meeting what demand exists for her product. And she’s going to have her day in court. More power to her. 

But there’s an even better way of looking at L’affaire Lady A: we know of course that no good deed goes unpunished. But it’s good for the soul to remember once in a while that stupid, craven deeds get it in the neck too. 


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