Almost exactly ten years after Adele’s 21 spent ten consecutive weeks as the Billboard #1 album, another album has surprisingly matched its feat: Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album. This is Morgan Wallen’s second album following the slow-burn success of 2018’s If I Know Me. Now this is a very different climate for Morgan Wallen than it was for Adele: 1) Adele was selling CDs (remember those?) and 2) major artists are holding back album releases for economic and safety reasons. It’s almost the perfect climate for a semi-popular artist to release a massive 30-song album and rack up streaming numbers without much competition. What makes it all interesting though is how the controversy surrounding Wallen now seems like a blip in his career rather than the death knell it seemed to be.
Wallen isn’t the polished mainstream act that we’re mostly accustomed to coming out of Nashville. Wallen became popular through the NBC talent competition show The Voice and was eliminated before the final rounds. Adam Lambert forced him into a Creed/Nickelback sound and style, and as soon as he left the show, he began to sport the twang and Kentucky waterfall mullet he’s more known for. Through the people he worked with on the show, he was able to sign onto Big Loud Records, and Florida Georgia Line propped him up through touring and collabs. Maybe what’s most stunning about Wallen’s success is how boring his music actually is. You can’t really hear what makes him special, and he doesn’t have any distinct style choice like the wretched Florida Georgia Line. The album title of Dangerous is quite the misnomer.
What’s made him truly stand out in the last year is his ignorant behavior out in public. In May 2020, he was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct outside Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville. He got booted from an SNL performance in October due to videos being released of him disregarding COVID guidelines when partying in Tuscaloosa. The most headline-worthy of it all happened in February this year when Wallen was caught on camera drunkenly saying the N-word in his front yard. This one got him in real trouble with his songs being removed from streaming playlists and promotional photos pulled (looking at Spotify, he still hasn’t found his way back). Big Loud Records suspended his contract indefinitely and the Academy of Country Music decided that Wallen and Dangerous: The Double Album would be ineligible for upcoming awards shows.
Does the punishment fit the crime? It’s hard to say because the lines on who gets punished and for how long feels pretty arbitrary most of the time and depends on how much social pressure there is on companies to not risk bad press. It was an easy decision for the ACA and Big Loud to wipe their hands clean for economic reasons while it all blows over but what ethics they’re actually upholding will always be hard to grasp (as is the case with big business). It is nice to see moral leadership happening in the country music scene though even if it comes in the shape of measured analysis of what corporate decision-making will receive the most backlash.
What isn’t hard to pin down is that flippantly saying racial slurs where neighbors can hear you is certainly something to be condemned for, and everyone with their own listening habits has the freedom to hold Wallen accountable in their own way. Some people waited for a sincere apology to go back to listening to Wallen; some were more enthusiastic to listen to Wallen because they see it as a culture war that needs to be won by the conservatives; some were never going to listen to him in the first place and were eager to get a good reason to drag him; some simply have no clue about any of this and just like his music. It’s that exact range of reactions that helps get Wallen’s album ten straight weeks at number one unfortunately, but it’s not like any sort of excessive censorship (removing completely from streaming platforms, banning from stores, etc.) to bring down his album sales would benefit our society in the long-term.
On principle, I don’t judge a person’s values based on what music they consume because I know it’s for entertainment purposes and that I would never want to have my beliefs and values attacked for liking certain music. Listening habits only truly reflect one’s aesthetics and tastes, which you have every right to criticize. However, when we use music as weaponry — our sword and shield in petty political and cultural wars — is when I have to step back and question what exactly we’re trying to accomplish. Whatever Wallen’s music aesthetically stands for (which doesn’t add up to much, if you ask me) is lost now to whatever values that fans and detractors will accuse each other of having through his music. ‘Not listening to him is Liberal censorship’ and ‘listening to him is racist’ comes from the same cloth, no matter which side is more validated in their concerns. We’re simply at odds with each other in this country, and it trickles down to the dissecting of personal behaviors and habits because we decide to hash it all out on social media. We can’t lose music criticism, or more specifically, our ability to judge music at face value, to this desire to be at each other’s throats all the time. We have to dismantle this idea that the music you like also stands for what you believe because it disregards the eclectic nature at which great music can take shape. We’ll all just end up in the muck, always over-analyzing what music represents in our society rather than just relaxing and seeing if we actually enjoy it or not.