Thursday, May 26, 2005


Virginia Heffernan has a piece in the New York Times reflecting on the "American Idol" finale as a tableau of the "new new South versus the new old South."

Carrie Underwood, the winner, is an Oklahoman. "Underwood's hymns to this upbeat, pious utopia defy regionalism; they're triumphalist pop-country hits in which falling in love is mysteriously connected to finding God and being free and becoming famous. Her "new old South" is exemplified by states like Alabama and contestants like "Idol" runner-up Bo Bice.

In Bice's long-gone version of the South, people are still Democrats, or at least hippies and outlaws, and they're kind of mad and trapped and defeatist. They're happy only when they're home.

Come on, didn't you know Bice would lose when he sang Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"? "In Birmingham they love the governor." Of the 75 or so viewers who actually paid attention to the lyric, it can't have landed easily: A white Southern man singing nostalgically about segregation. "We all did what we could do." And then there's the part where Bice (attended, at the live show on Wednesday, by Lynyrd Skynyrd itself) deplored Washington hypocrisy, invoking the crimes of Watergate: "Does your conscience bother you?"

Except I don't think anyone familiar with the Skynyrd song thinks it's nostalgia for segregation. It's written as a direct response to Neil Young's "Southern Man," a vicious, angry screed chock full of Southern stereotypes. Skynyrd says: back off; you don't know us. We're just as complex as your community, and we are working through some messes down here. We love this place, which doesn't mean we think it's perfect; it means we take responsibility for it. We also have to live here every day. And you don't help things at all, for anyone, by barging in from somewhere else with all that ugliness and anger, especially when you've got messes of your own that cry out for attention.


Or something like that.

Seems like the New York Times didn't really listen to the lyrics after all.