Morgan Wallen has me on the fence, and maybe that’s okay

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      I used to pride myself on having a certain kind of taste when it came to music. I liked indie bands in small venues and nothing else. Over the last few years, though, I’ve come to realize that pop music is popular for a reason: it’s damn delicious. I’ve also come to realize that stadium shows have a special kind of power; there is something magical about thousands of people cramming into a giant room and screaming until their throats hurt. That noise, that energy—you feel it in your bones.

      This was affirmed at Morgan Wallen’s One Night At A Time show at Rogers Arena. On the second of his two-night run in Vancouver, the pop-country superstar showed that he’s as talented as he is polarizing (and he certainly is polarizing, as many will remember from 2021, when he made headlines for using a racial slur. But more on that below). This guy can properly, truly sing, and play guitar, and play piano—and work the crowd into the palm of his hand by doing nothing more than taking up space (ah, to be a white man).

      Nashville’s Ernest opened the show, singing hits like “Tennessee Queen” and “Somebody’s Problem”—along with “Son of a Sinner”, which he co-wrote with fellow country star Jelly Roll (who, he told the crowd, he used to buy weed from in high school). The beauty of opening for a massive tour is that you get to sing for amped-up people who have never heard of you before, and if you’re lucky, convert them into fans. Ernest certainly got one out of me.

      When it came time for Wallen, the crowd of cowboy cosplayers went predictably wild. At first it seemed comical to me: all these people with cowboy boots and cowboy hats who no doubt will go home to their “It’s Wine O’Clock” posters, putting their western garb away until it’s time for one rip-roaring weekend at the Calgary Stampede. But then, another realization: who cares? Here were people having a hell of a lot of fun, escaping their regular lives for a few hours, pretending to be someone else, getting a little lost in the moment. Who was I to judge?

      Dressed simply in a white ball cap and white long-sleeve, Wallen opened the show with the ever-catchy singalong “Up Down” and weaved his way through much of his oeuvre, including the heartfelt “‘98 Braves”, the relatable “You Proof”, and the seductive “Chasin’ You”.

      Photo by Sara Harowitz.

      He brought out Bailey Zimmerman for “I Deserve A Drink”, which led me to think to myself, “Wow, these dudes can harmonize?” Ernest was brought out for “Cowgirls”, and things kicked into high gear with massive hits “Heartless”, “Last Night” (the biggest song in country radio at the moment), and “Whiskey Glasses”.

      Multiple times throughout the show he took out his earpiece to hear the magnitude of his fans’ screams. “Thank you for letting me sing songs that mean so much to me,” he said to the crowd.

      It felt genuine, if not poignant. In 2021, Wallen was suspended by his record label and dropped from his management agency for saying the N-word (it was caught on tape). The situation brought the conversation of race and discrimination in country music to the forefront. Mainstream country is, in many ways, the epitome of Americana: drink a beer, dance with a pretty lady, wave your American flag. It’s largely still dominated by white men, many of whom uphold Conservative Southern ideals.

      Artists of colour (and queer artists—I see you, Orville Peck) have been trying for years to diversify the industry and make it more tolerable and welcoming for people with different lived experiences, and there was Wallen, flippantly using a highly damaging slur. Horrifyingly, the whole thing caused his album sales to surge (he donated the equivalent of the sales bump to Black organizations, though the exact number has been disputed). Wallen then addressed the incident in an interview with Good Morning America, but has done little else to publicly speak about what happened, or what he’s learned. He has, however, returned to the world’s biggest stages.

      The question, of course, now becomes: has he gone far enough? And shouldn’t he, as someone with as much influence as he has, try harder to learn from his mistakes, and to educate his fans, many of whom are probably, let’s be honest, bigoted at best?

      He certainly should. Especially given the undeniable hip-hop influence on his music.

      I do not excuse what he did; no one should. There is no excuse for ignorance. But I also think there is something to be said for grace in the name of learning. Cancel culture has in many instances gone too far; we’re so focused on tearing down people for their mistakes that we don’t give them even one inch of room to learn, or change, or be forgiven. Wallen’s continued success, I sincerely hope, can show us a different path forward: one where someone can fuck up epically, and be called out for it, and try to make amends, and fuck up again, and and be criticized, and still have a career. Because at least that means there’s a dialogue.