SNL’s career-launching (and perhaps -destroying—see Kesha’s 2010 performance) effect for comedians and musicians alike is a big draw for artists. I don’t need to spell it out for you: SNL is your shot, so you’d better not blow it. If you do, you can bet that’s the end of your budding career. That is, unless you’re Morgan Wallen. The 27-year-old Tennessean former The Voice contestant was poised to appear last October as the featured artist, an especially rare spotlight for a young country act; the performance promised to propel him from intra-country fame to a bona fide mainstream superstar. Wallen does not appeal to SNL’s target audience; a Maggie Rogers or Chance the Rapper would have sufficed. But his sturdy standing within the country community and music industry cosigns made SNL just another box to tick on his climb to Florida Georgia Line-level fame. This wasn’t even his Devo moment—a high-risk mega-exposure of a small artist with just enough talent to make it. No, this was the lay-up of all lay-ups to push Wallen over the edge to headlining-Stagecoach-level famous. He already had the clout; an invitation to perform for cultural outsiders was confirmation of this. If he just got by “good enough,” he’d have the endorsement of 30 Rock. Nevertheless, he bricked it. And I don’t mean like Tayshaun Prince full-court sprinted to swat his lay into the stands—no, Wallen pulled a gun out of his basketball shorts (this is a good metaphor) and shot himself in his planted foot with the hand not cupping the ball.
Two days before his SNL performance, which required a one-week quarantine, TikToks circulated of Wallen partying in Tuscaloosa following the University of Alabama football team’s blowout win against Texas A&M. And we’re not talking buttoned-up, UCC-type southern partying. Wallen can be seen pouring beer on those around him and making out with undergrads. The night was about as COVID-unsafe as it gets: the type of partying you, dear reader, pretend you used to do while lamenting University restrictions. (You’re reading a Nass article. Either you do poppers or you don’t really party, and either way, you are not Morgan. But I digress.)
Wallen’s choice to party hard mask-less was a bad one. Even as someone skeptical of COVID scolding from the ivory towers of wealthy progressives, I acknowledge that there was no excuse of “essential work” or misinformation here. He put people in danger and demonstrated flippant disregard for life-saving health measures to his fanbase of millions. But—and I understand this is a massive “but”—there was something intriguing about his blatant negligence for what was a low-risk, high-reward opportunity to dramatically benefit his career. The safer SNL acts of Clairo or Beach Bunny never dare transgress or fumble in a career-defining moment such as this one. They might party, but never with such moronic transparency. Wallen was either dumb enough not to think through the consequences or unconcerned enough with his potential for massive fame that those consequences felt, well, inconsequential.
Following the blunder, his SNL appearance was canceled, and the obligatory public declaration of ownership and apology came swiftly. Luckily for Wallen, the certainly authentic misstep functioned more as a publicity stunt, introducing the uninitiated to the rowdy world of frat-country stardom.
I was one of these new coastal-elite fans, gushing over the unfussy affect that the New York Times’ “Popcast” advertised as Wallen’s greatest strength. And who could blame me? The music is really impressive. Releasing a 33-song deluxe album this past January titled Dangerous: The Double Album, Wallen instantaneously received the support of the entire critical establishment for good reason: tight songwriting, vulnerable and decidedly un-stadium-country instrumentation, and a uniquely expressive vocal talent resulted in what felt like the best version of the weirdly good country singer from your hometown. It was authentic: country enough for the Lake Martin pontoons, “serious” enough for the halls of NPR. Morgan Wallen built an unexpected empire with the debut of Dangerous at number one on the Billboard charts; for the first time since Sam Hunt, a star was born in country, and it seemed nothing could stop him.
On February 2, 2021, Wallen was walking drunk into his Nashville home, allegedly after a two-day drinking bender. He and his friends yelled, honked horns, and disturbed his suburban neighbors, prompting one to record the event. Soon the group became emboldened and belligerent towards the Black resident trying to sleep. Wallen turned around and exclaimed to his crew, “Take care of this pussy-ass motherfucker! Take care of this pussy-ass n––!”
The video is deeply upsetting and made me (among millions of Americans) no longer a part of the Wallen hive. There is something to be said for separating the art from the artist, but for me, the video made the songs wholly unenjoyable. The backlash was hardly just grassroots, though: all major radio platforms, streaming playlisting programs, award shows, and even his record label dropped him. Wallen experienced a warp-speed cancellation that decimated his growing empire in a matter of 24 hours.
Ten weeks later, though, Dangerous was continuing its campaign at number one, with Wallen receiving more streams in March than before his racist attack. The artist, who is now nowhere to be found, virtually undiscoverable through mainstream avenues, is breaking records as his unmistakably racist activity has been plastered across every celebrity news outlet across the country. Perseverance feels like the wrong word, but the way in which his commercial success has triumphed over his cancellation is miraculous. How could this be? How could cancel culture’s thesis, that de-platforming and discouraging consumption doles out marketplace punishment, be so flagrantly disproven?
Perhaps it was Wallen’s unconcerned fanbase. If you went onto Wallen’s merchandising shop before the controversies, you would have found that he sold a gaiter. The shrug of face masks, a gaiter has more or less become the international symbol for conservative compromise on mask wearing. They were also at first erroneously perceived to be less effective at deterring COVID (and, in my opinion, less comfortable than the blue medical masks, but who’s to say?). Nevertheless, non-believers in stringent COVID restrictions have opted to express liberty through wearing an infinity scarf. Ironically, the most iconic motif of conservative lament for more feminine men of the late aughts, scarves, have now become their sartorial rallying cry.
This is all to say: Wallen sold alternative masking; he sold rowdy ’Bama football games; he sold, well, small town southern America. His stripped-back ballads such as “More Than My Hometown” detail the nationalistic, idyllic American pastoral white nationalism longs for. And for all liberal or left-thereof music consumers like me who may want to project empathy toward the “country lifestyle,” it is hard to imagine that the racism very overtly associated with the politics of a white-dominated genre, appealing to a widely conservative audience, would not come to the fore. The NPRs and NYTs jumped at the opportunity to laud “main-street” songwriting but jumped ship as soon as what “main-street” says quietly was said out loud. Those amenable to the socially progressive cancellation of Wallen were all in on the novel aesthetics of American southern conservatism until the logical end of their embrace was presented. Did I seriously feel that this was out of line with what I knew about Wallen’s character so far? To feign surprise is to willfully ignore the obvious, constructed culture war of twenty-first-century American life so as to appear more charitable to others. If the left wing insists on shaming the white, working-class Trump base for racism based on their symbolic gestures, the consistent position would extend the courtesy to the cool, famous singers before they berate neighbors with racial slurs. Yet I still held hope. I wanted to enjoy the fruits of an overwhelmingly right-wing culture but remain morally superior to its political manifestation. The truth is us newcomers wanted it on our terms. When Wallen’s cancellation doesn’t pan out, its exactors cannot be shocked their methods of ideological mediation failed on opposing turf.
Wallen’s apparent survival through cancellation is a reflection of the uncomfortable truth that his fans do not care that he is racist and that cancel culture has no plan for dealing with those not already on board. The millions of streams Wallen gets every day come from real people who just don’t care, or discouragingly, feel spoken for and emboldened by a casually racist popstar. After all, his streams went up, not down. In the fight to make the world a more just place, which won’t really happen through boycotting a country star, these people need to be reached and they need to be reckoned with as people who can’t be mobilized by conflating personal consumption habits with anti-racism. Maybe Wallen speaks for a silent majority, or maybe his music is just that good to some. But in trying to create a world where interpersonal racism isn’t tolerated, the process ran astray with him.