Is this a good song? Yes. Could it have been better? Yes…but it’s not Mickey Guyton’s fault, and it actually helps make her point.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the degree of difficulty here: In a genre that has historically been a bastion of white male singers (female artists have always struggled for airplay and recognition, and minority artists have been almost nonexistent) and associates itself uncomfortably close to symbols such as the Confederate flag, Guyton stepped into the void with “Black Like Me,” a song that tries to raise the curtain on America’s double standard and ask white listeners to check their privilege. However, it tries to do this in the gentlest, most non-threatening way possible, which actually reinforces her point: Society (read: white fragility) won’t allow her to push this boundary any further without a backlash. However, this is still a bold and risky stance by country music standards, and one that Guyton deserves a lot of credit for taking.
Let’s start by considering Guyton’s vocal performance. Technically, she’s a strong vocalist with solid range, precise flow, and power to burn (she gives us a glimpse as the song climaxes on the bridge and outro, but you get the sense she could push the issue even further without breaking a sweat if she wanted to—or perhaps more appropriately, if she was allowed to). What sticks out about her tone, however, is how measured it is: She talks about her father working “twice as hard” “just to live that good life” with a level of dispassionate calmness that would make Walter Cronkite proud. As a critic, I was looking for a lot more anger and frustration in her delivery: She and other African Americans have been repressed in this country for centuries; she’s got a right to be pissed off! However, she’s not able to release that anger and frustration without being caricaturized as “just another angry black person” and scorned by people who don’t understand where she’s coming from. Guyton doesn’t have the luxury of being angry or confrontational like, say, Jason Isbell or B.J. Barham, and so she’s forced to dial back and simply ask white listeners to consider her position as a black woman in America. Even a simple ask like that can be construed as overly demanding in this genre, but it’s something we should have been asked to do a long time ago.
Similarly, consider how the writing is left vague so as not to overly offend the audience’s sensibilities. It speaks of the narrator having their heart broken as a child “when they said I was different,” leaving out the details about the vile racial slurs that were likely tossed in their face. The father’s travails are only approached from the angle of how hard they had to work, rather than listing all the obstacles and injustice they had to overcome just to stay afloat. Heck, the only explicit references to race at all are the “black like me” hook and an allusion to “white painted picket fences far as you can see.” Even without specifics, however, the subtle messaging gets the point across: Fences are used primarily for separation, and one can easily picture an unbroken white wall keeping people of color from the promise and prosperity of America hidden behind it. Once again, while I really wanted to see more of an edge from the lyrics, I understand why this is an impossible ask: Artists like Guyton simply don’t have the freedom to take such a aggressive stance without facing an overwhelming (and undeserved) backlash, which the exactly the point the song is trying to make. Watching the writers take such pains to soften their tone in the so-called “land of the free” is simply infuriating, and makes the message of the song that makes stronger.
The production’s main job for a song like this is to provide suitable support while staying the heck out of the way of the message, and the mix here does exactly that. The track uses a relatively sparse arrangement that checks all the boxes: A classic piano to drive the melody and establish an serious atmosphere, an unobtrusive drum machine to keep time (I’m not normally a fan of clap tracks, but I think it was the right choice here because it lends a slight spiritual feel to the sound), and a steel guitar to provide some texture and make the sound feel a bit more spacious. (A string section also jumps in late to help the mix build to a climax on the bridge and final chorus.) The producer understood their role here, and structured the sound accordingly: Use regular minor chords to emphasize the darkness hidden behind the lyrics (but avoid going too dark with the instrument tones to soften the song’s impact), and slowly add to the sound to build to a crescendo at the right moment, even creating a feeling of hope at a end to give the audience a sense that we can and will do better as a nation. It’s a mix that conducts itself with proper decorum and calls attention to the lyrics rather than itself, which helps further and enhance the song’s impact.
“Black Like Me” is a song that every country music fan needs to hear, because they all need to answer this question: How would my life be different if my skin color were different? Would I still be able to live my life the way I want? Would I be able to maintain my standard of living? Would I be able to perform routine activities without fearing for my safety? Claiming that “it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin,” as Brad Paisley did in “Accidental Racist,” is no longer an acceptable answer, and never should have been in the first place. Mickey Guyton and her co-writers go to great lengths to make their message non-threatening, but the message remains: This country has yet to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, and it’s long past time to acknowledge that fact and try to do something about it.
While I have no illusions about this song getting any substantial airplay, this is exactly the sort the song I want on the airwaves right now. It’s a song that makes us think about the country we live in, the one we should live in, and how we can eliminate the difference between the two to truly make America the land of the free.
Rating: 10/10. If you listen to one country song this year, make it this one.