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Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson is the music critic at Slate, as well as the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury), and a contributor to Billboard, The New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Toronto, where he helps curate the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series, and teaches at the Flying Books School of Reading and Writing. He has been a regular Pop Conference participant since 2005.

"Coppin’ a Plea: In Search of Songs of Male Atonement.”
 In March, 2016, a 21-year-old convicted felon in Michigan named Brian Earl Taylor tried an unusual tactic in his sentencing hearing. He sang, a capella, a seemingly Adele-inspired apology song, in a wavery but well-pitched tenor voice: “Hello there/ Your honor/ I want to say I’m sorry/ For the things I’ve done…” It lasts a full minute. The YouTube video is an emotional phantom zone. Here is a black man in handcuffs, staking his freedom on singing black music filtered through British pop to an otherwise white courtroom. The mixed feelings don’t stop there. Read him as sincere, and this is pathos; assume it’s a self-interested sympathy play from a violent offender, and it seems jarringly wrongheaded. (Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.)

It made me think of all the non-apology apologies we’ve heard lately from publicly accused male transgressors. And I wondered if there are any great examples of men convincingly repenting their own masculine violations in song, ones that do not reduce down to self-pity, self-justification, or pleas for mercy. Even a gospel song of penance can’t help but be a bit like Taylor’s, an implicit bid for clemency from the Great Judge above.

I’ll consider cases from the nadir of Chris Brown’s multiple changed-my-ways numbers to my peak example so far, George Jones’s stoic, late-life stocktaking ballad, “Choices.” We’ll also hear a man apologize for one of his own songs, which he calls “misogynist garbage” even while playing it live. Does performativity itself render regret hollow and amends unmakeable? My talk will seek some better cultural models for how men might own up to and begin to remedy the evils that males do, which I think we sorely need. At least, I know I do.