NEW YORK - Talking to Morgan Wallen fans at a Morgan Wallen concert isn't the place to get unbiased opinions, but it can lead to some of the most revealing.
When asked about the country star, who launched his 2022 headlining tour to a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden last week, most concertgoers said a version of the same thing: They had been fans of his for years. They loved his voice and his music. Yes, they saw the TMZ video a year ago, the one where Wallen was captured yelling the n-word to a friend outside his house. And no, it didn't change their opinion about him - which they are happy to deliver, so long as a reporter doesn't quote them with their full names.
And so: "I'm aware, but I don't care," said a 48-year-old woman from Long Island, who gave her name as Karen. A 19-year-old fan from New Jersey named Diana said this: "Every big pop star, someone digs up dirt on them." A Long Island man named Miguel, 22, chalks it up to "Everybody makes mistakes." One woman, who declined to give any name at all, cut to what she believed was the heart of the matter: "Is this going to be a nice article, or are you going to say he's a racist?"
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Many of Wallen's fans see the past year of controversy as a litmus test: Either you instantly forgave him (some jumped on social media to defend Wallen even before he had a chance to post his requisite apology video) or you were trying to "cancel" him.
Wallen's consequences, at first, were swift - and seemed to indicate a new zero-tolerance approach to racist remarks from Nashville stars: His songs were temporarily taken off the radio, and he was dropped from his booking agency, WME. His defenders saw this as unnecessary and extreme. When multiple country music award shows banned him, a group of fans paid for billboards to be displayed around Nashville right before the airdates: "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH" the signs read, with a graphic of Wallen's signature mullet.
The incident, which highlighted the greater diversity problems within country music, also sparked overdue conversations in the industry: about how it became a genre in which one of its superstars felt comfortable casually using a racial slur; about why enormous roadblocks exist for Black singers in the majority White format; about what happens when Black fans feel uncomfortable at country shows. There have been few satisfactory answers or solutions to those questions, but the one dilemma that has been neatly solved is the fate of Wallen's career: It's thriving, and, as some have speculated, even more powerfully than it was before the TMZ video.
This was already clear: His album, "Dangerous," was the top-selling record of 2021; a former WME agent recently revealed he started a new booking agency with Wallen as his star client; Wallen's latest single, "Sand in My Boots," is expected to go No. 1 on country radio this week; and the Academy of Country Music Awards, which disinvited him last year, just announced he earned four nominations for the 2022 show in March; the Grand Ole Opry recently welcomed him onstage, and in the wake of backlash, just stayed silent. The two-night Madison Square Garden tour kickoff completed the one-year life cycle. What started as a huge controversy has ended with a comeback.
"New York City, what's up?" Wallen asked the opening-night crowd of 13,237, who responded with eardrum-shattering screams; a news release later that night claimed they were measured as an average 30 decibels louder than the typical Knicks or Rangers game at the venue. "What do you say we do something country in New York City tonight?"
Over the next hour and 40 minutes, Wallen ran through nearly two dozen tracks from "Dangerous" and his first album, including his 2018 breakout drinking anthem "Whiskey Glasses" and his viral TikTok hit "7 Summers," which was climbing the charts until it was removed from nearly every radio station in the country last February.
In the beginning of the concert, the moment Wallen stopped playing, many audience members took advantage of the silence to start yelling "F— Joe Biden!" and its non-expletive version, "Let's go, Brandon!" Wallen did not respond, and eventually, the chants subsided.
There was little chatter from Wallen in general; he told the crowd how much he loved them, and revealed that he wrote "Wonderin' Bout the Wind" while he was hung over on his back porch one day. He explained that "Cover Me Up," a ballad by Jason Isbell that Wallen covered on "Dangerous," is one of his favorite songs to sing. (Last February, when "Dangerous" sales spiked, Isbell tweeted that was donating the money he received from the cover to the Nashville chapter of the NAACP.)
Before Wallen took the stage, and between openers Larry Fleet and Hardy, several dozen concertgoers expressed their excitement for the show and would have preferred not to talk about Wallen's use of the racial slur. Country music is a genre in which stars are encouraged to, in so many words, shut up and sing, and not discuss polarizing issues. In recent years, the fans have taken their cues from the artists, and often wonder - out loud and on social media - why it can't just be about the music.
A few fans said they were disappointed by what Wallen did, though many said it didn't bother them at all. Some thought that he faced consequences only because he was famous; wrong, yes, but he deserved a second chance. When a Long Island woman named Maya, 25, started to explain to a reporter that she didn't like Wallen "for personal reasons" but enjoyed the songs, her friend Santiago, also from Long Island, disagreed. "That TMZ s—, I don't care," Santiago said. "I still like his music."
A week after TMZ posted the video, Wallen posted a five-minute apology on YouTube in which he said that he was "on hour 72 of 72-hour bender" when he used the slur and was in the process of saying sorry to people he had let down. Five months later, he joined Michael Strahan on "Good Morning America" for his only interview about the incident, and admitted his use of the slur (which he and his friends used in a "playful" way) was "ignorant." He confirmed to Strahan that he had since learned the violent and hateful history behind the word, and sat down with leaders in the Black community for "some very real and honest conversations."
Strahan asked Wallen whether he thought there is a race problem in country music. "It would seem that way ... ," the singer replied. "I haven't really sat and thought about that." After that quote started getting blowback, Wallen began clicking "like" on tweets from fans who thought the interview was unfairly edited, and one that said the NAACP slammed the interview because they had an "agenda."
A common criticism is that Wallen hasn't actively demonstrated what he's learned over the past year. His longtime manager and CEO of his record label, Seth England, pushed back on that earlier this month in an interview with Rolling Stone. The magazine reported that his label, Big Loud, donated $300,000 to the Black Music Action Coalition and $100,000 to Rock Against Racism, and that Wallen's charitable foundation donated $100,000 to the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.
"Morgan's doing the work and not virtue signaling. It's a slower process than you'd think," England told the magazine, adding that Wallen purposefully has not publicly named his new mentors because he doesn't want to complicate their lives by being associated with him. "The right move for Morgan right now is not to talk about what he's doing, but to show us who he is and what he wants to stand for."
Wallen has talked about the controversy very sparingly, letting others speak for him. In December, he joined rapper Lil Durk on a track titled "Broadway Girls," which went No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and played over the speakers just before Wallen took the stage in New York City. Lil Durk, who invited Wallen to perform with him during MLK Freedom Fest in Nashville last month, was recently flagged down by a TMZ cameraman who asked, "He's not racist, is he?" Lil Durk responded, "He's not racist. He's my boy," saying the two had a "long talk."
As the New York concert ended ("Thank you all so much, we love you!" Wallen yelled after his last number, "Whiskey Glasses"), and thousands of fans streamed out of the arena, one couple needed to process what they had seen. Noticing a reporter's notebook, they approached rather than fled. They wanted to talk about their Morgan Wallen feelings, which are complicated. His music helped them cope through the pandemic, they said. They love the songs, but they could have done without the anti-Biden chanting from the crowd. They're in their 20s, living in Brooklyn, and like everyone else at the concert, they preferred to keep this on a first-name basis: Breanna and John. She said it's too embarrassing to tell her co-workers they went to the concert. He said, "It's definitely hard to reconcile."
But it has already been reconciled, by the country music industry at least. Wallen played a second night at Madison Square Garden last Thursday, and next week, the tour continues on to South Carolina and Georgia. Ultimately, John conceded, "We had a great time."