Let’s talk about “Sweet Home Albama” - not the 2002 Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy vehicle, which is probably fine - but Lynyrd Skynyrd’s steaming pile of embarrassing apologia for the pre-Civil Rights-era South, gussied up with approximately 40 minutes of honkytonk guitar noodling. Specifically, let’s talk about how this song is garbage.
This song, first released in 1974, persists on our radio playlists like an artifact of what it’s like to be on the wrong side of history. Its popularity will outlast us all. It is inescapable and permanent, like herpes. Each of the millions of times this song gets played, whether it’s in the background of a KFC ad, on some college freshman’s gettin’ shitfaced mix, or belted out with Miller Lite-soaked breath at a dive bar’s karaoke night, you should think to yourself - wait, what the hell is this guy singing about? What kind of backwards-ass rube shit is this?
The song was written as a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama”, songs which vividly and pointedly painted a picture of racism in the Jim Crow-era South. The lyrics to those songs are accusatory and damning, but ultimately, Neil Young was on the right side of history. The South of the 1960s, specifically the institutions and cultural norms that enabled segregation and institutional discrimination to flourish, was a worthy target of condemnation. Lynyrd Skynyrd, a southern rock band that proudly flew the Confederate flag despite being made up of members from Florida and California, decided to rush to the defense of the beleaguered South with a response track full of southern-fried guitar licks. This was the Not All Southerners @-reply from an egg avatar of its time, a dumb, petty song to write in the first place. The only thing they got right was an incredibly catchy guitar hook, which is the sole reason the song became a hit, and the reason it’s still played every hour on your local classic rock station. After the earworm guitar hook, though, the song starts to shoot itself in the foot with its own brand of dumb “well, actually” politics.
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around anyhow
Neil Young sang in “Southern Man” about the hypocrisy and cruelty of modern racism in the South and the scars of slavery, even explicitly calling for reparations, but it’s no match for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response of “hey, whatever, hippie.”
Second verse, even worse:
In Birmingham they love the Governor
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth
There’s a lot to unpack here! There are a couple references here, one to then-Governor George Wallace, the virulent and unapologetic racist who stood on the steps of the University of Alabama to personally block black students from enrolling, and to Watergate, which was, well, Watergate. Now, here’s where we should point out that you shouldn’t quite take everything in this verse at face value - there are some layers to this, which we’ll get back to.
If you read up on the song, you’ll learn that this section was intended to be at least partially tongue-in-cheek by songwriter Ronnie Van Zant. On its face, this seems like a celebration of Governor Wallace (after all, the rest of the song is essentially a love letter to the state of Alabama), along with an ambiguous reference to not being bothered by all those Watergate antics over in DC. A more generous interpretation that’s become the party line since the song’s sudden popularity is that the “boo, boo, boo” heard in the background is meant as a repudiation of Wallace (which doesn’t explain the line “where the Governor is true” that Van Zant ad-libs near the end of the song, but OK), while the Watergate line is a wry response to the rest of the country’s problems: “yeah, we’ve got our problems down here, but you Northerners elected Nixon, so does your conscious bother you about that, too?” (Which is an odd thing to hang over the heads of the North, considering that Nixon hailed from the same state as one of the song’s three songwriters, and that a whopping 72% of Alabamans had voted for Nixon in ‘72, the fourth-highest rate of any state.)
It’s also worth noting another part of the song’s backstory: Lynyrd Skynyrd were fans of Neil Young, generally speaking, and name-dropping Young directly in the lyrics was probably meant more as ribbing than a straight challenge. Only, Sweet Home Alabama grew beyond an inside joke between 70s bands, and became a hit song that will live on for decades to come, likely eclipsing anything Neil Young ever wrote. All of that is thanks to generations of fans who might not have cared about the whole “Behind The Music” backstory, they just dug the vague “fuck off, LIBERAL” tone of the lyrics, plus some sick guitar noodling.
(Here it’s worth pointing out that the National Review named Sweet Home Alabama #4 in its list of the “50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs”, saying: “A tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe, taking a shot at Neil Young’s Canadian arrogance along the way”. And, yes: every other entry on the list is just as much of a smug, over-simplistic stretch.)
So maybe the lyrics are more nuanced than Lynyrd Skynyrd gets credit for, and I [deep bong rip] like, don’t get what the lyrics are REALLY about, man. (Like any dead white guy in rock history, the arguments over what their lyrics really mean are both heated and stupid.) On the other hand, nah: fuck all the lyrics, fuck the Confederate flag on the album cover, and fuck this song.
If you’re a drunk 25-year-old singing karaoke and you’re belting out the lyrics as they scroll by on the screen - “Watergate does not boooother me” - I just want to scream: well, it should! The fucking President of the United States was implicated in criminal burglary! When I hear some classic rock cover band playing a university bar in Canada gleefully singing the lines “I hope Neil Young will remember / a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”, all I can think is: you’re on the wrong side of this! Of all people, you’d think my fellow Canadians would gravitate to Neil Young’s side, the correct side, the “maybe a legacy of racist segregation is bad” side - not the “actually, the Confederate flag stands fer HIST’RY N’ PRAWDE” side.
Sweet Home Alabama is the #bluelivesmatter of songs. It’s a perplexing, tone-deaf pile of shit disguised with a thin sheen of toothy smiles and outstretched hands doing “rock out” horns. Neil Young wrote a song that specifically says “hey, South, it’s hypocritical that a group of people can systematically oppress their fellow man while claiming to be Christians”, and Lynyrd Skynyrd (who, again, aren’t even from Alabama!) sat down to write a response on behalf of all shitty racism apologists that basically amounts to “hey pal, we don’t need to hear that. Where the SKIIIES are so BLUE.”
Fuck this song.