James Taylor sucks. In a world of few certainties, that is one. “If I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-James Taylor’s-shoulders song,” Lester Bangs once famously wrote, “I will drop everything and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in spasm of adenoidal poesy.”

Who could possibly disagree with that? “Country Road” sucks. “Shower the People” sucks way harder. “Fire and Rain” doesn’t suck, but it’s been overplayed. Even “Carolina In My Mind” gets kind of stale sometimes. People who have never heard the good James Taylor songs – and so miss his wonderfully subtle sense of irony, humor, and self-deprecation – know him as oppressively earnest, and there are few things worse than oppressive earnestness. (Aimless irony that descends into nihilism comes to mind). As another reviewer once wrote, he represents no political challenge or challenge to a lifestyle, and he has gone his entire career, written hundreds of songs, and only developed a couple of ideas. If someone asked you to name a character from a Dylan song, you wouldn’t have much trouble. If someone asked you to do the same for a James Taylor song and you said “James Taylor,” you’d be like everyone else.

James Taylor knows all this. “If you think it’s sentimental and self-absorbed, I agree with you,” he has said. “It’s not for everybody. But to me, there’s still something compelling about doing it.” And a lot of people who should know – would you call Ray Charles a pussy? – think he is right. People who have heard songs like “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Highway Song,” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” generally think James Taylor can be forgiven his egregious aesthetic offenses.

For folks who know a bit better, the real offender is not James Taylor, but rather people who listen to James Taylor.

I have a theory that objections to James Taylor are primarily racially motivated. This is ironic, because Taylor, in his better work, has integrated white and black strains of the American popular music tradition as well as anyone other than Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan (and Bob only did it recently – in our lifetimes.) He owes as much to soul music than any other genre. “Of my top five, all-time favorite singers,” he once said, “Ray Charles is numbers one, two, and three.”

Yet there are also convincing strains of Appalachian folk music in his playing. The same man who spent his early non-gigging nights in New York going to the Apollo to see James Brown – and watch the crowd cheer when the Indians massacred the Cavalry in the intermission special – learned music from the old-time hymns. He’s recorded practically anything you can imagine: from Stephen Foster to Nat King Cole; from Burt Bacharach to Marvin Gaye. He’s recorded with everyone from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder (who describes himself as a fan) to Milton Nascimento to Yo-Yo Ma. His musical acumen makes jazz players love him; Pat Metheny even named a song for him. What’s more, he has a perfect ear for idiomatic speech, moving freely from biblical diction (“let us cast our lot out upon the sea”) to Southern vernacular (“sweet misunderstanding, won’t you leave a poor boy alone?”) in the same verse. Few musicians have staked a greater claim for the wealth of the entirety of the American musical tradition. James Taylor is a cosmopolitan of American music.

But if James Taylor is brilliantly pan-cultural, he is also white as a lily. He grew up in suburban North Carolina, spent his summers in Martha’s Vineyard and prepped at Milton. Does James Taylor write about Martha’s Vineyard? Does a bear shit in the woods? In fact, none of this would make a bit of difference – we don’t hold Miles Davis’s privileged upbringing against him, do we? – but for the particular baggage that comes with affluence and whiteness. Take Taylor’s much-celebrated stint at McLean Hospital, where he checked himself in as an 18-year old when his thoughts of suicide would not abate. In our heads, we know that depression is a disease; white, black, rich, or poor, it’s still a disease. We listen to a song like “Sunny Skies,” astounded by Taylor’s ability to locate the experience of mental illness: the senselessness of a world turned upside down, the malaise and hopelessness of a disease of the mind, the sense of embarrassment, and – perhaps most remarkably – the perverse humor in the absurdity of it all. Then we go to a James Taylor concert and everyone is singing along. Clearly something has gone amiss.

The problem with James Taylor is a structural one. At the end of the day, James Taylor and Lester Bangs (who is about to turn in his grave) are actually the same thing. They are both interested in the creation of a community through the use of music as a form of secular ministry. The difference is that Lester Bangs had a vision of a utopian, young community that existed only ephemerally at certain festivals in the 1960s (or maybe never did; who knows). James Taylor, despite his formative years in Greenwich Village and swingin’ London, has always been firmly rooted in the past. James Taylor’s community is an invisible republic – like Dylan’s, but facing East instead of West.

But then, every summer concert season, hell, every time someone plays “Fire and Rain” to their friends in the dorm room (nomination for next year’s Nass 100: college students who play guitars to impress people), this invisible republic is twisted and mutated into something hideously ugly. It’s white and it’s tanned in all the right places. It’s forty-seven years old and 60% female. It needs life, and it sucks the life right out of James Taylor. For white, middle-class people, a lot of whom aspire to the kind of American cosmopolitanism Taylor achieves in his best music, it hurts so much because it’s all our fault.

It is wrong to make James Taylor the scapegoat for America’s sins.