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Opinion Toby Keith’s segregated Saudi Arabian concert is the ultimate sellout

Toby Keith performs at the pre-inaugural “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 19. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

The news that the country singer Toby Keith plans to play a concert only for men in strictly gender-segregated Saudi Arabia during President Trump’s forthcoming visit to the kingdom has prompted a lot of predictable derision.

It’s not unreasonable for liberal observers to look at a plan like this as proof of conservative insincerity, whether about gender equality in general or the impact certain interpretations of Islam have on women (or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people). But if you’re a long-standing fan of Keith’s music, like I am, and if you’ve found ways to acknowledge the man’s principles even if you don’t always admire the destinations to which he’s pursued them, this concert feels even worse. It’s one thing to never have believed that someone had convictions in the first place. It’s another to add Keith to the roster of people degraded by Trump, or those who hope to please him.

The very song that earned Keith’s conservative reputation is the same reason his trip to Saudi Arabia seems so bizarre. “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” written in the wake of Keith’s father’s death and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, begins with patriotism that dissolves into raw anger. In its most derided verse, Keith promises “Justice will be served and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / And you’ll be sorry that you messed with / The U.S. of A. / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” A Marine Corps general encouraged Keith to record the song, and it helped cement his relationship with the armed forces; Keith is a regular and hardworking USO performer.

But if American resilience in response to a shocking attack, and justice for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, are so important to Keith, that makes it particularly distasteful that he is willing to be part of the show Saudi Arabia is putting on for Trump. Last year, Congress released 28 previously classified pages of its inquiry into the attacks, which suggested that some of the hijackers received support from individuals who may have been connected to the Saudi government. And this March, survivors of the attacks and the families of hundreds of those killed sued the Saudi government.

It’s one thing if Keith wants to declare the country innocent until proven guilty. It’s another to give a performance that helps Saudi Arabia advertise some minor liberalizations at the same time Trump will be in the country (and of course Keith was one of the only artists who was willing to perform during Trump’s inauguration weekend). As my friend the writer (and sometime Act Four guest columnist) Betsy Phillips put it when we were discussing the news, “Oh, he’s done putting a boot in the ass of the people who did it?”

And while I wouldn’t declare Keith a feminist — no matter what else he’s done in his career, he recorded “I Wanna Talk About Me” and made the music video for it — as a female fan of Keith’s music, I find the segregated nature of the concert a particular disappointment. In songs like “Whiskey Girl,””God Love Her” and “How Do You Like Me Now,” Keith has kept up a running dialogue with American women. His “Red Solo Cup” parties aren’t single-gender affairs; neither is his “Trailerhood.” “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” might celebrate tough guys who can’t be tied down by sentiment, but it’s not a call for gender apartheid.

Maybe Keith sees himself as an ambassador for a certain version of American society, for cold beers and women in crop-tops and backyard poker games and the redeeming power of Christianity. But by selling that to Saudi Arabia without making a vigorous argument for the freedoms that make those pleasures possible, Keith’s trip isn’t cultural diplomacy; it’s just selling out.