A CD OF SONGS ABOUT AMERICA
Here are notes on a little mix CD of songs about America that I've been digging on around the house lately.
1 - "America, Fuck Yeah!" Team America Soundtrack Team America may be the greatest and most profound patriotic American movie ever, and a big part of that comes from the excellent music. Parker and Stone are highly underappreciated as songwriters, their brilliance as musicians something of a sunspot in the glowing genius of their cartoon making. Yet for being largely parody and satire of pop song styles, the Team America songs pack in a great deal of artistic ambiguity and duality. For example, "Freedom Isn't Free" is on one level clearly a mockery of modern commercial country music and patriotism, asking don't you see the graves of all them war vets and start to feel guilty. Yet under that veneer of sarcasm is a perhaps surprisingly sincere sentiment, which I could imagine running through their minds as they decide whether to risk provoking the jihadists with more parody of Mohammed.
The Team America theme song likewise works on multiple levels of meaning. It is basically a satire of the big theme songs for American military action movies, Top Gun and such. They get a good cheesy synthesized 80s action hero sound going, and use it to mock cheap juvenile flag waving. "America, fuck yeah - so lick my butt and suck on my balls!"
Yet for all that, the song is ultimately clearly a sincere celebration of America - even while acknowledging all our most egregious sins, "Slavery - Fuck, yeah!" Nonetheless, while we may be "wreckless, arrogant dicks" it is also clearly the point that in fact yes, the entire world does in fact ultimately depend on US to save the mother loving day.
2 - "America" Prince You really have to appreciate the pure willfulness of Prince Rogers Nelson. To the extent that he has a political point of view, Prince would mostly and most times seem to be somewhat left wing. This freaky little skinny black gay ass rock star would not be a likely candidate for being a Republican, let us stipulate. So he takes the general point of writing a sorta Jimi Hendrix like guitar rock song for the psychedelic influenced Around the World in a Day album to write a kind of crazy paranoid rightwing patriotic rant, among other things accusing school teachers of teaching their students to hate America. "Teacher, why won't Jimmy pledge allegiance?" It's a beautiful thing how he threads the needle of all the hippies and Hendrix and psychedelia and his Seventh Day Adventist apocalyptic obsession ("Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud") and turns it all inside out.
3 - "The Fightin' Side of Me" Merle Haggard Merle was THE voice of popular opposition to cheesy hippy anti-American sentiments. "When you're running down our country, hoss, you're walking on the fightin' side of me." This was a huge iconic hit, along with "Okie From Muskogee" - another good possible song for such a CD as this. If you want to study the history of America's involvement in Vietnam and the cultural turmoil of the 1960s you really just about have to get up on some Merle even if you don't really much care about country music per se.
Then again, you might take some of this with a grain of salt and some credit for artistic ambiguity. "Okie From Muskogee" was written a little bit tongue in cheek, maybe just a little bit joshing the hometown squares. For starters, "we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee" obviously has a little bit of ironic distance coming from a pothead like Merle Haggard. But in the face of derision and mockery, he pretty much closed ranks with his hometown squares and recorded the song straight.
Also, for being the voice of rightwing and middle America during the Vietnam era, the same guy was enthusiastically supporting Hillary Clinton for president in 2008.
4 - "We Are the People" John Mellencamp The politics of this song seem fairly ambiguous, but it's just a really sharp song and an even sharper piece of record making. "If you try to divide and conquer, we'll rise up against you." Well of course, but what exactly would he mean by dividing and conquering? That's the $64,000 question.
But there's no question that this represents an excellent and not played to death example of peak John Mellencamp. The Lonesome Jubilee was his last great album before he went rapidly into artistic decline - but may be his best. It should certainly be considered his best arrangement and production sound. He gets some of the best musical expressions out of a fiddle on any rock album ever. Wrap this totally peaked out band around these hooks, and you can easily sell even some fairly half-baked political sentiment.
5 - "Back in the USA" Chuck Berry There for several years in the late 50s to early 60s, Chuck Berry could just come up with endless brilliant variations like this on his basic genre defining rock and roll style. Despite the obviously largely bogus and unfair legal problems and jail, Chuck Berry seemed to have some perspective on this country as a stakeholder and not just as a poor victim. Those hamburger joints with those jukeboxes were jamming out in part on his records, so that's definitely HIS America, too. Just glad to be home after an overseas tour. Hallelujah.
6 - "American Girl" Tom Petty Songwriters Tom Petty and Mike Campbell were always big on classic romantic images of restless Americans burning up the highways in a never ending search for something better, that shining city on the hill or just something that they can't quite put their finger on. The "American Girl" is all about that, wrapped up in a soaring style like their beloved Byrds at their very most hard rocking. The Byrds and Beatles plus American Southern rock gets you approximately to Tom Petty and the mother lovingly good Heartbreakers. This is from their first album. They would go on to write many great songs, and make definitely fancier written and produced songs - but really never anything greater than this song. It's where they made their bones.
Though knowing the song from, among other things, seeing them perform it live multiple times back to shortly after it first came out in the 1970s, this song really only properly got my attention seeing it as the theme song that the senator's daughter was actively jamming on in her car right before being kidnapped in Silence of the Lambs. Partly this is simply from hearing the song by itself, without being surrounded by all those other Heartbreakers classics. But this movie also brought out the idea of the American girl as a tough and relentless fighter. On repeat viewings, it's clear that her intense identification with this song in her first seconds of screen time is a big clue that she's going to ultimately prevail. It establishes quickly and efficiently her fightin' American spirit.
7 - "U.S. Male" Elvis Presley If they were applying their usual dumbass anti-American standards, good liberals would definitely have to shun this very lighthearted and most swinging of Elvis Presley records. It came from the pen of Jerry Reed, who could play harmlessly with images of violent macho behavior as the Alabama Wildman in large part because he was so totally good natured and humble. This point is only amplified with Elvis Presley doing the singing.
Thus, the threat is totally direct and real, but utterly lacking in belligerence when he explains to the would-be cuckolder about leaving his head in the shape of a stamp if he catches him sneaking up on his wife. "You'd better not mess with the US male, my friend." It's all in good fun and cute postal metaphors - but don't push your luck or our good will too far, m'kay?
8 - "It's America (Love It or Leave It)" Ernest Tubb His two best and most memorable songs were the respective early and late career tent pole hits "Walking the Floor Over You" and "Waltz Across Texas." Beyond those, this somewhat obscure Vietnam war era cut is about as good a piece of songcraft as the man ever came up with. It's a classic barroom country song from the man who perhaps best defined such an idea, specifically a rebuke to draft dodgers who would "burn their draft cards, then hang around the pool room and brag." Partly because of the skill of the songwriting, but definitely partly because of the very friendly and laid back personae of Ernest Tubb, he gets to seriously sing the title to a draft dodger with little or no hint of belligerence.
Plus, he sings the interesting because at least halfway reasonably logical and calmly presented sentiment, "If things don't go their way, they can always move away. That's what democracy means, anyway." That kinda sounds really bad, but is that not more or less what "democracy" actually means? We get to vote to do whatever we want with or to you, unless you object enough to flee our jurisdiction. Thus, evil greedy racists and Republicans (but I repeat myself) who don't wish to submit their most intimate medical information to the guv'ment or get their needed treatments approved by a fascist federal health bureaucracy can just move, m'kay?
9 - "American Roulette" Robbie Robertson Robertson is from Canada, a neighbor from next door totally absorbed in American history. Don't know of any other hit pop singles about the Civil War other than "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." That would of course also be an excellent choice for an America themed CD mix. "American Roulette" isn't quite as good as that, but it's a pretty thrilling little song about the dangers of crashing and burning in that relentless American drive for the top. "American roulette, stake your life upon it."
Also, this makes for a good opportunity to plug his eponymous 1987 Robbie Robertson album. It is an underappreciated gem, way the best thing he ever did other than the first two albums with The Band.
10 -"America" Simon and Garfunkel I don't know if this song really makes any particularly profound lyrical statement about the country, but it is a beautiful song. Paul Simon wrote a big sweeping and highly memorable waltz about a cross country bus trip along with the bunches of people who've "all come to look for America."
11 - "Philadelphia Freedom" Elton John Elton John and Bernie Taupin conjured this up at the time of the American bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Elton turned Bernie's lyric into not just an American song, but specifically a Philadelphia song. This is a beautiful Philly soul record, among other things a tribute to the TSOP label. The Spinners or the O'Jays would surely have been proud to claim this soaring little number. For my money, Elton and Bernie never made a better or more swinging song.
12 - "This Land Was Made for You and Me" Sharon Jones and the Dapkings This song is pretty much the official anthem of communist and socialist America. Woody Guthrie wrote the words as, by original inspiration, a rebuke to the pro-American Irving Berlin classic "God Bless America." This lyric is a propaganda argument for socialism - couched as patriotism. It's a great little song, however you slice and dice it.
This 2004 recording is way the most compelling arrangement and performance of the song I've ever heard. Just for starters, it's a real record, with a band and production values rather than a solo acoustic Woody Guthrie Library of Congress field recording. Sharon Jones is an excellent and serious old school soul singer. This record could have come out on Stax in the 1960s - and if anything, it would have made Otis Redding jealous. Particularly dig all the little horn details in the arrangement. It was the B-side to an old fashioned vinyl 45 rpm single of a wonderful anti-war protest song called "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?"
Also, unlike most recorded versions of the song, this includes Woody's original verse that drives home the political point. "They put up a sign that said 'private property.' On the back side, it said nothing. So it must be that that side was made for you and me."
13 - "Face of the Nation" John Mellencamp Depending on how far you wanted to push the concept, you could put a good part of Mellencamp's 1985 Scarecrow album on a mix America CD. The whole album largely works around themes of America in decline, the plight of the poor holy family farmers and such. "The face of the nation keeps changing and changing. I don't recognize it no more."
"Face of the Nation" in particular is a little more broadly drawn than most of the album lyrically, addressing the state of the whole nation rather just specifically the farmers. Actually, more specific is generally better in art and aesthetics. But this is a really excellent, state of the art midtempo roots rock song that can't be denied. Plus, as a non-single album cut from the big hit Scarecrow album, it has some advantage over "Rain on the Scarecrow" in particular on the basis of not being completely run into the ground on radio.
14 - "America Rules" The Simpsons I haven't looked up the date of the episode from which this cut came, but it's really not so much about the United States as a mockery of things like the famous criticism of President Bush the Elder who early on in the run of the series publicly declared that America should try to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. Of course, we responded by firing him, and keeping the Simpsons around for several decades. Anyway, it's a groovy little Yankee Doodle Dandy kind of stage homage/parody as the family find themselves answering to a hostile mob. "Now, people have accused this family of not loving our country..."
15 - "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" Paul Simon This Bush era song is from the excellent and underappreciated 2006 Surprise album. His gifts for melody and creative arrangement and record making are undiminished, and arguably stronger here than on any of his Simon & Garfunkel records. The contributions of Brian Eno add a nicely experimental edge to Simon's classic and unsurpassed pop songcraft.
In this case, he makes a totally credible modern rock record that got most of it's modest airplay at college radio. By the time the guitars come crashing back in with the big release at the end of the break, he'll make you forget all about any cheesy Pearl Jam.
God bless Paul Simon, but he's a bit of a worrywart. This old immigrant's son frets that the country is tearing itself apart with hateful arguing. "How can you live in the Northeast? How can YOU live in the South?" Look buddy, we're going to argue amongst ourselves loudly and vociferously. That's how we've always done it - and it's only led to civil war just once in all that time. Lighten up.
16 - "Born in the USA" Bruce Springsteen In the spirit of being fair and balanced like Fox News, we include four great songs about how much America sucks. Probably the biggest famous American pop hit on that theme would be the ridiculously overplayed, overhyped, over-everythinged song "Born in the USA." Actually though, hearing it now for the first time in a few years, it really is an excellent song - at least for the first thousand or so times you hear the damned thing.
Anyway, it just sucks ass being an American, cause it means being a poor messed up Vietnam vet sent off on a racist mission "go and kill the yellow man." Yup, that's why we were killing them. Then you come back a guilty killer with no job and no prospects. So now you suck too - but it's really not your fault, cause They made you do it. So add in whining to the wickedness. USA BAD!
17 - "Missisippi Goddam" Nina Simone The song and the particulars of this live 1964 Carnegie Hall recording are just fascinating in a hundred different ways, THE central document of her career. The song is indelible, as is the sweet sugar of the jaunty cabaret piano - the sugar to make you lick the blade of the knife before she sticks it in your honky ass. The song is presented as a faux-Broadway show tune for which the show hasn't been written - yet. The upcoming show would apparently involve massacring whitey for his wicked lies and oppression. In the contemporary civil rights debate between militance versus MLK's peaceful appeal to conscience, Miss Nina was feeling the former - though she had the good sense to channel that into this artistic expression rather than actually picking up a gun. She was basically prophesying the "helter skelter" race war that Charlie Manson would famously try to ignite with the Tate-LaBianca murders.
It's a moment of pure beauty hearing her deliberately choke off the smug, self-satisfied laughter of her rich white patrons sitting in front of her at absolutely Carnegie Hall - exactly the audience that paid her bills, making it crystal fricking clear that she means to include them and not just the rednecks of Alabama and Missisippi when she sings, "This whole country is full of lies. You're all going to die, and die like flies." The palpable confusion and discomfort of this privileged audience is an awesome moment. May God bless and preserve Nina Simone and her troubled soul.
18 - "America the Ugly" Tom T Hall The storyteller would probably be the only obvious major openly avowed politically liberal country star of his era, though that wasn't really much to do with any of his major hits. "America the Ugly" is an excellent and well drawn song, though I don't know if it was even a single. It certainly wasn't a major hit.
This song tells the story of a foreign photographer and reporter who came looking for images of America as an ugly place. Hall as narrator seems to be totally and clearly supporting this guy's pre-determined condemnation. Basically, he found that there were pockets of poverty and homeless winos.
Yet he names the obvious rebuke to this nonsense himself, though he seems to pay it no heed. "That's the picture that he wanted, and that's what he got, they say: America the ugly today." That's what he went looking for, so of course that's what he found. America's a big place - you can find nearly anything here. I doubt that there's ever been or really could ever be a country as populous as America with absolutely NO poverty or crazy homeless people. As Jesus put it, the poor you will always have with you. I specifically reject the lyrical premise that we should collectively feel shame if there is any poverty or privation among any of 300 million people that you can find to point a camera at.
"I guess we're going to try to tell him it ain't so." No, I'm going to tell him to peddle his cheap guilt trips somewhere else. "If we give heads and hearts together, we won't have to hear them say, 'America the ugly' today." Again, talk to the hand. I'm not agreeing to a pinko political agenda in order to avoid the illegitimate complaints of foreigners.
19 - "We Got the Power (Love Letter from America)" Born Again Floozies This 2008 mid-tempo off-center rock song from the Born Again Floozies is among their more simple, straightforward songs. It's also one of Joey Welch's catchiest compositions. This is a hell of a good little pop song, with good secondary vocal parts and a strong little guitar riff and a good tap danced beat.
Now, it's a decent lyric in that it has a pretty clear and somewhat poetic expression. But the whole sentiment is Daily Kos level BS about the US being a big bully. "We've got the guns to manufacture truth." Really? "We got the shot to quell our own youth." Really now. What, The Youth were trying to rise up against Bushitler and Darth Cheney, but they stepped their fascist boot down to "quell" a youth rebellion? Joey Welch is a college professor type of guy, so maybe he just can't help it. But even within the academic chambers, you don't get to just make up your own facts. I mean, nigga please. I mean, pretty please with cream and sugar on top.
FINAL WORDS OF APPRECIATION
20 - "America the Beautiful " Ray Charles This may be the most direct and adamant political statement on the album. I'm speaking here specifically of the recording included on disc four of Ray's big official box set, Genius and Soul. He makes a rich, beautiful gospel arrangement of the basic song, lush with his orchestral strings and choir. "I thank you Lord" he concludes with convincing black church fervor. Then the track fades out, leaving about 14 seconds of silence. Then it fades right back with a jumpin' little 90 second jam about how much more fun life is when you are refreshed with Coca-Cola, which taste you will never get tired of.
Now Ray Charles liked to make a buck and all, but he was a serious artist. Did he really want money bad enough to absolutely sell an ad on his career definitive box set? This sounds like more of a political statement about the American way, a celebration of the idea of capitalism - and an in your face statement to the whole Neil Young "This Note's for You" nonsense.
Pete Townshend had tried famously and unsuccessfully to sell ads on The Who Sell Out album as a pop art statement. Brother Ray actually got the job done - and in a more artistically specific way connected to the song than Townshend's conceptions. There's definitely SOME kind of statement involved in embedding a commercial for Coca-Cola - perhaps THE most heavily symbolic brand name representing American capitalism - into one of the top American patriotic anthems.
And when Ray Charles was on the clock, he gave his employers their money's worth. He cheerfully works up about as much enthusiasm for that Coke as he does for the purple mountain's majesty - which is a lot. You know, I could go for a delicious, ice cold Coca-Cola right now. I'll be back to finish this article in a minute...
21 - "America" West Side Story Cast The last word belongs to the Jewish composers and Puerto Rican women singing this immigrant's argument, cutting directly through cheap sentimentality for home. Why would you be homesick for that poor, disease ridden place when you are living in Manhattan? This gets the closing position as the takeaway song on which to end this CD largely because it is perhaps the most joyous and bouncy celebration of America ever. You certainly couldn't get any better Fourth of July dance music than this Broadway Latin storm of joy.
Those 21 songs make about one good 78ish minute CD for me, but here are a few more things that I could have included and/or just didn't have at hand that you might consider
"I Love America" Alice Cooper God save Alice Cooper. This is a big, loving parody of Madison Avenue patriotism. It would almost be worth listening to Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless the USA" in order to hear it back to back with this Alice Cooper. The martial drum bridge in the middle puts me just a pleasingly little bit in mind of "Welcome to My Nightmare." It eventually becomes a parody of the narrator as a Detroit redneck. It really comes off much more as a love note than a rebuke.
You might also consider his famous rousing campaign song "Elected." It's one of Alice's very best, but I don't know how much this song is about America particularly versus being a critique of the idea of democracy in general.
"American Tune" Paul Simon I'm second to no one other than maybe Edie Brickell as a fan of Paul Simon, but this would be the third Simon song. It's the story of a weary immigrant working hard night and day to be able to sing an "American Tune" which is ultimately a lullabye for a working man. "Tomorrow's going to be another working day, and I'm just trying to get some rest."
"God Bless America" Irving Berlin I didn't include the all time biggest American patriotic hit song ever really only because I don't have a recording at hand, and thus not quite a specific recommendation from among many recordings of this major standard. Call it a Broadway standard or just a classic American pop song. Woody Guthrie famously was inspired to write "This Land Is Your Land" as a reflexive rebuke to the pro-American message of the Berlin song.
"God Must Have Blessed America" Glen Campbell Glen tapped into a groovy gently unique 1970s country disco groove celebrating the American melting pot - for good and perhaps some acknowledged bad and things that go beyond constant invocations of class. "We've got the rich and the poor and so much more."
"God Bless America Again" Bobby Bare I'm not sure of the authorship of this Velveeta cheese fest. But it's a really catchy song, and Bobby Bare sure makes it at least sound totally sincere. But seriously, he's doing a recitative dramatically declaring
I don't understand everything I read and hear about what's wrong with America. When you don't have a lot of book learning, there's many things you don't understand. But I know this much: She's like a mother to me, and I love her with all my heart. And let me tell you this, sir: Everything I am or ever hope to be, I owe to her.
"American Without Tears #2" Elvis Costello This demo working version of the immigrant's song from King of America was included at one point as a bonus track on a Rhino release of Blood and Chocolate. This one is preferred largely on grounds that it flows with a little more natural sense of swing and a less heavy touch than the perhaps sometimes somewhat overly ponderous and mannered recordings of King of America. To put it differently, the excellent original album recording is a little weepy, while this version is truly without tears.
Also, there are a lot of great songs with the word America in the title, but of little other seeming connection to being anything about any idea of the United States of America. I don't see what was supposed to be distinctly and specifically American about Don McLean's pie. But how much excuse do you need to slide a jammin' good classic like the Guess Who's "American Woman" or maybe Bram Tchaikovsky's "Lady from the USA" into the mix? Wouldn't need much convincing to throw Joan Armatrading's "All the Way from America" into the blender, either.
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