Sunday, July 04, 2004
Fourth of July
I’m familiar with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” of course. We all are˝ it’s been inescapable for twenty years. Or so I thought. It turns out, instead, that I somehow have managed to escape hearing the intro and the first verse until just this past month, when the song was used as part of Jamie’s fifth-grade graduation video (as the background music for his school’s visit to Fort Robideau). That’s no doubt because, as a paid-up member of the latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚lite, I tend to avoid social occasions and gatherings in which the song is played and sung along to.
And needless to say, I think the song is odious almost beyond measure. That’s not because I’m a paid-up member of the latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚lite who sneers at my fellow citizens’ simple, heartfelt expressions of patriotism; it’s because the song’s version of patriotism is completely contentless. Two verses and three choruses, and Mr. Greenwood couldn’t find a single reason to love the U.S.A.? Yeah, yeah, I know, pride, pride, freedom, freedom: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” But free to do what? To fire employees without cause, thanks to the at-will employment doctrine? To abolish the estate tax? To hold up a sign saying that Matthew Shepherd got what he deserved? Or to protest foolish wars, march for civil rights, and support the right of kids with Down syndrome to be educated in regular classrooms where they can go to visit Fort Robideau with their nondisabled peers? “God Bless the U.S.A.” doesn’t say, and that’s what makes it such a perfect emblem of a certain kind of right-wing contentless patriotism, the kind of patriotism that supports the troops by flying flags from cars while supporting a President who leads the troops off to needless slaughter and then cuts their veterans’ benefits. Had Greenwood said anything about that freedom˝ “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free of all taxes on my estate of $36 million,” or “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to fight for the right to register Mississippi’s black voters in the face of murderous right-wing opposition"˝ one imagines that his song would be a good deal less popular.
OK, well, that’s what I thought before I heard the song’s instrumental intro. And all I could think, after hearing the intro for the first time, was Oh. My. God. Tinkling electric piano . . . the kind of thing one associates with Lite Rock Radio˝ more specifically, with abominations like Chicago’s “Hard to Say IÝm Sorry.” What in Abraham Lincoln’s name is going on with that electric piano? Is it supposed to make us reflective and sentimental? Is it supposed to suggest sincerity and devotion? Doesn’t anyone realize what happens to Real Men when they listen to stuff like that? It’s not even dreck˝ it’s something much worse. It’s Wuss Rock.
Part of what’s going on with the tinkling electric piano, surely, is what went on with a great deal of corporate country music in the 1980s, namely, the Barbara Mandrellization of the genre. (Bless old Merle Haggard’s heart, “Okie from Muskogee” is a real song, and tinkling electric piano wouldn’t be allowed within fifty yards of it.) But I don’t want to excuse the intro as being part and parcel of its historical milieu˝ that would be a classic, latt╚-drinking liberal cultural ╚litist kind of thing to do. I want to suggest, instead, that the song actually saps its listeners’ vital essences with that electric piano, and then tries to cover for it by making the closing choruses increasingly bombastic.
But on this Independence Day, people, don’t be fooled. We need our purity of essence now more than ever. So if you’re grilling something good and fleshy today (I’m planning on making the kids hot sausage sandwiches with red and green peppers, and I intend to wash ‘em down with some fine Genesee Cream Ale) and you’re looking for some real American music to make you feel better about this land in these dark times, play X’s great version of “Fourth of July,” originally written by Dave Alvin when he was with the Blasters and included on the 1987 X album, See How We Are, when Alvin briefly replaced Billy Zoom on geetar. You’ll be glad you did.