“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side;
my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,
for God is always right.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday evening I was homeward bound, returning to L.A. from a long weekend spent gorging on spring-training baseball in Phoenix. I had decided to close the trip by finally catching a screening of Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush administration’s torture policies, Taxi to the Dark Side, and as US Airways carried me home I pondered a column plotting how individual members of the Bush administration might someday be held accountable for their many crimes against humanity.

Kristy Lee CookBut then the plane landed and I turned on my cell phone, only to be confronted with a voice mail from the wife carrying some appalling news: “Kristy Lee Cook just sang ‘God Bless the USA.’”

I recognize that the subset of Popdose readers (and writers) who are also American Idol viewers is likely limited to, well, me, so I’ll get you up to speed as briefly as possible. Cook is easily the worst remaining contestant on Season 7, a mediocre vocalist who has ridden good looks and a love for horses (something has to explain my daughter’s attachment to her) through several bottom-two finishes, somehow staving off elimination while more-talented opponents get the boot. Tuesday the survivors sang songs from the year they were born, which resulted in renditions of “We Are the Champions,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Billie Jean” (channeling the Chris Cornell remake), “Every Breath You Take,” etc., etc. … and “God Bless the USA.”

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Simon Cowell, who had never before praised Cook, was forced to admit that “That was the most clever song choice I’ve heard in years.” And indeed it was, but not because it suited her voice (it did) or because she sang it particularly well (she didn’t). It was clever because, like the Patriot Act in 2002 or the Iraq invasion in 2003, it was nearly impossible to criticize such a performance on a lowest-common-denominator show like Idol without having one’s patriotism questioned. And it was clever because now, on top of her looks and those ponies, she can claim the heart of every Idol voter who has an abiding weakness for cheap, empty jingoistic sentiment.

In other words, she’s got the Republican vote. And that should be enough to keep her around for a couple more weeks, at least.

I suppose there must be Democrats out there who don’t despise “God Bless the USA,” but I’ve never met one who admits it. In fact, I’ve never encountered a song that provokes such a visceral reaction – except perhaps “Wind Beneath My Wings,” for entirely different reasons. Once I stood with a group of friends and relatives watching the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, which was really quite spectacular – until the musical accompaniment switched to “God Bless the USA,” whereupon we all decided it was time to get the hell out of there, and fast.

Lee GreenwoodThe trouble is not merely that the song has been exploited by every GOP presidential candidate from Reagan to McCain – often with songwriter Lee Greenwood warbling the vocals in person. The real problem is that the song is a barely cloaked recitation of Reagan/Bush-era talking points. It conjures all the same bullshit “values” linkages (family, flag, freedom, fighting men) that Republicans have been using for three decades to distract the lower classes from their own economic interests, and to convince them to vote for politicians who care about little beyond lining the pockets of the wealthy, limiting the rights and opportunities of everyone who’s not a straight white male, and ratcheting up the military-industrial complex.

Released in the wake of the deep early-’80s recession and the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut – and at the beginning of Reagan’s ’84 re-election campaign – “God Bless the USA” became that campaign’s theme song, and Greenwood sang it during the Republican convention. Its popularity has surged anew each time America has pointed guns at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under a president named Bush – first in 1991, when it was a ubiquitous presence in those Gulf War homecoming parades, and later during W’s run-up to the current Iraq War. (Indeed, the shift from the prominence of “God Bless America” in 2001 to the pre-Shock and Awe omnipresence of “God Bless the USA” exemplified Bush’s squandering of the post-9/11 consensus in favor of partisan disunity.)

In some respects, “God Bless the USA” is little more than a brain-dead, countrified ripoff of “God Bless America” — “From the mountains/To the prairies/To the oceans white with foam” is replaced with “From the lakes of Minnesota/To the hills of Tennessee/Across the plains of Texas/From sea to shining sea.”

Still, in the most vital sense, the songs couldn’t be more different in their perspective. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” as a plea for divine grace and guidance written during the incredible tribulations of World War II: “God bless America, land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her/Through the night with a light from above.” Greenwood’s song, on the other hand, assumes the almighty’s eternal support as one more piece of evidence proving America’s inherent greatness.

A close examination of the first verse of “God Bless the USA” reveals at once its banality and its insidiousness.

The line: “If tomorrow all the things were gone, I’d worked for all my life”
In other words: “This recession’s probably gonna put me out of work, but hopefully Wall Street will like my company better after they ship my job overseas. Maybe I’ll lose my pension or my 401K, or that house I bought with a subprime mortgage, but at least my CEO (and Bear Stearns’ CEO) will get those half-billion-dollar golden parachutes they’ve earned by fucking up once they reached the top.”
The rebuttal: How’s that trickle-down theory working for you lately?

The line: “And I had to start again, with just my children and my wife”
In other words: “I’m a normal, straight guy with a nucular family, upholding traditional family values. We don’t watch Murphy Brown, either!”
The rebuttal: What about everybody who doesn’t live in your idea of a perfect family?

The line: “I’d thank my lucky stars, to be livin’ here today/’Cause the flag still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away”
In other words: “Well, let’s see here – the stars stand for, uh, the open sky, and the air is free, right? And the stripes… well, they look like prison bars, and with all the guns I own I’d probably be behind bars if I was in one of those countries where they don’t even speak English. Heck, I don’t know – it’s a purty flag, though. I think I’ll wear it as a shirt.”
The rebuttal: Is the flag really the best reason you can come up with to be happy you’re here? And if our flag stands for freedom, what do the flags of all those other democracies stand for?

The line: “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free”
In other words: “Yeah, I’m free, dammit. Free! And proud! And everybody else hates us for our freedom.”
The rebuttal: “At least” you know you’re free? Is that all you’ve got? How about, “I’m proud to be an American, where our laws don’t let us discriminate against anybody anymore (except those homosexuals who want to get married)?” Or “I’m proud to be an American, where millions of people want to come even though we try like the dickens to keep them out?” Or maybe, “I’m proud to be an American, where we’ve won every war we really needed to fight”?

The line: “And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me”
In other words: “We’d probably be speaking Arabic now, or Russian, or German, or… British, if we didn’t have such great soldiers.”
The rebuttal: Um… soldiers didn’t “give” you your rights, though they have on occasion (if perhaps not recently) fought for them. Even Georgie agrees with me on this one: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is the almighty God’s gift to all mankind,” blah blah blah.

The line: “And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today”
In other words: “As long as you understand that by ‘defend her’ I mean, you know, write songs and stuff. Because I’m sure as hell not putting on a uniform.”
The rebuttal: Yeah, we noticed, Lee… and George… and Dick… and Don… and Wolfie… and Condi…

The line: “’Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land”
In other words: “Gosh, I love America.”
The rebuttal: Actually, I have my doubts.

The line: “God bless the USA”
In other words: “God blessed the USA. Or, at least, my God blessed the things about the USA that I like.”
Rev. Wright’s rebuttal: (Whatever it is, it’s not much more offensive than what you’ve just been putting us through, Lee.)

Of course, Kristy Lee Cook survived to mangle another song on another show, while the two remaining African-American contestants got the fewest votes. (I’m not commenting, I’m just saying.) What were Randy, Paula and Simon, judging Kristy on a Fox-network program, gonna say to her? “Nice job manipulating the public into thinking that voting you off would be unpatriotic, Kristy. But ‘God Bless the USA’ is a shitty song, and you should be outta here anyway.”

SanjayaNext week Kristy will jack her skirt up a little higher, or maybe try out a “fauxhawk” like the one that launched Sanjaya over more-talented competitors last season. Meanwhile, John McCain – who really should be above such things, but clearly isn’t – will trot out “God Bless the USA” one more time (or 100 more times) in an effort to show the base that he’s one of them.

But I guarantee you, the next time we have a real national crisis, or the next time we need a unifying American theme, “God Bless the USA” once again will be left in the dust. As it should be.