The theme of America in popular music has run the gamut of idealized notions of a land where one can pursue one’s dreams, to a kind of nightmare where those dreams are crushed. Even before the economy was in the toilet, the sense that life in America was more than the shining beacon of liberty that Neil Diamond sang about on The Jazz Singer soundtrack. Instead, what we have here are songs of longing, love, loss, betrayal … you know, the stuff of life. Instead of diving head long into the morass of song analysis in the intro, I’ll add my two cents in drips and drabs below…
“America,” Yes (Download)
There’s something about Yes giving this tune a kind of pop proggy treatment that makes this rendition of “America” one that strips away all the melancholy of the original and reveals a song that’s a soaring journey through parts of the New World – with just a tad too much psychedelic guitar in the middle.
“Miss America,” David Byrne (Download)
Byrne’s love of South American Latin rhythms didn’t really abate ‘til he released Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — especially when it comes to “Miss America.” The duality of love/hate in the lyrics, and the music weaving Latin styles with more North American pop melodies really add to the song’s appeal on a meta level. Wait. I believe I’m over-thinking this song a bit too much.
“James Brown,” Big Audio Dynamite (Download)
Ah, James Brown. The Godfather of Soul who really doesn’t like to take any crap from anyone — even if they didn’t do anything to him. Brown’s run-ins with the law are pretty well documented, and even though the guy is a great musician who has contributed an amazing amount of glorious music, I wouldn’t have gone over to his house for small talk, help him repair his light, or even to use his toilet. You say you don’t know what I’m talking about, well just read they guy’s rap sheet and you’ll be up to speed. Big Audio Dynamite has done much to idolize Brown’s speed chases with the cops, but what’s really the moral of James Brown and the cops? That’s right, “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”
“Brilliant Mistake,” Elvis Costello (Download)
This song is more self-flagellation than a critical spitball lobbed at the culture of the U.S. Costello, in an unusually bitter mood after his divorce, crafted a really catchy song that is laced so much seething anger that all that personal stuff could easily turn political- which it did by the late ‘80s.
“Bullet the Blue Sky,” U2 (Download)
U2’s ode to America on The Joshua Tree is less a paean and more of a pleasing painting with, at times, very dark overtones. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is one of those thunderous songs that is certainly political, but the lyrics are more oblique so you really have to tease out what war Bono is referring to in the lyrics. Considering that the album was released during the last years of the Reagan Administration, it doesn’t take a doctorate in political science it know that the imagery Bono conjures of bombs, money, displaced women and children has to do with the United States’ policy in Central America during the ‘80s.
“21st Century Breakown,” Green Day (Download)
The follow-up to the overtly political American Idiot finds the Bay Area boys heading right back into the political waters with “21st Century Breakdown” — this time, however, with a more personal is the political angle. To wit: “Born into Nixon I was raised in hell/A welfare child where the Teamsters dwelled/The last one born and the first one to run/My town was blind from refinery sun.” Oh, and if you know the biography of Billie Joe Armstrong, you know that he grew up in the lovely working class town of Rodeo, CA where much of the imagery of this song is derived.