â€œSir, 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.â€ — 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 Gibneyâ€™s Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush administrationâ€™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.
But 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: â€œKristy Lee Cook just sang â€˜God Bless the USA.â€™â€
I recognize that the subset of Popdose readers (and writers) who are also American Idol viewers is likely limited to, well, me, so Iâ€™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 daughterâ€™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 â€œWe Are the Champions,â€ â€œTotal Eclipse of the Heart,â€ â€œBillie Jeanâ€ (channeling the Chris Cornell remake), â€œEvery Breath You Take,â€ etc., etc. â€¦ and â€œGod Bless the USA.â€
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Simon Cowell, who had never before praised Cook, was forced to admit that â€œThat was the most clever song choice Iâ€™ve heard in years.â€ And indeed it was, but not because it suited her voice (it did) or because she sang it particularly well (she didnâ€™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, sheâ€™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 donâ€™t despise â€œGod Bless the USA,â€ but Iâ€™ve never met one who admits it. In fact, Iâ€™ve never encountered a song that provokes such a visceral reaction â€“ except perhaps â€œWind Beneath My Wings,â€ 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 â€“ until the musical accompaniment switched to â€œGod Bless the USA,â€ whereupon we all decided it was time to get the hell out of there, and fast.
The trouble is not merely that the song has been exploited by every GOP presidential candidate from Reagan to McCain â€“ 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 â€œvaluesâ€ 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 whoâ€™s not a straight white male, and ratcheting up the military-industrial complex.
Released in the wake of the deep early-â€™80s recession and the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut â€“ and at the beginning of Reaganâ€™s â€™84 re-election campaign â€“ â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ became that campaignâ€™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 â€“ first in 1991, when it was a ubiquitous presence in those Gulf War homecoming parades, and later during Wâ€™s run-up to the current Iraq War. (Indeed, the shift from the prominence of â€œGod Bless Americaâ€ in 2001 to the pre-Shock and Awe omnipresence of â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ exemplified Bushâ€™s squandering of the post-9/11 consensus in favor of partisan disunity.)
In some respects, â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ is little more than a brain-dead, countrified ripoff of â€œGod Bless Americaâ€ — â€œFrom the mountains/To the prairies/To the oceans white with foamâ€ is replaced with â€œFrom the lakes of Minnesota/To the hills of Tennessee/Across the plains of Texas/From sea to shining sea.â€
Still, in the most vital sense, the songs couldnâ€™t be more different in their perspective. Irving Berlin wrote â€œGod Bless Americaâ€ as a plea for divine grace and guidance written during the incredible tribulations of World War II: â€œGod bless America, land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her/Through the night with a light from above.â€ Greenwoodâ€™s song, on the other hand, assumes the almightyâ€™s eternal support as one more piece of evidence proving Americaâ€™s inherent greatness.
A close examination of the first verse of â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ reveals at once its banality and its insidiousness.
The line: â€œIf tomorrow all the things were gone, Iâ€™d worked for all my lifeâ€
In other words: â€œThis 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 Iâ€™ll lose my pension or my 401K, or that house I bought with a subprime mortgage, but at least my CEO (and Bear Stearnsâ€™ CEO) will get those half-billion-dollar golden parachutes theyâ€™ve earned by fucking up once they reached the top.â€
The rebuttal: Howâ€™s that trickle-down theory working for you lately?
The line: â€œAnd I had to start again, with just my children and my wifeâ€
In other words: â€œIâ€™m a normal, straight guy with a nucular family, upholding traditional family values. We donâ€™t watch Murphy Brown, either!â€
The rebuttal: What about everybody who doesn’t live in your idea of a perfect family?
The line: â€œIâ€™d thank my lucky stars, to be livinâ€™ here today/â€™Cause the flag still stands for freedom, and they canâ€™t take that awayâ€
In other words: â€œWell, letâ€™s see here â€“ the stars stand for, uh, the open sky, and the air is free, right? And the stripesâ€¦ well, they look like prison bars, and with all the guns I own Iâ€™d probably be behind bars if I was in one of those countries where they don’t even speak English. Heck, I donâ€™t know â€“ itâ€™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 youâ€™re here? And if our flag stands for freedom, what do the flags of all those other democracies stand for?
The line: â€œAnd Iâ€™m proud to be an American, where at least I know Iâ€™m freeâ€
In other words: â€œYeah, Iâ€™m free, dammit. Free! And proud! And everybody else hates us for our freedom.â€
The rebuttal: â€œAt leastâ€ you know youâ€™re free? Is that all youâ€™ve got? How about, â€œIâ€™m proud to be an American, where our laws donâ€™t let us discriminate against anybody anymore (except those homosexuals who want to get married)?â€ Or â€œIâ€™m proud to be an American, where millions of people want to come even though we try like the dickens to keep them out?â€ Or maybe, “I’m proud to be an American, where we’ve won every war we really needed to fight”?
The line: â€œAnd I wonâ€™t forget the men who died, who gave that right to meâ€
In other words: â€œWeâ€™d probably be speaking Arabic now, or Russian, or German, orâ€¦ British, if we didnâ€™t have such great soldiers.â€
The rebuttal: Umâ€¦ soldiers didnâ€™t â€œgiveâ€ you your rights, though they have on occasion (if perhaps not recently) fought for them. Even Georgie agrees with me on this one: â€œFreedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is the almighty Godâ€™s gift to all mankind,â€ blah blah blah.
The line: â€œAnd Iâ€™d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still todayâ€
In other words: â€œAs long as you understand that by â€˜defend herâ€™ I mean, you know, write songs and stuff. Because Iâ€™m sure as hell not putting on a uniform.â€
The rebuttal: Yeah, we noticed, Leeâ€¦ and Georgeâ€¦ and Dickâ€¦ and Donâ€¦ and Wolfieâ€¦ and Condiâ€¦
The line: â€œâ€™Cause there ainâ€™t no doubt I love this landâ€
In other words: â€œGosh, I love America.â€
The rebuttal: Actually, I have my doubts.
The line: â€œGod bless the USAâ€
In other words: â€œGod blessed the USA. Or, at least, my God blessed the things about the USA that I like.â€
Rev. Wrightâ€™s rebuttal: (Whatever it is, itâ€™s not much more offensive than what youâ€™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? â€œNice job manipulating the public into thinking that voting you off would be unpatriotic, Kristy. But â€˜God Bless the USAâ€™ is a shitty song, and you should be outta here anyway.â€
Next week Kristy will jack her skirt up a little higher, or maybe try out a â€œfauxhawkâ€ like the one that launched Sanjaya over more-talented competitors last season. Meanwhile, John McCain â€“ who really should be above such things, but clearly isnâ€™t â€“ will trot out â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ one more time (or 100 more times) in an effort to show the base that heâ€™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, â€œGod Bless the USAâ€ once again will be left in the dust. As it should be.