What music comes to mind when you think of America and Independence Day? “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?” A John Phillip Souza march? Glenn Miller or the Andrews Sisters?
Outside of country, there isn’t much music being made about America anymore. Oh, pop music is still filled with references. America’s favorite problem child, Miley Cyrus, turns up in nearly every 4th of July playlist with “Party In The U.S.A.” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” has also become an Independence Day party anthem. But Cyrus’ song mentions nothing American, except the “fame excess” of Hollywood. “Firework” just uses the 4th of July as a reference in the music video that features fireworks shooting from Perry’s breasts (which, one suspects, was the point of the song from its inception).
In rock n’ roll, there’s sadly a venerable tradition of flat out anti-Americanism, as “rebellious” young musicians have made piles of money off the very system they decry. Still, people want to feel good about their country on its birthday, and when pop/rock aficionados go looking for musical celebrations of the Land of the Free, well, they often get the opposite, whether they realize it or not.
Here are five of the worst offenders. God Bless America.
1. “Born In The U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
“Born In The U.S.A.” has been misinterpreted as a pro-American rock anthem since it came out in the mid-1980s. Even Ronald Reagan praised Springsteen’s song for holding a message of hope for “America’s future.” The song reflects Springsteen’s political stance of the Vietnam war, a position about which he has been very vocal.
Springsteen’s gruff vocals garble the controversial verses, making the chorus’ repetitive “Born In The U.S.A” the only interpretable lyrics. Conservative columnist, George Will, famously praised Springsteen’s values, saying “I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: "Born in the U.S.A.!"
Clearly, Reagan, Will, and some Springsteen fans all missed the underlying criticism of America.
Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said "son don't you understand now"
Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go
Born in the U.S.A.
Springsteen understood the temptation to take the song as a prideful anthem: “People got a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening is … is gettin’ manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV – you know: “It’s morning in America.” And you say, well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York.” Luckily, a vast majority of Americans agreed with The Gipper, not The Boss.
2. “American Woman” – Lenny Kravitz
Lenny Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman” has been mistakenly perceived as a sexual tribute to American women. The original “American Woman,” written by the Canadian band, ‘The Guess Who’ was intended as a protest song against the Vietnam war. The identity of the ‘American Woman’ in The Guess Who’s version is the country of America itself- Kravitz on the other hand, addresses a real woman as he unconvincingly demands to be left alone. Kravitz’s sexualized version of the song camouflages The Guess Who’s anti-American lyrics,
American woman, I said, get away
American woman, listen what I say
Don't come hanging ‘round my door
Don't want to see your face no more
I don't need your war machines
I don't need your ghetto scenes.
The song apparently happened by accident. The Guess Who guitarist Randy Bachman started playing the riff at a concert. “I yelled out, ‘Sing something!’ So out of the blue Burton just screamed, ‘American Woman, stay away from me!’ That was the song, the riff and Burton yelling that line over and over. Later, he added other lines like ‘I don’t need your war machine, you ghetto scenes.’ Before America knew it, it was a #1 record and it was a protest song.”
The Guess Who bassist Jim Kale said the song wasn’t anti-American: “The fact was, we came from a very strait-laced, conservative, laid-back country, and all of a sudden, there we were in Chicago, Detroit, New York — all these horrendously large places with their big city problems.”
3. “American Idiot” – Green Day
Well, maybe this one you did know is anti-American, but it's too hateful to leave off this list. It comes from another Canadian band. In it Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong blatantly and vulgarly attacks the entire nation of America. To respond to this offense, Americans bought over 6 million copies of the album and awarded them with a Grammy. For a band that hates America so much, they sure don’t mind taking the money of the very Americans they attack.
Don't wanna be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation under the new mania
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America.
Well maybe I'm the faggot America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.
Don't want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.
Charming. And Armstrong didn’t care if he was in Britain – “Let every redneck in America hear you,” he encouraged the audience, who chanted “idiot America!” – or Texas. “When you say "Fuck George W. Bush" in a packed arena in Texas,” he told Rolling Stone, “that’s an accomplishment, because you’re saying it to the unconverted.”
4. “Pink Houses” – John Mellencamp
According to the New York Daily News, after the 9-11 attacks, John Mellencamp (nee John Couger-Mellencamp, nee John Couger) was uncomfortable with the “rally ‘round the flag” ethos of the moment. “In the shows, people would chant, ‘U.S.A! U.S.A!’ It's frightening to me. I would go into another song so they couldn't get it going.” Odd for the famous heartland rocker.
But not if you look closely at his catalog. Responsible for a plethora of anti-American songs, John Cougar Mellencamp’s ‘Pink Houses’ is the most recognizable and misinterpreted. Mellencamp himself stated that Pink Houses is “...really an anti-American song.” Criticizing the failed American dream, Mellencamp pities the unfortunate Americans who do not live wealthy lifestyles.
There's a black man with a black cat
Livin' in a black neighborhood
He's got an interstate
Runnin' through his front yard
You know he thinks that he's got it so good
Mellencamp blames the country that has made his own American dream possible as he sarcastically drawls “ain’t that America, for you and me ... Home of the free, little pink houses for you and me.”
5. “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ criticizes nationalistic imperialism and has been used as a protest to military activity. ‘Fortunate Son’ refers to the white privileged men who supported the war in Vietnam, but never had to fight because of their elite social status, “I ain’t no senator’s son,” “I ain’t no millionaire’s son.” Creator of ‘Fortunate Son’, John Fogerty, told Rolling Stone that he was inspired by the marriage of President Dwight David Eisenhower’s son and President Richard Nixon’s daughter. Fogerty stated, “...you just had a feeling that none of these people were going to be involved in the war.”
Fogerty, who was drafted into the war in 1966, explains the anti-establishment song, "It's the old saying about rich men making war and poor men having to fight them."
Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
Oh, they only answer, more, more, more, oh
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no military son
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no fortunate one