The Fourth of July is this week, and the thoughts of all who love this country in spite of its faults turn toward a nagging but rarely discussed problem: the failure of rock and roll, in the course of its 45-some-year history, to produce a single decent, unironic patriotic song. (I fully realize that by expecting to find, within the culturati who make up this column's readership, a hard core of patriots, I may be slicing my demographic pie too thinly.)
There is no parallel problem in other American pop music genres. R&B has James Brown's "Living in America"--I don't know what the song's about, but neither does anyone else, so if it's a veiled critique, well, it was still good enough for Bill Clinton's last campaign. Lee Greenwood's great 1984 country anthem "God Bless the U.S.A." (you know, "I'm proud to be an American/Where at least I know I'm free/And I'd gladly thank the men who died/Who gave that right to me..." or something like that) gets firmly stuck in my head around this time every year. The lyrics' Cold War linkage of patriotism with anti-communism and worship of the military is uninspired, but that swelling melody--a perfect accompaniment to fireworks--gets me every time.
What does rock offer to compete with these tunes? Worn patriotic choruses set against verses that evoke poverty or other forms of misery to create ironic juxtapositions. Example: Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," a bitter song about a guy whose patriotism has been rewarded by him getting screwed in absolutely every orifice; contrast with Merle Haggard's "The Fighting Side of Me": Haggard's patriotism isn't as blindly celebratory as Greenwood's, but he'd probably trade a few words (if not punches) with the embittered loser from Springsteen's song.
John Mellencamp, who is to Springsteen as Springsteen was to Bob Dylan, works a similar trick in a more subtle fashion in "Pink Houses," which lovingly portrays a poor but happy elderly black couple while suggesting that their country is failing them--the "interstate running through his front yard," the ignorant capitalist victors elsewhere who "go to work in some highrise and vacation in the Gulf of Mexico." I can't read the "Ain't that America/Home of the free" chorus as anything but sly use of cliché.
What would a patriotic rock song sound like? Would it be scary, like Prince's undoubtedly sincere "America," where the verses threaten unpatriotic types with communism or nuclear annihilation? Or would it have to have three hedges for every patriotic sentiment, like David Byrne's lyrics from "Miss America" ("I love America/Her secret's safe with me/And I know her wicked ways/The parts you never see")? Could there be one song where the celebration is neither tinged with fear or disgust? Or is that just the basic form of American patriotism in its expressed state?
Seattle has its share of strange arts awards (such as the one sponsored by the Bagley Wright Fund and meant for Seattle artists, which keeps getting awarded to mid-to-late career artists like Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, who haven't lived in Seattle for decades), but the newly announced Artist Trust "Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement" is a particular gem. Funded by an anonymous donation of $250,000, the award of approximately $10,000 will be given in perpetuity on an annual basis to "a Washington woman visual artist, 60 years of age or older." Talk about thin demographic slices! How many good Washington women visual artists over 60 are there? You give one to Jacob Lawrence's widow, one to Fay Jones, maybe Doris Chase and Elizabeth Sandvig, and then what? If your mom lives in-state, get her to a painting class immediately.
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