Time for an unofficial version of “Allison’s Jukebox,” unofficial in that someone else deserves credit for bringing to the world’s attention these songs on this day (I’ll credit him later). Here in the United States, this day when I write this is Independence Day. This is the day when, 243 years ago, the “thirteen original colonies” gave a big “screw you” to a certain royal monarch, declared their independence, and tried to live happily ever after.
Emphasis on “tried” in that last paragraph, of course, for the past 243 years have not been all peaches and cream for our fair country. For one, there was a brutal civil war whose side effects we still can’t overcome over a century and a half later. As well, if you haven’t been paying attention to the news the past two and a half years, we’re being led into darkness by a certain man wearing an ill-fitting suit, bad-looking toupee, and a petulant ego that makes him think he’s a royal monarch.
Sadly, there are people who blindly follow this idiotic Pied Piper and his diatribes, and are gullible enough to think that a radio network’s tradition of reading our country’s founding document every year on this date is a mark against all that he stands for. As well on this day in particular, this leader is conducting a grotesque exercise — a rally in our exercise in our nation’s capital that will be less a celebration of our great country and more about the “greatness” (note the quotes) this leader sees in himself.
Thankfully, the ways we Americans celebrate this day are as diverse as the citizenry that make up this country. I mean, we don’t all goosestep to the beat of a single loud drum, as some other world leaders (namely, our country’s current leader) think we do. This is evident in our tastes in music. Yes, there are those whose tastes in patriotic tunes is more in the John Phillip Sousa vein. And there are those whose “if you don’t like it, leave it” attitudes permeate in their song choices, including one which spuriously claimed that a country we went to war with fired the first shot. (Gee, where did that singer’s career go to anyway?)
But for those who really do give a real damn about our country, have real concerns about what ails us, and/or just want to have some fun on this mid-summer day off from work, there are better song suggestions. Writer Nick Douglas of the Lifehacker website posted on Wednesday what he termed “a patriotic playlist for people who aren’t sure how they feel about America.” I’ve taken the liberty of embedding the Spotify version of that playlist below (the Apple Music version, if you’re of that persuasion, is at this link).
Some pretty good songs there, don’t you think? Allow me to note some of the sub-themes I’ve noticed in on this list:
It ain’t easy living in America. This is evident right off the bat with the inclusion of “This Is America,” not to mention “List of Demands.” These two songs lay bare the sad, violence-related, “hand to mouth” reality of living as a minority in this country.
It ain’t easy when you’re not an old, white male. There’s a bit of discontent among songs such as the two mentioned above, along with the youth laced through the likes of “American Idiot” and “United States of Whatever.” You hear that, too, in the very profane lyrics of “Team America,” a sarcastic celebration to the companies and pastimes we hold dear.
There’s something happenin’ here… what it is… ain’t right! You think Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was all about flag waving? Uh uh. Pay attention and you realize it’s really about a Vietnam War vet getting screwed at home. “Sixteen Military Wives” isn’t about the loved ones of those who serve, but rather the over-glorification of American superiority, especially by the media and especially during times of conflict. The lyrics of “Rockin’ in the Free World” isn’t about celebrating freedom, and “War” isn’t celebrating military might (quite the opposite really). These songs make clear that this country isn’t as perfect as we think we are, nor are the ideals our leaders put on supposedly sturdy pedestals.
It’s good to give a damn… or at least pay attention. Well, at least give a damn enough to give the powers-that-be a little heck (e.g. “Fight the Power”). Same, too, about realizing that real change comes from the ground up, not from the top down as leaders of government and business would have you believe (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” certainly one of the greatest spoken-word recordings ever).
This land ain’t perfect, but we give a damn about it… and we’re not going away. Three songs on the playlist, in my opinion, fall under this category the most: “America” by Logic is a call to arms against You Know Who, his “thugs,” and the era of fear and disrespect they’ve fostered. The lyrics of “This Land” by Gary Clark, Jr. remind the listener that one’s skin color or ethnic background should not disqualify them from prosperity (“this land was made for you and me” indeed). And with a lot less blue language than either of those songs, “Americans” by Janelle Monáe is a challenge (backed by a very good beat) toward the firmly-held Euro-centric beliefs much of conservative America still, sadly, holds. These songs prove that the biggest enemies those in our country face aren’t overseas… but rather those within our borders.
Well, at least the title has “America” in it. Or at least a reminder of what this country left behind 243 years ago, such as “No More Kings” and “God Save the Queen.” (Side note: You Know Who and his family sure act like a royal monarchy, don’t they?) Oh, and there’s also “America,” “Calling America,” “American Girl,” “American Boy,” “American Woman,” “American Car,” “Freedom,” “Fourth of July,” “Independence Day,” and that orchestral bed from the film Independence Day when Bill Paxton tells the citizenry to take it to those space aliens.
But I don’t wanna argue today. And besides, I just wanna enjoy some bubble gum. The inclusion of “Party in the U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” is evident of that. Oh, yeah, and “Firework.”
One thing to note: Nick Douglas includes not one but three versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in his playlist: The screaming one by Jimi Hendrix, the diva approach by Whitney Houston, and one by Marvin Gaye. A personal note about the latter: Gaye’s performance of our national anthem was done before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. As NPR recalled on the 20th anniversary of that rendition, nobody dared to take a lot of chances on the anthem until then, lest they get blackballed by the over-righteous (“shoulders square, sing it straight like the hymn that it is”). But with a drum machine and a lot of soul, Gaye went in a different direction.
I was sitting down in our living room that Sunday afternoon expecting to watch the game broadcast on CBS. My stepfather was sitting there as well, home from another long trip on the road. And unlike the very appreciative crowd at the Forum (and you yourself heard them in the video), Dad was disgusted by the singing he had just heard. After Marvin Gaye let out his last note, Dad ordered the channel be changed, meaning I didn’t see a single play of the game. And before you ask… no, it wasn’t because he wanted to watch something else besides basketball.
These days, any instances of taking such risks on “The Star-Spangled Banner” still seem to come few and far between. Oh, sure, there’s a soulfully turned lyric here or a lingering note there. But it’s still performed according to tradition: Stand up straight, square your shoulders, put right hand to heart if you can, sing it with the same exact respect your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did before you.
But when you think of it, that’s how Marvin Gaye treated the anthem that day in Inglewood — with respect, with heart, and with sincerity. I wish my stepfather would have seen that.
I dare say that many of the songs in the above playlist reflect on our country that same way: They may not all be of the same genre, and they may not be to everyone’s tastes (including, admittedly, mine). But for sure they’re not all about standing to attention as the flag goes by, or dressing head to toe in red, white, and blue on Independence Day. It’s about living in this great country of ours, faults and all, not to mention standing up for and treating your fellow citizen with respect and not disdain. Really, what’s more patriotic than giving a damn about this country and those who live in it?
So go ahead and wave that flag, wear the colors, chow down on a burger or two, and enjoy the 75 songs from Lifehacker’s Independence Day playlist. To borrow a line from Nick Douglas’ accompanying article, you shouldn’t have to act like America’s obsessive boyfriend to love America… though sometimes a song with real heart and a really good beat inspires you to do so.