Picking an Alternate National Anthem for the United States

480256_438384052902132_175396965_n_large

Each week in my American Popular Culture class this semester, I posed an open-ended question to my students on our discussion board. These topics traversed subjects as eclectic as everyone’s favorite gags from film and TV, favorite local food spots, and even conducting digital ethnographies using Youtube comments from classic music videos. One question I had in mind was inspired by the right’s manufactured controversy over NFL players (and other athletes) kneeling through the National Anthem in acts of protest and solidarity.

Though “The Star Spangled Banner” elicits a range of responses that reside on a spectrum between detached ambivalence and fiery Nationalist passion, I very quickly found myself wondering whether perhaps the United States had outgrown her National Anthem. After all, it was inspired by a battle fought more than two centuries ago, written by an amateur poet with no intent to become anything greater than prose. From a musical standpoint, it’s challenging to sing (even for talented vocalists), which complicates the communal dynamic of crowds being tacitly expected to sing along.

I did not have a spare week in which to pose this question on our discussion board, but I had the opportunity to do so on the final exam. My question and preface are pasted below, followed by a list of our class’ responses. The impressive range of choices, both stylistically and historically, was pretty inspiring, coming from an engaged and creative group of students. It has me thinking about a possible future paper about an assignment like this, discussing how human geographers can use music and pop culture to approach discussions on national identity.

For 87 years now, “The Star Spangled Banner” has been the National Anthem of the United States of America. Prior to 1931, it had been played at official events like the World Series (1918).
Over the past decade, and particularly since 2001, the anthem has come to represent and elicit a wide array of passions in equal elements Nationalist and Globalist. Over the past few years, this has come to a head in light of the Take a Knee movement in professional sports and in other areas of popular culture. What began as a protest to bring visibility to police and State violence quickly escalated to a question of Patriotism. It also led to a greater introspection on the history, context, and meaning of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Let us say, hypothetically, that the US government decided to pick a backup/unofficial National Anthem. I ask you all as members (or consumers of) American Popular Culture, to PICK THAT SONG. It has to represent (to you) what America is all about, what makes America great, or what America needs to greater understand about herself. This response only needs to be about 50-100 words and should include a link to the song if possible. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

  • Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
  • Toby Keith – “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (2X)
  • Various – “America the Beautiful” (2x)
  • Beyoncé – “Formation”
  • U2 – “In God’s Country”
  • Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – “Summertime”
  • Car Seat Headrest – “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”
  • Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin'”
  • James & John Johnson – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Freebird”
  • Colt Ford – “Workin’ On”
  • Crush 40 – “Live and Learn”
  • Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem”
  • Miley Cyrus – “Party in the USA” (2x)
  • Dick Dale – “Misirlou”
  • Lee Greenwood – “God Bless the USA”
  • Journey – “Lights”
  • Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land” (2X)
  • Johnny Cash – “Ragged Old Flag”
  • Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  • Ray Charles – “America the Beautiful”
  • Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”
  • The Temptations – “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
  • Kendrick Lamar feat. U2 – “XXX”
  • The Eagles – “Hotel California”
  • “Welcome to McDonald’s” (“Welcome to the Jungle” Parody)
  • Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”
  • The Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”
  • Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues”
  • Bruce Springsteen – “The Promised Land”
  • Don MacLean – “American Pie”
  • Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • John Williams – “Imperial March” from Star Wars

My biggest surprise was that it took as long as it did for someone to mention a Bruce Springsteen song (and that it wasn’t “Born to Run,” which I thought would be a shoe-in here). I would blame it on a generation gap, but there were two students, both born in the mid-90’s, who picked songs by Journey. Feel free to mullet mull it over.

Three of the artists – U2, The Arcade Fire, and Queen – are not American per se, but I accepted all three enthusiastically. On U2’s first appearance on American television in 1981, Bono proudly declared that unlike certain other Irish bands, “we want to be here!” By the time that their Live Aid performance (speaking of mullets…) propelled them into rock-god territory a few years later, a healthy majority of their songs expounded love for the United States and her tumultuous history (see: basically the entire track list of The Unforgettable Fire). By the time they created The Joshua Tree (1987), U2’s fame was powerful enough to influence many commonly held ideas of “Americanness” in pop music. On Rattle & Hum (1988), they had about as many songs about Ireland (“Van Diemen’s Land”) as they did about Nicaragua (“Bullet the Blue Sky”). So many of my favorite songs from that era of the band were love letters to America, which meant a lot, considering how few love songs U2 wrote in their first two decades.

As for the Arcade Fire, Win and Will Butler came up in Texas; I don’t know if there’s ever been a more American band from Montreal. As for Queen… try to go to an American sporting event without hearing “We Will Rock You.” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for anyone born after 1980, will always be inextricably linked to the most middle-American of SNL adaptations, Wayne’s World.

I meant it when I said “get creative.” On the last day of class, I shared my pick for alternative national anthem, which I chose for my own reasons, and not because Rudy Martinez has been known to say as much from time to time:

Five Latino dudes from Michigan, one of whom had the audacity to change his name to a piece of punctuation, building a bizarre mythology, distilling proto-punk through an in-your-face Farfisa organ, and continuing to perform for more than 50 years: what could be more American than that?

Advertisements

Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.

The Eagles of Death Metal on the Attack on their Concert in Paris

I regret being silent about the November 13th terror attacks until now, particularly since they affected so many people and places I got to know this July.

As difficult as this is to watch, I found it incredibly moving and important in understanding the band’s perspective on the horrors that took place at their November 13th concert at Bataclan in Paris. You can see how traumatized they were, particularly band co-founders Jessie Hughes and Josh Homme (the latter of whom wasn’t even there for the show). When I initially discovered that one of the massacre points was at an EODM concert, it shook me even further. I’ve been a fan of this band for a long time (ever since seeing them in 2006 in DC), and may very well have gone to that concert if I’d stayed in Paris beyond this summer.

On a personal note, to the best of my knowledge, everyone I met and got to know this summer in France is doing well. Tragically, a colleague at the Universite L’Est wrote and told me that one of his fellow geographers died in this attack. All the best wishes to Matthieu’s department and to his family.

Cheers to the Eagles of Death Metal for their willingness to share this, their devotion to their fans, and particularly Hughes’ commitment to being the first band to play the venue when it reopens. Other videos of this show on Youtube show Hughes lavishing praise on the incredible Paris crowd, who had been spending most of that chaotic night having the time of their lives. Cheers to Vice for their continued good work in shining a light on how music is powerful enough even to transcend the evil found in places around the world.

 

The Case for “Les Chaises Musicales”

IMG_2566

One beautiful day this July in Montreuil, France, I woke up (a bit later than I’d care to admit; I’m a night owl and I’d had a lot of interview notes to write up) and wandered down toward the Metro station. I bought a sandwich from the pastisserie and wandered over to the park next to the Public Library by the mairie (town hall). The park, always abuzz with activity, afforded few benches which I could sit upon without the mid-day sun blinding me. (Fair notice: if you invite me for lunch and insist that we eat outside, I’ll do it because I’m a grateful person, but I won’t exactly love it; the sun scorches, bugs bite, and the wind blows). I wandered past the library’s entrance looking for a good spot to sit and eat when I heard Johnny Cash’s voice emanating from a nearby grotto. It wasn’t Sun-era Johnny Cash, either; this was dying, recording-in-an-armchair, Rick-Rubin-calling-the-shots, Johnny Cash. The song was “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” from American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). Anyone familiar with Johnny Cash’s baritone, especially at this point in his life, could imagine how much hearing it changed my sunny disposition (however slightly; I was so excited for what I was about to discover).

IMG_2567

The library management had placed some lawn chairs out in the grotto and set up a pair of high-definition speaker monitors, blasting an eclectic playlist of 19 songs. An equally eclectic crowd sat and listened to the music. It was amazing. They weren’t talking or treating it as background noise. While some read and others napped, they were all just sitting casually and listening. Some of the selections were mainstream (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, others weren’t (Calexico’s “Woven Birds”). Some tracks were instrumental (Morton Feldman’s “Variations”), others were vocal (Billie Holiday’s “Summertime”), some hip-hop (RZA’s “My Lovin’ is Digi”), some rock n’ roll (Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon”), some folk (Woody Guthrie’s “You Souls of Boston”), all strangely transcendent to hear flowing out of a public library’s outdoor PA system.

IMG_2564

The moment I sat down, Nirvana’s unplugged rendition of the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau” started playing, as if they sensed an aging guy in an 80’s hardcore t-shirt had wandered over.

I don’t know how often they do this, but I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a lunch break. If I find the time anytime soon, I would like to bring this to the Knoxville Library and see if they’d like to give it a shot on Market Square or somewhere else central. It’s a great way to both present popular music in a sophisticated way and provide an ostensibly free public service for people who want to engage in public life. As much as I imagine Parisians to be more prone to this, that’s all the more reason to give it a test-run on this side of the pond.

A Note on ‘Sounds French’ by Jonathyne Briggs and Non-English Punk

Cultural forms, particularly popular music, offer a utopian possibility of unity through a shared cultural expression. The examples of [Johnny] Hallyday and the Fête [de la musique, every June 21st] mirror the dichotomy between the two. One could observe that the French rocker creates a unified audience for his music through a homogenization of sounds and styles and that the Fête stresses the diversity of musical cultures while combining cultures… The paradox between these positions is that music (and other forms of culture) can serve to promote singularity and plurality.

The above quote comes from page 7 of Jonathyne Briggs’ Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958 – 1980This book is one of the best synopses of any nation-state’s popular culture I’ve read, and is absolutely essential for anyone interested in learning about the development of pop music in France. It’s already been incredibly helpful in my understanding of the framing of punk music against France’s popular and sociopolitical culture as I work on going through my recordings and notes from this summer.

Of course, there are so many avenues through which to explore this. The companion site to Briggs’ book provide links to various songs he alludes to, such as “Rock and Roll Mops” by Henri Cording (Salvador) and his Original Rock n’ Roll Boys (1956), largely credited as the first proper French “rock n’ roll” single. As Briggs writes, Henri Salvador did not take rock n’ roll seriously, and made a novelty song aimed at capitalizing on what he thought was a trend (not completely unlike Bill Haley did with “Rock Around the Clock”), but the song did begin a (protracted) slippery slope of rock n’ roll legitimacy in the French language. The first thing I thought of while reading this was how Plastic Bertrand provided the same type of parodic cornerstone for French-language punk music with “Ça plane pour moi” (1977). Granted, Bertrand’s song was more tongue-in-cheek, but it remains one of the most recognizable French-language songs in the Anglo-Saxon world. Tell me I’m wrong.

While I have yet to publish anything on it (academically or on here), I will encourage a greater focus on non-Anglo-Saxon punk culture, because it would afford us a more nuanced understanding on the conditions that spread it, as well as (very importantly) challenge a long-held single-story that particular socio-political environments were necessary for it to grow. More to come.

R.A.S. show ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd, 1984. Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved.

One of the final R.A.S. shows ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd. Paris, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved)

Wanted: Fans of DC Punk and Hardcore in Paris

BadBrains_Eiffel

For those of you who don’t know me (which is probably many of you), my name is Tyler Sonnichsen, and I’m spending this month in Paris, looking for anybody here or elsewhere in France who enjoys the underground music of Washington, DC (e.g. Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, and many more).

I am working on a project about French perceptions of Washington, DC outside the topic of government, US history, and those things which formulate mainstream tourism. Specifically, I am interested in (as a friend/colleague referred to it) your impression of Washington, DC, both before and after anytime you have visited. I would like to speak with you about how your love of DC’s legendary punk scene has altered your imagination of the city.

Why are you in Paris?
When I first visited in 2010, I was living and working in DC. I attended a Kimmo performance at Le Pix during my incredibly brief stay in the city, and I was surprised by the clear influence that “the DC sound” had on their music. Additionally, I saw all sorts of signatures of DC hardcore around the room, including at least two Bad Brains t-shirts and a Thrashington, DC pin. I later found out they were from Brest, which made me interested in how profoundly French punk was influenced by those bands.

What do you mean “impression?”
I’m interested in not only the changing dynamics of place, but peoples’ perception of place. This is very important to several industries today, especially tourism, which I have also been studying. When I ask you about your thoughts on Washington, DC, there are no wrong answers. The images of the city and its music have made a major worldwide impact, and I’m interested in what they mean to you. It does not matter if you have ever been to DC. Actually, that may possibly be better.

Who are you looking for? 
If you live in France and love DC punk and hardcore, I want to talk to you. I am seeking a wide variety of voices: all races, all ages, all genders, all stories. Unfortunately, my French is not nearly as good as I would like it to be, so I would prefer if we could talk in English. However, if you are more comfortable speaking in French, then you are definitely welcome to.

So, if you or anybody you know would like to participate in the project, do not hesitate to call me (in France) at 06 18 33 88 60 or to email me at sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.

Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.

Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.

Maintenant, en français (via google translate en raison de contraintes de temps…désolé si il y a des incohérences).

Pour ceux d’entre vous qui ne me connaissent pas (ce qui est probablement beaucoup d’entre vous), mon nom est Tyler Sonnichsen, et je vais passer ce mois-ci à Paris, à la recherche de quelqu’un ici ou ailleurs en France qui jouit de la musique underground de Washington , DC (par exemple de Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, et beaucoup plus).

Je travaille sur un projet sur les perceptions françaises de Washington, DC en dehors du sujet du gouvernement, de l’histoire américaine, et les choses qui formulent intégrer le tourisme. Plus précisément, je suis intéressé par (comme un ami / collègue a fait référence à elle) votre impression de Washington, DC, à la fois avant et après chaque fois que vous avez visité. Je voudrais vous parler de la façon dont votre amour de la légendaire scène punk de DC a modifié votre imagination de la ville.

Pourquoi êtes-vous à Paris?
Quand je suis allé la première fois en 2010, je vivais et travaillais à Washington DC. Je assisté à une représentation au Kimmo Le Pix pendant mon incroyablement bref séjour dans la ville, et je suis surpris par l’influence clair que “le son DC” a eu sur leur musique. En outre, je voyais toutes sortes de signatures de DC inconditionnel autour de la salle, y compris au moins deux cerveaux t-shirts Bad et une badge Thrashington, DC. Je découvris plus tard, ils étaient de Brest, qui m’a fait intéressé à sav
oir comment profondément le punk français a été influencé par ces bandes.

Que voulez-vous dire “impression?”
Je suis intéressé non seulement la dynamique changeante de place, mais la perception de la place de peuples. Ceci est très important pour plusieurs industries d’aujourd’hui, en particulier le tourisme, dont je suis également étudié. Quand je vous demande de vos pensées sur Washington, DC, il n’y a pas de mauvaises réponses. Les images de la ville et sa musique ont eu un impact majeur dans le monde entier, et je suis intéressé par ce qu’ils signifient pour vous. Il n’a pas d’importance si vous avez déjà été à DC. En fait, cela peut éventuellement être mieux.

Qui cherchez-vous?
Si vous vivez en France et aimez le punk et le hardcore DC, je veux vous parler. Je cherche une grande variété de voix: toutes les races, tout les âges, tous les sexes, toutes les histoires. Malheureusement, mon français est loin d’être aussi bon que je voudrais que ce soit, donc je préférerais si nous pouvions parler en anglais. Toutefois, si vous êtes plus à l’aise en français, alors vous êtes certainement le bienvenu à.

Donc, si vous ou quelqu’un que vous connaissez aimerait participer au projet, ne pas hésiter à me contacter (en France) au 06 18 33 88 60 ou contactez-moi au sonicgeography [at] gmail.com. 

Music Geography 101: The Jam – “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

I briefly considered using Suede’s beautiful album-and-show-capper “Saturday Night” here, but quickly withdrew it when I remembered I was packaging it with its video. Irresponsible of me, yes, but the video is a pretty wonderful tribute to the Tube, if you have a few minutes and want to feel nostalgia for British big city life. I needed a song that presented the intangible fears and fantasties that came with a modest subway ride. Time to rewind the clock before gentrification had made the world’s most expensive cities properly “safe:” the late 1970s.

One of punk’s greatest accomplishments was divorcing young British musicians from any obligation to sound or act American. The Beatles and Rolling Stones made careers (and to varying degrees, still do) by synthesizing American rock n’ roll standards. I would never deny that The Clash could have happened without The Ramones, but as the Thatcher era approached, a new generation of musicians found it possible to turn inward for cultural fuel. A petulent teenager named Paul Weller rejoiced in this zeitgeist. Weller didn’t seem too intent on satisfying audiences who weren’t directly in front of him (whether he suffered those who WERE was up for debate, too). The Jam resurrected the 60’s mod culture, and despite an avowed Motown influence, quickly developed into one of the most quintessentially ‘British’ bands of all time, whether or not that was their intent. Few of their photos didn’t feature a Union Jack or some other subversive type of English iconography.

Years before Jarvis Cocker perfected the kitchen-sink audio drama with Pulp (who technically began playing in 1978, only two years after the Jam did), Paul Weller was presenting unhappily-ending tales of quotidian Britishness. In one of my favorite songs of theirs, men working in a factory and a cornershop harbor secret grass-is-greener ambitions to be in the other’s place, though both of their times have passed. In “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” Weller articulates the all-too-present paranoia over street crime in that country, focused in the London Underground. The beauty of it is, you don’t need to be English, you don’t need to have been mugged in a train station, or even need to have a family to sympathize and strangely identify with this character. He doesn’t find a happy ending and we don’t get a resolution to the story. London doesn’t freely provide closure to those who expect it, so why should songs have about her have to?

Lyrics (from Google Play)

The distant echo –
of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
the ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps – repeat my own and reflect my thoughts
Cold and uninviting, partially naked
Except for toffee wrapers and this morning’s papers
Mr. Jones got run down
Headlines of death and sorrow – they tell of tomorrow
Madmen on the rampage
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I fumble for change – and pull out the Queen
Smiling, beguiling
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Behind me
Whispers in the shadows – gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
“Hey boy” they shout “have you got any money?”
And I said “I’ve a little money and a take away curry,
I’m on my way home to my wife.
She’ll be lining up the cutlery,
You know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather
It filled my eyes, ears, nose and mouth
It blocked all my senses
Couldn’t see, hear, speak any longer
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
I said I was down in the tube station at midnight

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read “Have an Awayday – a cheap holiday –
Do it today!”
I glanced back on my life
And thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys – and she’ll think it’s me
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold
I’m down in the tube station at midnight
Don’t want to go down in a tube station at midnight