On a related note, here is your Song Challenge for August, everybody.
There’s only one rule, and it’s pretty obvious. Download it, share it, hashtag it #NotbyREM, tell all your Gen-X friends (as well as those from other generations), call me a leper, and have a great time. Bonus points to anyone who still picks a song with Peter Buck on it, somehow.
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?
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.
While I do consider R.E.M. to be the quintessential Southern American rock band and the very paradigm of indie-to-mainstream success, I had not thought of the geography in their lyrics much before last semester. This is odd, I know, as they recorded and released “Stand,” perhaps the most blandly geographic song ever heard on the radio (that dance, though…). However, one of my students in Fall 2014 pleasantly surprised my TA’s and I with this song when her paper came up. It not only provided a breath of fresh air from the torrent of “Walking in Memphis” submissions we had, but it also inspired me to dig deeper into Michael Stipe’s Southern mysticism.
R.E.M., despite becoming one of the biggest bands in the world in the 1990s, never quite shed the “college rock” association. They formed in Athens, GA, which could qualify as one of the best college towns in America. The music scene at the time was already on the map due to a campy dance-rock culture that could only have thrived in a relatively warm place full of wierdos. Someone told me recently that the band would throw snack cakes out to their crowds at the 40 Watt Club early on; some of those snack cakes are still preserved as mementos/possible eat-this-and-win-$10,000 hangup pieces.
As for Cuyahoga, it’s a county and river in Ohio. The band’s geographic references obviously didn’t stay close to home (Mike Mills’ wonderful song “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” being another case), but this one gave Stipe an ample opportunity to talk about pollution. Famously, the river outside Cleveland caught on fire in 1969, signaling federal cleanup dollars and a whole lot of embarrassment for the city. It was a great joke on The Simpsons, but a terrible reality for the rustbelt city of so few sports championships.