Here’s a list of songs that seem like they’re patriotic, but if you listen more closely their messages aren’t quite so pro-America. When creating your Fourth of July playlist, you should be more discriminating than just picking any song that has U.S.A. in the title or says ‘America’ in the chorus, since sometimes these songs can have a more critical message than it seems. The following songs are often mistaken for being patriotic, when their actual meaning is more complicated.
“American Pie,” Don McLean
The 1971 song “American Pie” is Don McLean’s long magnum opus about February 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died,” when a plane crash killed early rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The song’s many verses go on to chronicle the history of rock and roll, with many interpreting the “King” referred to in the song as Elvis, the “Jester” is Bob Dylan, and “the sergeants” the Beatles, as well as other references to important moments in rock history. While the tune is a celebration of American music, it is also a lamentation that all the great American music has died, and the conclusion is that since rock and roll is what offers our salvation, we all might as well die too.
“Pink Houses,” John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp is popularly considered to be a patriotic rock singer, who writes songs about good working-class people enjoying their small town lives. From the chorus, it seems as though the song is an ode the classic American dream of living in suburbia with a house, a spouse, and children. “Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby / Ain’t that America home of the free / Little pink houses for you and me,” Mellencamp sings in the chorus. But, like many of the songs on this list, if you take a closer listen to the verses — and the last one in particular — the song is more critical than it seems. “There’s winners and there’s losers / But they ain’t no big deal / ‘Cause the simple man baby pay for the thrills, the bills / The pills that kill,” he sings in the final verse, drawing attention to this country’s problems with inequality.
“This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
Folk legend Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Guthrie thought was an unrealistic portrayal of a country he’d spent his life traveling across. The song is now considered to be one of America’s great patriotic songs and is Guthrie’s best-known contribution to popular music. However, there are some extra verses schoolchildren aren’t often taught that are more critical of America — which makes sense given Guthrie’s leftist politics. Those extra verses were embraced by Guthrie’s folk proteges in the 1960s, but frequently aren’t remembered by your average Joe now. “As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’/ But on the other side it didn’t say nothing / That side was made for you and me,” is one variant of a political verse about private property. “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / By the Relief Office I saw my people / As they stood hungry I stood there wondering if / This land was made for you and me,” is the often dropped final verse, a critique of Depression-era hunger, an issue Guthrie often spoke about in his writing and music.
“Party in the U.S.A.” Miley Cyrus
Depending on what your vision of the ideal America is, this song’s exultation of L.A. excess could possibly be patriotic. Cyrus discusses coming to Los Angeles, “the land of fame excess” for the first time from her hometown of Nashville and worrying about fitting in with a crowd where “Everybody seems so famous.” Many would point to America’s adoration of celebrity and over-indulgence as things that are problematic about the nation, not ones that should be celebrated. Of course, as we all know it worked out for Cyrus in the end, she definitely fits in with the L.A. crowd now — but is that really a good thing?
“Independence Day,” Martina McBride
This song is actually about the Fourth of July, but the independence McBride is talking about has nothing to do with America. McBride narrates the song from the perspective of an 8-year-old girl whose mother is the victim of domestic violence at the hands of the father. Their version of Independence Day fireworks is the mother lighting the house on fire to escape that abuse. The chorus may be full of very American things like white doves and making the guilty pay, but domestic abuse and gender inequality as a whole are major issues that the U.S. is still struggling with.
“Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen
“Born in the U.S.A.” is one of the most misunderstood songs in rock and roll. The American flag motif and the catchy, patriotic chorus have made the song a popular pro-America rock staple, though the lyrics in the verses belie a much more complicated picture. The song is actually a scathing review of the Vietnam War and the phenomenon of working-class youth with little hope for the future being pushed into military service because they have nowhere else to turn, a sentiment that’s still timely 30 years later.
“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,” Springsteen sings. The soldier returns from Vietnam to an unwelcoming society and few options for fitting back into it. When taken in the context of the versus, the chorus becomes sneering, almost punk in its sarcasm. It was famously misinterpreted by Ronald Reagan, who used it as a theme song during his 1984 presidential campaign until Springsteen told him to stop.
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