Here’s a list of songs not to play on the Fourth of July if you don’t want to ruin your family barbecue and force everyone to think harder about America than they perhaps should with a mouth stuffed with meat and a fist full of fireworks.
1. “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen
“Born in the U.S.A.” is one of the most famously misinterpreted songs in rock and roll. The catchy, patriotic chorus has 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.
“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.
2. “Made In America,” Jay Z and Kanye West
Jay and Ye rap about what it’s like growing up in America for poor minorities in this track from Watch the Throne. Frank Ocean lends a hand, singing the names of civil rights leaders on the hook. Kanye raps about his ascent to fame while Jay Z reminisces about his grandmother’s banana pudding and trying to provide for his family by selling crack: “The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners / I got my liberty, chopping grams up.”
3. “California Über Alles,” The Dead Kennedys
Basically, you could turn to any Dead Kennedys album for the perfect way to ruin patriotic feelings on the Fourth of July. “California Über Alles” is a particularly great piece of satire about a hippie fascist who takes over as governor of California. “Zen fascists will control you / 100 percent natural / You will jog for a master race / And always wear a happy face,” Jello Biafra sings over a creepy guitar line that gets faster and faster as the song grows more paranoid. “Mellow out or you will pay!”
4. “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” The Clash
Punk music is an endless goldmine of music expressing political discontent. English punks The Clash sing on this 1979 track about how even if you’re not from the U.S., America just always seems to be in your face. They also portray the country as being full of junkie veterans, detectives, and killers that “work seven days a week.” “Forget the stars and stripes / Let’s print the Watergate tapes,” they sing, before lamenting the fact that even though they’re so bored with the U.S.A., there’s really nothing they can do to avoid it, given that the “Yankee dollar” has so much power.
5. “American Idiot,” Green Day
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since Green Day made its comeback with the political rock opera American Idiot. The album’s title single stirred up a ton of controversy when it came out. While we’d been used to hearing Green Day drop the f-bomb in its songs for years, it had never before been followed by “America.” The whole record is a scathing portrait of what American life looked like for those coming of age under the second Bush administration, and “American Idiot” presents the thesis. “Don’t wanna be an American idiot / Don’t want a nation under the new mania / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind fuck America,” are opening lyrics sure to get blood boiling on a holiday meant to celebrate the formation of this good country.
6. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Pete Seeger
Basically any antiwar music is a bad idea to play on the Fourth of July. So while any song that suggests perhaps we shouldn’t shoot each other would do, why not go with a classic from protest folk singer and Woody Guthrie protege Pete Seeger? Seeger was famously called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare and almost thrown in prison for refusing to give the names of others he’d seen at communist party meetings, and he spent his long career writing protest songs of all kinds. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is one of Seeger’s most famous compositions, about a community torn apart by war.
7. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday
America’s history of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, lynch mobs, and racism are definitely things you don’t want to think about while trying to celebrate this great nation’s freedom from the British. “Strange Fruit” is both sickening and haunting, describing the lynched bodies of black men swinging in the trees as the South’s particular fruit. The song’s three stanzas are more than adequate enough to get the visual and emotional point across, and Billie Holiday’s mournful vocals will send chills down the spine no matter how warm it is. Her performance is especially poignant given that her own life was ravaged by inequalities and addiction, which led to her death at age 44.
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