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Songs That Everyone Thinks Are Patriotic, but Aren’t

Ah, the Fourth of July—everyone’s favorite time of year for cookouts, backyard fireworks that terrorize our pets, and songs that people think are patriotic but really aren’t.

“But wait!” you say. “I hear these songs during fireworks shows every Fourth of July—these have to be patriotic, right?” No—not if you really listen to the lyrics and know the meanings behind the songs.

Before I get into the list, it’s worth noting that John Lennon is credited with saying, “Meanings of all songs come after they are recorded. Someone else has to interpret them.” With all due respect to John, I do think that the songwriter’s intentions matter when deriving meaning from a song, especially if a song gets a different meaning over the years from what was intended.

Sure, the title track from the 1984 album that made The Boss a true bona fide superstar sounds like it should be patriotic, right? It sounds like an anthem! It says USA in the title! The album cover is red, white and blue (and features Bruce’s ass)!!

But it’s not a positive song about the US—it’s basically about how Vietnam vets were treated like crap. I mean, the song starts with this feel-good stanza:

Born down in a dead man's town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

End up like a dog that's been beat too much

Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.

Hooray, America! Bruce talks about the song (and a lot more) here in this 1984 interview with Rolling Stone:

In 1984, Springsteen was already known as a great storyteller and had earned his reputation as a voice of the working class. But the huge success of Born in the USA (which sold 10 million copies in 18 months and was the first studio album with seven top 10 hits) introduced The Boss to a large number of people who weren’t familiar with the depth of his previous work. The result is that every Fourth of July, someone will add Born in the USA to a “best patriotic songs” or use it as part of a fireworks show. And….no.

American Woman—The Guess Who (1969)/Lenny Kravitz (1999)

This is one of the more obvious choices to me, but boy, do people miss the point of this one. It is not a “rah rah” song about America. The song was written and recorded by the Canadian band The Guess Who in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. Randy Bachman has said it definitely was an anti-war protest song, the “stay away from me” line of the song referencing people in Canada who didn’t want to be drafted to serve in the war.

It’s worth noting that Burton Cummings, who normally wrote lyrics for The Guess Who, has said that the tune is literally about an American woman—or women, more accurately. He simply preferred women from Canada—he thought American women were too mature.

In either case, while American Woman is not necessarily anti-America, I think it’s clear it’s NOT a patriotic song.

Oh, and here’s an AWESOME live version with Lenny Kravitz and PRINCE (!!):

Kids in America—Kim Wilde (recorded 1981, became a hit in the US in 1982)

Although this song by my long lost cousin (8th cousin, 17 times removed) and UK native Kim Wilde may not be “patriotic” in the traditional sense, it was meant to be a positive tune about the spirit of America. Kim’s brother Ricky wrote the music, and her father Marty Wilde—himself a famous UK rockabilly artist—did the lyrics, which are based on the idea that “everything is better in America”:

Outside a new day is dawning

Outside suburbia's sprawling everywhere

I don't want to go, baby

New York to east California

There's a new wave coming, I warn ya

We're the kids in America (whoa)

We're the kids in America (whoa)

Everybody lives for the music-go-round

As Kim told Louder magazine earlier this year:

“Of course for his generation, that was very true. Everyone was going to drive in movies and drinking milkshakes and having hamburgers in America. We weren’t doing things like that in the UK. I think a lot of that got caught up in the lyrics – all the kids in America are having a better, more interesting, more dangerous time than we were here.

I’ll never really fully understand what made him write those lyrics, because there’s something very private about lyrics and the lyricist, but I did enjoy singing them. They had a rebellious quality that sat with me very well at the time. I was a bit of a rebel without a cause, but I was a rebel nonetheless.”

Too bad that Marty needed the extra syllable in the phrasing, since the “new wave” mentioned in the song only went from “New York to east California.” The west coast missed out!!

I’ve seen this song included on lists of songs that show how “powerful” the US is (seriously). From the Like a Rock album, 1986’s “American Storm” wasn’t written about the might of the US Armed Forces—it was written about the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Specifically, Seger wrote it because he saw the “plague spread into the Heartland” of America.

There is powerful imagery in the lyrics, which matches the anthem sound of the song:

It's like a full force gale

Atop a mountain of cold

You tell your story again and again

And it never gets old

It's like a wall of mirrors

You charge 'em at full speed

You cover up - you hear the shattering glass

But you never bleed

You face a full force gale

An American Storm

Fun fact: the video looks like it was taken from a movie, which was pretty standard for movie soundtrack tunes. But there is no movie!! American Storm isn’t from a soundtrack, and video director Brian De Palma (yes, THAT Brian De Palma) put together clips to make it look like the video was part of a larger film. It helps that he had James Woods, Lesley Ann Warren, Scott Glenn, Randy Quaid, and others to make it look like the real deal.

Side note: I miss videos on MTV.

This Land Is Your Land—Woody Guthrie (1940)

As The Boss says in the clip above, “This is the greatest song ever written about America…It gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was supposed to be about.” And I’ll be honest, I think the song as written is incredibly patriotic. However, I think many people miss the true meaning.

Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as an irritated response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, and originally called it “God Blessed America for Me.” (Guthrie was also evidently sick of hearing Kate Smith sing God Bless America on the radio). Although This Land is Your Land describes the beauty of the United States, Guthrie meant it as a message for the disenfranchised and an “expression of scorn” for the rich and powerful who didn’t want to share it. Two lesser known verses best show the message of the song—that this country was made for ALL of us and not just the rich and powerful:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,

But on the back side it didn't say nothing —

This land was made for you and me.

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.

Do you think some people might be turned off to the song if they knew those verses?

Mistaking the message of this song as “America’s gonna kick some ass!!” (especially after September 11th), the chorus of this song is often taken out of context:

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing

Let the whole world know that today

Is a day of reckoning.

Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong

Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay

It's Independence Day.

This song is not about America kicking ass—it’s much more specific. It’s about a woman who, after enduring years of abuse by her husband, kills him by setting their house on fire. In the song, the woman does the deed on the Fourth of July, making it her “Independence Day” as well as the USA’s. It was reportedly inspired by a woman named Francine Hughes, who killed her abusive husband in 1977, though not on Independence Day.

The lyrics definitely have a double meaning:

Well, she lit up the sky that fourth of July

By the time that the firemen come

They just put out the flames

And took down some names

And send me to the county home.

Now I ain't sayin' it's right or it's wrong

But maybe it's the only way.

Talk about your revolution

It's Independence Day.

And as a bonus, here’s a fantastic song with the same title with a very similar idea (woman becoming independent of her abusive husband), written and recorded in 1993 by Larry Crane, former John Mellencamp guitarist:

She woke up in the usual way

A smoke and a knock on the door

Her big hero had lost his way

As he'd done a hundred times before

Should she try to smooth it out

Should she try to be his whore?

She'll just say everything's okay

Like she's done a hundred times before

But she's tired of being there

She's tired of being the fool

When it's Independence day

On Lincoln Avenue.

Now it's Independence day

On Lincoln Avenue.

Leave her hero collapsed on the floor

Couldn't take the fight no more

And she smokes alone in the dark

Like she's done a hundred times before

Woke the kids and got undressed

Said "meet me out in the car"

Well those kids were quite impressed

Another day in the park

Both those kids know that something's on

You know how children do

When it's Independence day

On Lincoln Avenue

But she knows she that tried her best

She screams till her face is blue

And she's knows exactly

What's she's got to do

And she drives down Lincoln Street

She slows down at a store

Where she bought a wedding dress

Seemed like a hundred years before

And she smiles as her old hometown

Rushes out of view

No more Independence days

on Lincoln Avenue.

I hope knowing the stories of these songs won’t spoil your Fourth of July celebrations. Instead, I hope it helps you enjoy the songs that were really meant to be patriotic a little bit more.

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