As America celebrates its 240th birthday and people from sea to shining sea gather together to say a quiet “fuck yeah” for their glorious nation, we’re taking a look at the best ever songs about the USA.
Few places have inspired as many words and songs as America, from dyed in the wool God Bless Our Glorious Nation tea party-throwing Merle Haggard groupies to the most cynical anti-America camp and everything in between. America’s sprawling cities, neverending roads, epic wilderness and tumultuous history have inspired all manner of music. So leaving out Razorlight’s ‘America’, and without getting into odes to individual states, regions, or cities (‘New York New York’, ‘Southern Man’, ‘Going To California’ etc), what are your top songs about America, pro, anti, or otherwise? Here’s ten we like.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born In The USA’
Might as well get this one out the way first. All-too-often misappropriated as an American anthem, The Boss’ best is actually a reflection on the effects of the Vietnam war. Not sure which bit of ”So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man” people misinterpret but still.
Woodie Guthrie, ‘This Land Is Your Land’
Written as a response to Irving Berlin’s overtly patriotic ‘God Bless America’ (a song so po-faced and earnest it was re-recorded by Celine Dion and put on an album of the same name as a riposte to the 9/11 attacks), Guthrie frames his track with straightforward love for his nation (”This land is your land, this land is my land / From California, to the New York Island / From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters / This land was made for you and me”) but barbs it with sarcastic lines later on, and frequently changed the words to express his communist leanings. It was still misconstrued as a sheer pro-USA anthem though.
James Brown, ‘Living In America’
Because folksy righteousness is all very good and well, but sometimes you just want a straight-up, America rocks, U-S-A sax stomp with a video full of fireworks, scenes from Rocky IV and a guy in full stars ‘n’ stripes dressing gown and top hat.
Ray Charles, ‘America The Beautiful’
If you’re going to have a U-S-A type slow jam, you may as well call in a legend to give it gravitas. One of the better “patriotic anthems” from a land that has many. Could do without that kettle drum roll at the end though.
Manic Street Preachers, ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’
Get a bit teary-eyed there? A dose of Welsh ire should set you right. While Nicky Wire told Melody Maker at the time this track wasn’t “completely anti-America”, it starts with ”images of perfection, suntan and napalm” and doesn’t exactly get very Bill O’Reilly from there on in.
David Bowie, ‘Young Americans’
Bowie described the album of the same name as “the definitive plastic soul record…the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey”, and it’s his very English take on Philly soul that makes this work so well. His version of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ aint bad either.
Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’
While any number of protest songs dealing in social inequality, racial tension, and the problems haunting the country over the last few decades could serve as a letter to America (Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ or Curtis Mayfield’s ‘(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’ for starters), the country’s unofficial poet laureate probably wrote the most timeless and universal. Had to be in, really.
The Nice, ‘America’
The proto ELP’s take on the Leonard Bernstein classic – as proggy as protest got.
The Clash, ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’
Drugs, dictatorship, Nixon, Starsky & Hutch – the band have a list the long as their arm they want to get through during the song’s two and a half minutes. You may recognise it in snippet form from Arcade Fire’s live shows.
Jimi Hendrix, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’
So that’s us out of space, with no time to mention Creedence, Don McLean, Neil Young, X, Blur, Tom Petty… What are yours? LCD’s ‘North American Scum’? Marina & The Diamonds’ ‘Hollywood’? Let’s hear them.