Forget about baseball; America’s favorite pastime is undoubtedly talking about America. For proof, just turn on the TV during any election cycle, and witness the unseemly spectacle of two grown men (it’s almost always men) arguing over who loves America more. Maybe it’s because we’re still the youngest world power, and haven’t yet tasted enough of the disappointment and defeat that breeds humility (or at least taciturn bitterness) in older nations. But the specter of patriotism–and the accompanying anxiety over whether one is patriotic enough, leading to still more unseemly spectacles, such as star-spangled Speedos–looms so high in American life that it’s no surprise it has emerged as a certain obsession in popular music. From “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the only thing we like to hear more than Americans talking about America is other Americans singing about it.
This Independence Day, though, we’re going to go off the beaten path a bit. The 20 songs on this Dystopian Dance Mix are all about America, but they’re not all about chest-beating patriotism (though a few of them are). Instead, they examine our great nation from a variety of perspectives: some celebratory, some ambiguous, some deeply critical, and some frankly seditious. None of the songs on the list necessarily reflect our own views on the U.S. of A. But we can, at least, endorse them as some pretty kick-ass songs…and that’s what America is all about: kickin’ ass.
1. The Mothers of Invention: “Plastic People”
(from Absolutely Free, 1967)
We start with an acerbic satire from one of the most reliably acerbic satirists in pop music history: Frank Zappa, who began his recording career in 1966 with the Mothers of Invention’s counterculture manifesto Freak Out! before turning his withering gaze on mainstream America with the following year’s Absolutely Free. The album’s opening track, “Plastic People,” begins with a deadpan impersonation of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson by Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group”), before the band launches into their mocking, kazoo-driven revision to “Hail to the Chief“: an interpolation of the Kingsmen’s frat-rock scorcher “Louie Louie.” It’s an odd pairing, to say the least, but one that makes sense in Zappa’s sardonic worldview: “straight” politics and three-chord pop are two sides of the same coin, “plastic” junk culture designed to keep middle-class Americans dull and docile. This was a fairly novel critique in a mid-’60s America still outwardly enthralled by the numbing comforts of suburban petite bourgeois life, and Zappa isn’t letting anyone off the hook: he admonishes the listener, “Take a day and walk around / Watch the Nazis run your town / Then go home and check yourself / You think we’re singin’ ’bout someone else.”
2. OutKast featuring Khujo: “Gasoline Dreams”
(from Stankonia, 2000)
Zappa’s satire definitely has teeth, but it’s nowhere near as inflammatory as another opening track released 33 years later by Atlanta rappers OutKast. André 3000 and Big Boi don’t waste their time calling out the president or his fellow “plastic people,” but go straight for the jugular: “burn, motherfucker, burn, American Dream.” It isn’t just for shock value, though: “Gasoline Dreams” is a fiery (pardon the pun) protest song in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (and Public Enemy), a scathing critique of an America that promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all its citizens, but leaves far too many out on the basis of race. “The highway up to Heaven got a crook on the toll,” 3000 proclaims, applying religious metaphors to underline the depth of human corruption beneath American opportunity. Perhaps the most stirring verse is by guest Khujo of OutKast compatriots the Goodie Mob, who paints a picture of African Americans as strangers in a strange land, surrounded by hostility but with nowhere else to turn: “If they kick us out, where will we go? / Not to Africa, ’cause not one of them acknowledge us as their kin folk.” America may be a kind of purgatory for its underclasses, Khujo suggests, but it’s also the closest thing they have to a home.
3. James Brown: “Living in America”
(from Gravity, 1986)
Remember back in the introduction when I said not all the songs on this list would be about chest-beating patriotism? Well, this is one of the few that are. Written by ex-Edgar Winter Group bassist Dan Hartman and songwriter/producer Charles Kaufman, a.k.a. Charlie Midnight, “Living in America” debuted on the soundtrack for 1985’s profoundly Cold War-era Rocky IV, in which Sylvester Stallone’s perpetual scrappy underdog Rocky Balboa slugs it out for democracy with Dolph Lundgren’s stone-faced Soviet champion Ivan Drago. As a declaration of American exceptionalism, it’s pretty banal stuff–“take that, Russkies, we’ve got smokestack, fatback, and many miles of railroad track!”–but as a funky James Brown track, it’s…well, I’m actually not convinced it was meant to be listened to, so much as blared at sporting events until the end of time. Still, we all know ’80s music audiences couldn’t resist a good series of shout-outs to major cities, and this song’s got ’em: as Brother James puts it, “You may not be looking for the promised land / But you might find it anyway / Under one of those old familiar names, like / New Orleans, Detroit City, Dallas / Pittsburg, PA, New York City / Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago, and L.A.”
4. MC5: “The American Ruse”
(from Back in the USA, 1970)
Detroit’s MC5 weren’t just one of the hardest-rocking bands of the late ’60s; they were also one of the most politically rabble-rousing, with no less a personage than White Panther Party co-founder John Sinclair serving as their manager. “The American Ruse,” from their 1970 sophomore album Back in the USA, is an electrifying missive from a bunch of disaffected young radicals coming up against the force of American state power: “I learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance / Before they beat me bloody down at the station / They haven’t got a word out of me since / I got a billion years probation,” singer Rob Tyner yelps before guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith fires off a rollicking solo to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And they end the song with a Malcolm X-quoting call to arms engineered to put some fear into the straights: “But I can see the chickens comin’ home to roost / Young people everywhere are gonna cook their goose / Lots of kids are working to get rid of these blues / ‘Cause everybody’s sick of the American ruse.”
5. Elvis Costello: “Crawling to the U.S.A.”
(from Americathon, 1979; available on This Years Model Deluxe Edition)
So far, every song on the list has been by an American artist, but we all know that nobody has more opinions about America than Europeans. Still, considering what a notorious curmudgeon Elvis Costello was in the ’70s–don’t even get him started on Ray Charles or James Brown–his “Crawling to the U.S.A.” is a surprisingly benign, if cryptic, expression of the anxieties of an English new-waver on the cusp of American success: “You had better not go too far / There’s one way out, there’s only one way / Leave your mother and your father / Crawling to the U.S.A.” The chorus perfectly captures the world-devouring hugeness of American pop culture, and the tension that exists for foreign artists between “breaking America” without, to quote another Costello song, “turning into Americans.” But it’s the final verse, with its spy-movie undertones predicting Costello’s next album Armed Forces, that injects a note of darkness and suggests that, for all its ideological and economic might, America isn’t the only world power in town: “She said, ‘I catch you taking liberties and they do not impress me’ / ‘Attach me to your credit card and then you can undress me’ / Everybody is on their knees except the Russians and the Chinese.” Who better than the original imperialists to remind us arrogant Yanks of the impermanence of American imperialism ?
6. Public Enemy: “Louder Than a Bomb”
(from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988)
You could almost choose a track at random from the catalogue of agit-rappers Public Enemy and come up with a critique of the White American establishment powerful enough to make this list. But my personal favorite is their 1988 album cut “Louder Than a Bomb,” mainly for its opening paraphrase of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by none other than a pre-reality TV, pre-fried chicken franchise Flava Flav: “Picture us cooling out on the Fourth of July / And if you heard we were celebrating, that’s a worldwide lie!” The track itself is vintage late-’80s P.E., with an assaultive Bomb Squad production that lives up to the song’s name while Chuck D rails against federal investigators for keeping him under surveillance–and, with lines like “Your CIA, you say I ain’t kiddin’ / Both King and X, they got rid of both,” arguably demonstrating how he earned that file in the first place. There are many reasons why Public Enemy still represents the gold standard of political hip-hop; “Louder Than a Bomb” is one of those reasons.
7. The Flying Burrito Brothers: “My Uncle”
(from The Gilded Palace of Sin, 1969)
One of the best things about country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers is how they can sound like they’d fit right in being piped into a Cracker Barrel lobby, while also singing lyrics that would make my own (admittedly heavily stereotyped) mental image of an average Cracker Barrel patron choke on their grits and gravy. Take, for example, the draft dodger’s anthem “My Uncle,” which finds Burrito Brothers Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons planning to shirk their debt to Uncle Sam: the chorus goes, “I’m headin’ for the nearest foreign border / Vancouver may be just my kind of town / ‘Cause they don’t need the kind of law and order / That tends to keep a good man underground.” It’s the kind of countercultural sentiment that shocked the country music establishment of the time, but also opened the doors for the outlaw movement of the early 1970s; and whatever your feelings on compulsory military service, you have to admit that there’s nothing more American than an outlaw.
8. The 2 Live Crew: “Banned in the U.S.A.”
(from Banned in the U.S.A., 1990)
Some groups, like the aforementioned Public Enemy, instantly come to mind when you think of politicized hip-hop. Miami’s 2 Live Crew is definitely not one of those groups. But after their controversial 1989 breakthrough album As Nasty as They Wanna Be was deemed obscene and banned from sale in several Florida counties, 2 Live unleashed “Banned in the U.S.A.”: a surprisingly articulate defense of the constitutional right to freedom of expression from the group that gave us “Face Down Ass Up.” Over a sample from Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 anthem “Born in the U.S.A.“–hey, nobody ever accused 2 Live Crew of subtlety–Brother Marquis raps, “The First Amendment gave us freedom of speech / So what you sayin’? It didn’t include me?” And at the song’s conclusion, as the Crew’s leader Luke gives his impassioned speech and a medley of patriotic songs swells beneath him, you can practically see the stars and stripes waving in the background in slow motion: “The simple fact of it all is that we are bonded by the First Amendment! We have the freedom of expression! We have the freedom of choice! And you Chinese, Black, green, purple, Jew, you have the right to listen to whoever you want to, and even the 2 Live Crew! So all you right-wingers, left-wingers, bigots, Communists, there is a place for you in this world! Because this is the land of the free, the home of the brave…and 2 Live is what we are!”
9. Ice Cube: “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”
(from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, 1990)
Even by the release of his first solo album in 1990, Ice Cube was no stranger to controversy; his short-lived but vastly influential group N.W.A. had already brought “gangsta rap” to the mainstream, and scared the shit out White America in the process. “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” the title track from that solo debut, both reinforces why Ice Cube’s music was so controversial and reveals a greater sociopolitical depth than his critics were willing to credit him with. On the one hand, “Most Wanted” is pretty typical gangsta talk, with plenty of references to his “9” and keeping “one in the chamber”; but on the other hand, Cube’s use of the spelling “AmeriKKKa” suggests he’s under police pressure for more than just his doing “so much dirt [he needs] to be in the Guinness Book.” The song’s closing lines make the point loud and clear: “I think back when I was robbin’ my own kind / The police didn’t pay it no mind / But when I start robbin’ the white folks / Now I’m in the pen wit’ the soap-on-a-rope / I said it before and I’ll still taught it / Every motherfucker with a color is most wanted.” It’s a shrewd analysis of the mounting racial tensions and police brutality that would soon explode in Cube’s own South Central L.A. neighborhood.
10. Parliament: “Chocolate City”
(from Chocolate City, 1975)
Most of the songs by African American artists so far have focused on the alienating experience of being Black in America: the sense of being in but not of the country that W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed double consciousness. But in Parliament’s “Chocolate City”–named for the U.S. capitol of Washington, DC, which by the mid-1970s had reached a majority Black population–the overriding theme is one of gleeful empowerment, best represented by the song’s chanted refrain of “Gainin’ on ya!” “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too, can you dig it, CC?” George Clinton raps at the beginning of the song. He even goes so far as to imagine a new U.S. administration, with Muhammad Ali as President, prosperity preacher “Reverend Ike” as Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Pryor as “Minister of Education,” Stevie Wonder as “Secretary of Fine Arts,” and “Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady.” It’s an infectious holdover from the post-Black Power, pre-crack epidemic days when it seemed like the sky might actually be the limit for African Americans. And hey, we still have a Black President, so that’s something, right?
11. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: “This Land is Your Land”
(from Naturally, 2005)
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” may be the greatest song ever written about America, but decades of it being reduced to a dull elementary school sing-along have done it no favors. Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin’s cloyingly conservative “God Bless America,” and the writer’s Leftist politics are clear throughout, especially in the oft-omitted verse about private property: “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / Sign was painted, it said ‘Private Property’ / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing / This land was made for you and me.” The song in its unexpurgated form is a defiant declaration of true, small-“d” democracy as a fundamental American principle: “This land is made for you and me” means us, the American people, not government or corporations (something the U.S. Supreme Court would apparently do well to remember). By coupling Guthrie’s lyrics with a radically different arrangement, hearkening back to the early ’70s glory days of politically conscious soul music–not to mention putting his then-65-year-old words in the mouth of an African American woman–this 2005 cover by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings gives the classic song a new lease on life and allows us to hear it again with fresh ears. It’s still as relevant as it was the day it was written. And yes, Jones does sing the “private property” verse.
12. The Rolling Stones: “Rip This Joint”
(from Exile on Main St., 1972)
The Stones were always the most “American” of the so-called “British Invasion” groups, and never more so than on their 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main St. “Rip This Joint” begins with Mick Jagger placing himself in the boots of a rough-and-tumble good ol’ boy about to “raise hell at the Union Hall” (presumably at a Stones concert), before launching into a fever-dream narrative of the band’s own vagabond lifestyle: “Mister President, Mister Immigration Man / Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land / I’m Tampa bound and Memphis too / Short Fat Fannie is on the loose / Dig that sound on the radio / Then slip it right across into Buffalo / Dick and Pat in ol’ D.C. / Well, they’re gonna hold some shit for me.” It’s exactly the kind of song you’d expect to hear from a bunch of debauched English rock stars “exiled” in the South of France and dreaming about America, and it’s rock’n’roll-Kerouac vision of the States as a massive playground is infectious even 42 years later.
13. Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Fortunate Son”
(from Willy and the Poor Boys, 1969)
One of the best-known protest songs of the Vietnam Era, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” finds writer John Fogerty taking aim at the inequities in the United States military draft, which allowed “Senator’s sons” to evade armed service while working-class men were disproportionately shipped to the front lines. Fogerty took particular inspiration in the 1968 wedding of 20-year-old David Eisenhower, the grandson of former president Dwight Eisenhower, and Julie Nixon, the daughter of then-newly-elected President Richard Nixon: he later told Rolling Stone, “you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war.” The song has perhaps suffered from overexposure due to being included in seemingly every Vietnam-era movie ever made, but it’s still a vital referendum on the hypocrisy of “chickenhawk” politicians and the influence of class on the perceived value of American lives.
14. Prince: “Free”
(from 1999, 1982)
You wouldn’t expect it from looking at him, but Prince was quite the Cold Warrior in his day. On his 1981 album Controversy, he pled with then-President Ronald Reagan to “talk to Russia…before they blow up the world”; on 1985’s Around the World in a Day, he led the Revolution in a psych-funk jam that pronounced, apparently with a straight face, that “Communism is just a word / But if the government turn over / It’ll be the only word that’s heard.” “Free,” from his classic 1982 double album 1999, is the most palatable of Prince’s mid-’80s patriotic songs, largely because it wisely keeps things vague: “Be glad that U are free / Free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere, anytime / Be glad that U are free / There’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had, baby, what U got.” Like all the best ideological messages, “Free” keeps its truisms warm, fuzzy, and obvious, readily identified with by anyone no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. I mean, what is “freedom” for Prince, anyway? I’m gonna guess it’s the freedom to grow a wispy moustache and run around in black bikini underpants. And that’s the kind of freedom we can all get behind.
15. Neil Young: “Rockin’ in the Free World”
(from Freedom, 1989)
Between Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the ’80s were prime time for heartland rock songs expressing ambivalent views of America. In Young’s case, those views were so ambivalent that they both inspired agit-prop documentarian Michael Moore to use them in his 2004 anti-war film Fahrenheit 9/11 and made him uncomfortable enough to excise the line “Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them” for its resonances with War on Terror discourse. But that’s pretty much par for the course for Young, who penned lefty anthems like 1970’s anti-Nixon “Ohio” before taking a sharp right turn to back Reagan in the early ’80s. “Rockin’ in the Free World,” for its part, is equal-opportunity in its Cold War paranoia: Young seems equally distressed by the “thousand points of light for the homeless man”–a reference to Reagan’s enormously expensive Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars“–and the crack mother who abandons her baby in a garbage can. The message is basically that life in late-’80s America was fucked up; and, between AIDS and the Gulf War, it’s kinda hard to argue with that.
16. Jay-Z and Kanye West: “Made in America”
(from Watch the Throne, 2011)
As many critics have pointed out, one of the justifications for Jay-Z’s and Kanye West‘s notoriously materialistic collaboration Watch the Throne was the way its endless references to wealth and power presented an aspirational African American narrative: it was the musical equivalent, in ways both good and bad, to Jay’s infamous declaration that his “presence is charity.” The cornerstone of this interpretation is “Made in America,” in which Kanye and Jay recite their respective rags-to-riches stories alongside a Frank Ocean hook namechecking Black heroes Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and–somewhat confusingly–Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Jay’s verse is the most compelling, mainly because his rags-to-riches story has the more authentic “rags” segment: “Our apple pie was supplied through Arm and Hammer,” he raps, referencing both the American Dream cliché and one of the principal ingredients for the crack cocaine he supported his family by selling as a teenager. “I got my liberty chopping grams up / Street justice, I pray God understands us / I pledge allegiance to all the scramblers / This is the Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a version of the National Anthem that may not sit well with many, but it’s hard to deny that Shawn Carter is his own kind of uniquely American hero: if going from drug dealer to multi-millionaire entrepreneur isn’t pulling himself up by his bootstraps, then what is?
17. Talking Heads: “The Big Country”
(from More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978)
Plenty of things come to mind when you think about Talking Heads: oversized suits, CBGB, beautiful houses with beautiful wives. Usually, though, Americana isn’t one of those things. But that’s exactly the sound and the subject of “The Big Country,” the closing track from the quintessential New York art-punk band’s 1978 sophomore album More Songs About Buildings and Food. It’s a suitably alienated take on both the enormity and banality of the America beyond NYC’s metropolitan bubble, which singer David Byrne only seems comfortable observing from the window of an airplane: “I guess it’s healthy, I guess the air is clean / I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends / Look at that kitchen and all of that food / Look at them eat it, I guess it tastes real good.” The song is in many ways contemptuous of “The Big Country” and the people in it: as Byrne sings in the chorus, “I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do / I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” But in the end, one begins to suspect that the problem lies with Byrne’s narrator himself: “I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane / I am tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.” Years later, Byrne would present a more sympathetic, albeit equally quirky view of middle America with his film True Stories. In a way, though, I kind of like the honesty of his perspective on America when he isn’t even trying to like it.
18. Spın̈al Tap: “America”
(from This is Spın̈al Tap, 1984)
Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary This is Spın̈al Tap is not just a parody of the excesses of rock and roll culture; it is also, in its own way, a parody of the classic American road movie, in which the clueless British heavy metal has-beens make their way across the United States to increasingly less flattering situations: the moment when they hit rock-bottom, playing second billing to a puppet show at an amusement park amphitheater in Stockton, California, is especially priceless. So it’s a shame that “America” didn’t make it into the film, since its dopey lyrics paint such an entertaining inversion of the actual events: “We came like babies / From our home across the sea to see America / And the people opened up their arms / To welcome us to America.” The fact that it also serves as a parody of Neil Diamond’s equally dopey, but completely straight-faced 1981 song, also called “America,” is just a nice bonus.
19. Gil Scott-Heron: “Comment #1”
(from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, 1970; available on The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters)
“Comment #1”–so named, writer Gil Scott-Heron explains, because “Comment #2” would be in the form of “dynamite”–is one of the fiercest expressions of Black revolutionary thought in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that’s saying something. Recorded live at a Harlem nightclub on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, backed only by a stark conga beat, Scott-Heron pulls no punches in his vicious indictment of America’s history of white supremacy: “America was a bastard / The illegitimate daughter of the mother country / Whose legs were then spread around the world / And a rapist known as freedom–free doom.” He also has some choice words for white New Left activists (or “pale face SDS motherfuckers,” in his parlance) who won’t “find their own revolution” and claim to understand the African American struggle for self-determination: while they are “fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age / Less lip from his generation gap and fucking in the street / Where is my parallel to that? / All I want is a good home and a wife and a children / And some food to feed them every night… I say you silly trite motherfucker / Your great-grandfather tied a ball and chain to my balls / And bounced me through a cotton field / While I lived in an unflushable toilet bowl / And now you want me to help you overthrow what?” They’re harsh words, to be sure, but powerful ones–so powerful, in fact, that several sections of the poem, including its rousing repeated coda of “Who will survive in America?”, were reused to great effect 40 years later by Kanye West on his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
20. Leon Russell: “Masters of War”
(from Leon Russell, 1970)
Another blunt–if decidedly less aggressive–protest song, Leon Russell’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” makes its point not with words so much as with ironic juxtaposition: singing the opening verse of Dylan’s excoriating 1963 anti-war anthem to the tune of the American National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The implication is clear, and the question it poses is still relevant today: do we want America to be a great country as “Masters of War,” or as a beacon of democracy? Do we want to build up our people, or just “death planes” and “bombs”? Russell’s “Masters of War” is certainly critical, and rightfully so, of American foreign policy during the height of the Vietnam War, but it’s hardly an anti-American statement; instead. it sounds a cautionary note of what America might become if we abandon our better values and chase after brute power. So while we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence this year, let’s not only repeat the usual platitudes about how America is the greatest nation in the world, but also remember why that is: because we are a nation founded and governed “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” America is a great country, but it ain’t because of baseball or apple pie. It’s a great country because it’s our country; let’s keep it that way.