There Ain't
No Doubt

An Anthem For US,
Not Them

"It is as if the Puritans have reached across 300 years of American history to reclaim the society they once founded -- accepting the worst vulgarization of their beliefs if it means that, once again, God and his servants will be able to look upon America and tell the elect from the reprobate, the redeemed from the damned." - Greil Marcus, December 1980

It's fitting that Lee Greenwood's now-ubiquitous slice of heartland conservative fervor, “God Bless The USA,” began its journey toward anthem status in the Reagan administration, and completed its trajectory to the level of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America The Beautiful” during the George W. Bush era. Over the last quarter-century, Reagan and Bush have been a Muhammad Ali one-two punch for modern conservatism. They were aided by jabs here and there from Newt Gingrich and George H. W. Bush, but essentially the real movement has been about Ronnie, Dubya and their supporters.

Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980 began a long-term wave of recoiling from egalitarian values borne of the New Deal, Great Society and Sexual Revolution. And when Greenwood sat down in late 1983 to write an ode to his country, he was reflecting the emerging dominance of Reagan's America, one clearly riding that new conservative wave, for better and (mostly) for worse.
It took awhile, however, for Greenwood's 1984 country hit to attain the crossover status it enjoys today. Winning the Country Music Association's “Song Of The Year” award in 1985 may have assured the song a permanent place in the niche market of country radio, but it took a future favorable to Reagan/Bush conservatism, plus the accompanying wars and rumors of war, to vault the song into Pop Heaven.

Now, of course, it's everywhere. Baseball stadiums. American Idol. High-school music concerts. Radio Disney. In a post-9/11 America that clings to Bush's spoon-fed notions of ultimate good guys and ultimate bad guys, the black-and-white world of “God Bless The USA” fits the zeitgeist of its era as few songs ever have. The tune itself was poised for a crossover move long before the move actually happened -- the soaring hook and chorus seem musically more in the Broadway tradition that that of Nashville Opry or Countrypolitan.

“As I look over Greenwood's song-poem line by line, I get a sense that his vision, no matter how heartfelt, has an overly personalized and absolutist streak, one that may not serve the traditions of all Americans”

What typically makes or breaks a national anthem, however, is the power of the lyrics, and how well they reflect the thoughts and dreams of the citizens. Melody and arrangement should provide the proper packaging, but the lyrical fiber must be strong and must endure, else the song over time becomes less an anthem and more an anachronism. It is here, in the area of lyrics, that Greenwood's “God” becomes problematic, particularly if one insists that its ascension to anthem status is, as Martha Stewart might say, a good thing.

As I look over Greenwood's song-poem line by line, I get a sense that his vision, no matter how heartfelt, has an overly personalized and absolutist streak, one that may not serve the traditions of all Americans, regardless of their social status or personal conscience.
And as we take in the song as anthem, we ought to ask ourselves: Should an American anthem speak to and for all Americans -- and if so, does “God Bless The USA” meet that high standard? It's arguable whether any of the few American songs that have earned anthem status actually speak for everyone. Is “God Bless America” a song that atheists can embrace? Is “The Star Spangled Banner” one that pacifists can accept?
Even those two tributes to the fruited plain, “America The Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land,” pointedly allude to a creator. “America” insists that “God shed His grace on thee,” while Woody Guthrie's “Land” celebrates a topographical paradise of skyways and byways that “was made.” (By whom, we might ask -- but to Guthrie's secular credit, he didn't want to go there.)

I'd venture that these songs have earned a place in the pantheon in part for their ability to restrain the excesses of their absolutist notions. Francis Scott Key's anthem about battle doesn't glorify war (“through the perilous fight”) as much as accept its essential role in allowing the American republic to form; Irving Berlin's romanticist notion of God doesn't imply automatic penance for those who don't buy the Creator concept. Greenwood's song, in contrast, seems to proudly promote a vision that, in post-Reagan America, there is a special moral certitude about right and wrong -- and you best get with the program, my friend.

He begins by imagining that the “American Dream” of economic prosperity could conceivably be taken away from him and his family:

If tomorrow all the things were gone
I'd worked for all my life
And I had to start again,
with just my children and my wife

It's interesting that right off the bat, Greenwood has deemed the phrase “my children and my wife” worthy of inclusion in a would-be anthem. Yes, he's apparently writing about himself -- but does this speak to those without a wife and kids? Those who don't want, or can't have, a wife and kids? Do they count here?

I'd thank my lucky stars
to be livin' here today.
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can't take that away

An interesting juxtaposition, from sudden economic depravity to “the flag still stands for freedom.” Greenwood's elevating a particular element of the American freedom fabric here, that of economic freedom, the ability to seek and create one's work and wealth. No problem there – except that this is again a would-be anthem we're talking about...and is economic freedom any more important than, say, “freedom of speech” or “freedom of assembly”? If not, why don't other freedoms get similar props later in Greenwood's song?

If we herald the ability to create wealth as the “most important” freedom an individual has, what woe might come to those who dare harbor any collectivist or socialist notions? Or who are just too messed up to properly care for themselves? As these questions go unheard, the song's chorus arrives with a dramatic rush, and we learn that, naturally, Greenwood is “proud to be an American”...

...where at least I know I'm free

What does Greenwood mean here, by including the words “at least”? Is he displaying, in the Cold War atmosphere of when he wrote the song, a little defensiveness at those who would critique the vulnerabilities of a “free,” pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps economy? (“At least”....I'm not in Russia?) Again, you'd better not throw down any kind of “controlled economy” approach, however modest, in Ronald Reagan's and Lee Greenwood's America, because it can and will be seen as unpatriotic.

And I won't forget the men who died
who gave that right to me

Another intriguing juxtaposition, from an elevation of economic freedom to “the men who died who gave that right to me.”
While there certainly is inspirational value in soldiers sacrificing their lives to protect American interests -- even if the interests themselves are flawed, as they have been on occasion (Vietnam? Blood for oil?) -- the notion that our martyred soldiers “gave” us the right of freedom, economic or otherwise, is a difficult one.

Yes, bravery and sacrifice in wartime has been an indispensable part of the American saga, but so too have the contributions of statesmen, lawyers, bankers, journalists, clergy and other civilians. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration in a quiet little room, not on a battlefield; Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech was delivered in the peaceful shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, not in a scene of riot and chaos in the Deep South. Is Greenwood here giving the contributions of military patriots a greater importance than those of civilian patriots? If so, he's fitting in well with the quasi-fascistic Bush crowd, those who implore us to “support” our Commander In Chief and the missions he orders for “our” troops, no matter what.
To underscore the status the military has (or should have) in society, Greenwood proclaims:

And I gladly stand up
next to you and defend her still today

Referring to the country in the feminine pronoun is another questionable approach, vulnerable to charges of patriarchal sexism, although of course Greenwood's not the only songwriter guilty of that. (“Stand beside her / And guide her...”) He'll defend “her” still today, but I'm not sure if he means he'll take up arms if necessary, keep on singin' his anthem, or both. In any event, I wonder about the use of that word, “still.” Again, one must look at the song in the context of the times it was written. “Still”...after the foolish dreamers of post-war collectivism scarred the body politic with their quasi-socialist notions? “Still”...after a country “turned its back on God”, seeking solace in secular goals and carnal-minded habits? Greenwood doesn't seem too happy about the recent past of his country, prior to 1984.

'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA

“There ain't no doubt” Greenwood loves his country -- the homeyness of the “ain't” a nod to the country roots of the song's initial target audience. And with the big Broadway flourish, God (no need to ask which God he's talking about) is asked to bless the eminently bless-worthy United States of America.

From the lakes of Minnesota
to the hills of Tennessee

Verse two reveals Greenwood's intent to put the song on a populist pedestal, with a “This Land Is Your Land”-esque trip across the fruited plain that most anyone could enjoy. From Detroit to Houston to New York, and then to a final stop in L.A. – where everyone ends up these days, am I right people? – he declares that

there's pride in every American heart

Which was debatable in 1984 and debatable still today. But it's too late to rain on Greenwood's parade now. As was said of Bluto Blutarsky's historical errors while he tried to rally his frat brothers in Animal House, “Forget it, he's rolling.”

and its time we stand and say

Because it's “Morning in America” and all... and now please enjoy a reprise of the uplifting chorus. Standing ovations welcome.

That I'm proud to be an American...

For all its bombast, Greenwood's anthem has, in spots, enough skilled subtlety to be the envy of any GOP political spinmeister. Anti-PC notions are offered in somewhat ambiguous code; shades of problematic meaning turn almost imperceptibly on a single word or phrase. And as usual, the warm fuzzy blanket of Old Glory, sewn by a loving and just God, is a sturdy and transcendent mythology.
Love it or leave it, “God Bless The USA” is an awesome reflection of the perennial nationalistic impulse to whitewash and obfuscate, not just in America, but anywhere. All done in the name of the homeland...or, in this case, “her.”