An Anthem For US,
"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.
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.
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
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
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
Another intriguing juxtaposition, from an elevation
of economic freedom to the men who died who gave that right to me.
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
And I gladly stand up
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
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
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.
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.