Peter Schilling – (Let’s Play) USA

This is a manic, repetitive, garage band-chorded new wave vamp with a melody limited in “tessitura” – the range of notes. With irony, the lyrics question American values and policies relating to firearms, the environment, declining literacy… and more.

Schilling is German.

Should the validity and persuasive force of political criticism from foreigners carry more or less weight?

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James Brown – Living In America

The Godfather of Soul had a late-career hit in 1985, somehow managing to transcend his vocal delivery mannerisms that by this time were routinely sampled by various other artists. The upbeat spirit of the song would seem to counteract the typical popular music critiques of the American Dream. James Brown grunts and moans about the benefits of modern transportation that make seeing his country so easy, and how on such a journey one can discover themselves.

U2 – The Hands That Built America

For the Gangs of New York movie soundtrack, U2 sang in 2002 about a laundry list of issues concerning the USA.

While the lyrics are a little vague, the first verse is said to be partly concerned with the Irish Potato Famine/Great Famine (1840s-1850s) in which about a million Irish died and as much left, many for the USA. ┬áThe song also gets into the American Dream – the ethos that rolling up one’s sleeves in a land of equal opportunity can bring success. Various ethnicities are listed as being the immigrants that made the country what it is. As if that doesn’t cover enough, 9/11 is thrown in for good measure at the end.

Perhaps the song is a first year university survey course on issues that U2 were thinking about in 2002… but inspiration to turn each part into a separate song did not materialize.

A search for “American Dream” at right will bring up several other songs on this topic.

Phil Ochs – Power And Glory

Things could be better, folkie Phil Ochs notes in this 1964 protest song. After citing what’s great about the USA, he lets us know that not all are free if poor, and that some detract from the majesty of the land by spreading their fear, hate and even treason.

Now, let’s acknowledge from the lyrics that some are padlocked in prison for committing crimes against others, but the rest of the song is a Woody Guthrie-styled critique of the American dream. The equality of opportunity for all to succeed may be hampered through the actions of others. We can note the singer still loves his country and finds within it the structure for improvement and betterment. Sadly, Ochs took his own life in 1976.

Willie Nelson – Living In The Promiseland

Willie Nelson recorded this song that was No. 1 on the country charts in 1986.

The “Promised Land” is a religious term, which can mean land promised to a people by God, and to Mormons, the continental USA.

The lyrics to this song cop several Biblical lines, and appear to be about an America that needs to continue caring about people, especially immigrants seeking the American Dream. ┬áThat there is room for everyone is a multicultural message, even if the Christianity of the song may not jive with new Americans that reject this faith. It is far easier to advocate than achieve and deliver acceptance, yet important for all to love they neighbor. Beyond this, blank acceptance of all dreams can lead to a meaningless sense of nationalism for a country. The song extols the need for all to enjoy their freedom, which when one’s expressions impinge on the activities of others, makes living in such a Promise Land a bumpy endeavour.

Simon And Garfunkel – Richard Cory

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem from the 1890s of the same name is the inspiration for this song performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, from their 1966 record, Sounds of Silence. It is written by Simon.

Money can’t buy happiness appears to be the obvious message of the tune, which has a narrator take his life despite being a successful man. And that we shouldn’t make judgements based on appearances. And other high school English-level epiphanies.

Bigger picture, perhaps the message is critical of the American Dream, a belief in success coming from hard work. The Declaration of Independence proclaims all people equal, and thus able to achieve their ambitions through gumption.

Now, before you get all excited, this is easier said than done. No doubt many fail to live up to the American Dream ethos. That’s fine if they try, try again. Yet some fall short through no fault of their own and are held back by external barriers beyond their control (racism, sexism, disability…). What does this say about the individualism of America?

And in Richard Cory we still find a man that had it all, and didn’t want it, couldn’t take it? The song may be suggesting that the American Dream is flawed at the core as much as in its practice and application. Very biting criticism, even if from songwriters who are entrepreneurial self-starters themselves.

Oddly, this cover replaces Richard Cory for folkie John Denver.