I wrote this before the Superbowl in honor of getting Billy Joel tickets. In some weird twist of fate, I also got tickets for Jack Johnson that day. That he's here is a hell of a coincidence. I didn't put it in because I was going to put hyperlinks in, but that just takes a lot of time. Someday, I might go back to them, but I don't think so for now.
Is there a great American troubadour, someone to sing the songs of the American landscape in a voice that is not as aged and forgotten as the words of Woody Guthrie (though if the first 2 volumes of Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco have anything to say, he still had merit / indie credibility from 1998 to 2000 – we’ll forget the third one just like we did with the final Godfather)? Is there someone out there who can speak through the generations and bring us all to the table in some way that would be worthy of performing at the Super Bowl (to be honest, one would assume Bruno Mars isn’t worthy of playing at the Puppy Bowl – let alone at the Super Bowl – even if he brings the Red Hot Chili Peppers on board)?
So my question is whether there is someone out there for the son and the daughter in the same way as the mother and father and the grandmother and the grandfather or have we lost touch with the things that speak to all of us despite the distances in time between the generations.To this respect, have our niches of pop culture made it impossible to find some voice for a new national anthem? I’m not asking to eliminate the last one because it’s too warlike as some people have asked, but are we really a nation that remembers back to the War of 1812 and Francis Scott Key? The memories of that September 14, 1814, shelling are roughly 200 years ago! We can’t even trust our faithful talking heads on the prime time network news shows to help us remember in some consistent way what happened on 9.11 without drifting into conspiracy and partisan politics, so how can we remember something that wasn’t documented by the Internet, let alone the time that the British came back to America to burn our capital to the ground?
All the same, we’ve come a long way from that moment in American history, both in how Jose Feliciano transformed that song for a changing America and how Christina Aguilera butchered it by not remembering the lyrics. And let us not forget how Jimi Hendrix re-envisioned it for a new generation that is now more concerned about retirement portfolios than dancing in the mud at some New York State farm. So let us not argue anymore about whether it’s played with military marching band instruments or pop / rock arrangements.
But instead of calling for a single song, let us call for a new set of songs to reflect on who we are as a country in the here and now as based on where we’ve been and where we’re going. Let us call for a person who we can clearly identify with what we are as a people in our place in this country of ours.
In this quest, it’s clear that playing our new theme songs with a hip hop, country, and / or rawk music beat are fairly alienating unless the artist in question crosses over with some kind of pop, R+B, or rock sound. Nevertheless, let this theme song not be perpetrated on the masses with the voice and guitar of Taylor Swift.
The heartbeat of this country is just not about the tween sense of over-emotionalism. It might be about the subjective sense of emoting in 140 characters or less, but that's something different.
In this sense of propriety, it’s important to note that we need to have people or bands that can be played as enthusiastically or more energetically as when they first burst onto the scene. To do this, they need to be someone steeped in the roots of music with an appreciation for all genres. Our troubadours have to be more than just a clotheshorse, dressed up pretty for the camera with no discernible sense of lyricism or purpose in a grander scale of things. To this, there has to be more than just some airbrushed sense of orifices or appendages selling the artist. It’s also important that they be a band that uses instruments – even if they are only sampled (but preferably actual instruments that were played by the group in question).
I would think that to reflect some great American truth that they would have to be American, but there are some groups that are almost honorary Americans. AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” was made by Australians. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” David Bowie’s “5 Years,” and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” were all sang by Brits. Neil Young, despite writing songs like “Powder Finger” for Southerners like Lynyrd Sknyrd, was secretly Canadian (since that’s the in thing in music – just ask Alanis and Avril or even the talentless Muppet that is Justin Bieber).
And Van Morrison with all of his expressions of “slipping and sliding all along the waterfall with you” was Northern Irish. Nevertheless, we like to feel that he gets what it means to be American because “Brown Eyed Girl” reflects a simpler, happy go lucky place in American history than the Vietnam War that was raging across the ocean (thank you, Born on the 4th of July). And maybe that’s true, and for this, it’s a reflection of an essential expression of America, but does Van or any of these others have a solid grasp on the pre-psychedelic Pacific Ocean sensations of the American surf that the Beach Boys have? Can he express the beer swilling glory and hankering for cheeseburgers in Paradise, which is the bayside expression of Jimmy Buffett? How about the voice of the bayou that is John Fogerty and his backing band of Credence Clearwater Revival? What about Tina Turner’s voice belting out how Proud Mary is rolling on a river? And what for Bruce Springsteen’s days spent roaring out with his stadium-sized bar band for the Jersey Shore and beyond?
Whether or not they reflect vocal perfection, they’re all there singing it out loud and proud. After all, as David Berman of Silver Jews sang, “all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” Frank really could sing, but what of the gravelly voices like Dylan that just get worse and worse and worse but still reflect lyrical genius (or what we believe is genius beneath much of the obscure references)? What about the cigarette scarred expressions of guys like Joe Cocker doing his take on the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends?” And what of the anyone can be a band DIY that was the Ramones?
All of these elements reflect what can and should be with our new American anthem.
It would be nice to imagine that the true red, white and blue performers of said entrance theme song in question should have to keep going for longer than Sandy Koufax did, but if the songs in question are so powerful as to sustain life for all of these years after they are released, then perhaps the words at least belong in some copious volume of must listen to music. And just like Sandy Koufax’s metamorphosis from unused and undeveloped to flat out dealing and dominant for those last 6 seasons, if a person changing his name into a symbol or sitting endlessly in the sandbox creates a situation where it becomes impossible to ever be as amazing as those previous years of creative genius, then let us discount those “weird” days and say that here is a voice of the new America all the same (warts and all). After all, isn’t Prince’s guitar solo in the live version of “Purple Rain” just something that could go on for days? How about the beautiful harmonies of “God Only Knows” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times?” Aren’t they the definitive be all end all to genius that was Brian Wilson?
And while we’re talking about longevity, let us not measure it by an untimely early death like that of Otis, Jim, Jimi, Robert, or dare I say Janis (though if my personal taste is anything, you can have her). In this, isn’t the sad ending of Lynyrd Skynrd a more fitting punctuation mark on the extended live glory of “Free Bird” than a career that just goes on and on into the progressively more useless like some indestructible mutant Energizer Bunny? We see the songs of yesterday trashed in memory of bands that just don’t know when to stop when Ringo brings together his all-star band for one last chance to play them. If the tragic hand of fate is a better arbiter on creative genius, then let us cry our tears for Buddy, the Bopper, and Richie. It’s better than seeing classic songs like “Dream On” being turned into an American Idol sideshow. After all, isn’t this everything that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith has done since Run DMC gave “Walk This Way” more purpose than it ever had without Rick Rubin’s creative touch?
For that matter, imagine if Elvis’s bloated self was allowed to exist in the here and now. Sure, he’d guest on The Voice, but would anyone care?
And yes, it’s sad but true that many performers didn’t die before they got old, as was the promise by honorary American / Brit rockers The Who, and yes, it’s even truer that reunion tours pay lots and lots of money (because their tickets costs lots of money), which makes up for spending sprees by people living like it was the 1970s despite the fact that they haven’t been current in 20 plus years, but in the end, we can’t all be celebrating the American compilation genius of Cameron Crowe by breaking out “Tiny Dancer” for the first time in 1971. And yes, we can’t always have the full original band available for renditions of “Box of Rain,” but that doesn’t mean that songs like this shouldn’t still float through the American night like they did back in 1970 (oh, to live out the scene in Freaks and Geeks where they talk about wishing they had never heard it so that they could hear it again for the first time to feel how transcending it really was).
But sadly, that eradication of memory won’t be, so we’ll have to play “Box of Rain” for the 1,000th time to hear how great it still is after all of these listens.
In the same way as these other singers used to be fresh and full of life performers, the Rolling Stones will never again be as relevant as they were in the 1970s when they were out touring in support of discs like Exile on Main Street and Some Girls, but we almost forgive them their sins of sticking around to keep overcharging for their status symbol whitewashing of the back catalog tours since those discs from the mid to late 1960s and 1970s just seem so raucous and snarling in the best possible way – even if they’re now played by geriatrics looking to squeeze out any last drops of profit from the cash cow of musical capitalism.
For is it not true that the angst of a band like the Stones, someone loud and dangerous (in their original form of people and lyrics) - definitely not the geriatric now), isn't this all of what it means to be rock and roll with the Martin Scorsese era hazy darkness and the Gram Parsons twang mixed with the outright theft of African American 1950s rock and roll as performed by 2 guys who came to hate each other but who knew that it wasn’t financially lucrative to not be linked together? They will always be “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Altamont, and 2 giant lips even if they’ve been reduced to a Maroon 5 / Christina Aguilera punch line of a comeback hit since Mick Jagger was a giant phallus ready to be plunged into any orifice that would receive him long before Perry Farrell came around.
But for all that the Rolling Stones have stolen from America, for Queen and country or whatever other reason they might give, they are not Americans. Their words are our songs, but they are not our troubadours. Nevertheless, it’s imperative that we bring them out of the mothball storage containers every now and then to hear their songs in the same way that we do with other American bands singing songs like “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” “More Than a Feeling,” “The Joker,” “Dust in the Wind,” “The End,” “8 Miles High,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Idiot Wind,” “Axis Bold As Love,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Take It Easy,” and “Everyday People.”
Oh yes, there are others, too. There are so many bands that have played through the 1970s into the 1980s and on to the 1990s, who have come to express our American truth. Nevertheless, I would think we would have to stop at that line in the sand to look at who is truly “classic rock.” In this, I’m not ready to call Nirvana by this moniker, despite Nevermind being released in 1991 shortly after I had seen them destroy stale convention with their performance at the Reading Festival in 1991. It is true that they are what rock has become (and I like that). Their songs are classic, but they aren’t ready to belong to that dinosaur that is the classic rock station (no matter how good its songs are). Neither are bands like R.E.M., who do more to represent something that never wanted to be stadium rock (theoretically of course), though it wanted legions of fans. Neither are any of the alternative bands, grunge bands, hair bands, or even the cowboys and rappers that create legions of fans – no matter how many times Eddie Vedder covers them or stands beside them at music industry sponsored awards shows.
There are still voices from the past that sang and made it all true. The “Super Bad” James Brown getting down while John Denver was getting “rocky mountain high” in much the same way that Frank Sinatra got a “kick out of you.” Their voices will be as true as the Man in Black’s cries of injustice, love, murder, God, and drunken furor, but all the same, their time will have passed too soon as it shuffles off toward the same forever that Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and so many touchstones of the last 40-50 years gravitate toward as they look to become a Life Magazine album of photographic memories when their life force finally gives way.
These once great artists will vanish onto all-time greatest lists for a more discerning people to discover, but in the now, there will only be pop drivel. There will be the same 10-20 artists at a time circulating 20-30 songs at a time. We will milk these songs for 3-6 months each, until the artists in question choose to release another song and then we're lucky to ever remember that mp3 we had to have again. We will recoup our advertising and expense budget by playing their “songs” ad infinitum. There will be many dance grooves. There will be token rock artists. There will be newer and newest, but there will be very little in the way of staying power, at least that we’re not in some way indebted to.
And yes, it is true that we will memorialize and crown some of what these voices in our canon of American music sing, but are they the only choices out there for us? Can’t we find someone who truly means something (to the larger world - because I can find a hell of a lot of singers that mean a lot to me) from the last 30 or so years instead?
Can’t we let the stadium bands be those who fought for the heartbeat of America? Be they John Cougar / Mellencamp / Cougar Mellencamp and his little “Pink Houses,” at least until he tried to declare it “our country” while making a deal with the crypt keeper to let him out only at Farm Aid? Can’t we let them be the “Free Fallin” Tom Petty and his “American Girl?”
But more than anyone, I offer the simplicity and genius of Billy Joel. And what of Billy Joel and his piano assault from the late 1970s and early 1980s? He even went so far as to sing a history lesson for baby boomers while reflecting their desire to still be cool while being forced into the early adulthood / middle age reflections of everything from “Movin’ Out” to “Piano Man” to “Captain Jack” to “The Entertainer” and into “Still Rock and Roll to Me.” He reflected our loves gained and those we lost and those we never had while still pining for the beautiful moments of love lost that still ring true even when that person is no longer filling our arms. He sang of our memories of war and how we would “all go down together” in “Goodnight Saigon” while crashing through our midlife neuroses that we would have to deal with and that we could not deal with in “Pressure.” He compared himself to Billy the Kid as he carried a “6 pack in his hand” as the word spread of who he was going to be as he grew into more than the Cold Spring Harbor bar band days could ever leave him to imagine. He was the bad 1970s haircut that became the balding man who tried to give it one more go with a woman half his age. And yes, “Piano Man” is the sing-along that takes us back to the every bar, but perhaps his crowning American moment is “Allentown” and its plight of everything that we thought our futures and America’s future would be, but then it was kicked in the ass by the early stages of globalization. Maybe it’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and the marriage and divorce and the midlife changes and rebounds that take us out of our funk with memories, futures, and how someone could “look so fine after so much time.” Maybe it’s the homage to the past in his songs… those Christie Brinkley songs and the hopes of “The Longest Time” or his late era “River of Dreams.”
There are so many reasons. We all know his words, and we can sing along to his melodies, but that said, I get why he just isn’t cool enough – even if he is. He's a lot cooler than most people out there today. Granted, the new song by the Hold Steady ("I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You") is really good (as is Low Cut Connie's Nielsson cover song "Jump into the Fire"), but are the tales of Charlemagne in sweatpants and Holly the hood rat really half time material (at least Gorilla wasn't half time material).
So with that, if we must go for current, can’t we make them be guys like Jack Johnson? He’s actually American as compared to his sidekick Dave Matthews (who is actually South African and who actually doesn’t have anything to say unless he’s playing with Tim Reynolds), and he reflects the summer sun, happy love songs of the here and now. We can be eating banana pancakes while everything is better when we’re together. We can go from playing mud football to having bubble toes. We can relive our childhood with songs from our preschool days or reflect on our preferences for who we want to be with us making us better when we’re broken down. We can lament the ones and zeroes, Taylor, what’s gone going, and the static while we’re wishing we were listening to the surf crash into our beautiful moments that we wish would last forever. His music offers an upbeat feeling of not taking itself seriously even when he takes his loves and affections and hopes and dreams and wishes and causes to heart, and yes, it’s true that it may get too mellow to play a Super Bowl, but surely, he offers a voice that’s something more than the many post-wardrobe malfunction offerings of even the best and brightest of our talents from the glory days of rock to the household name now.
And while much of what I listen to (the Polyphonic Spree, Neutral Milk Hotel, Hold Steady, Okkervil River, Phish, Slayer, and other indie + rock + classic rock bands) don’t represent that place in America today, maybe bands like Train with its love of 1980s nostalgia in songs like “Hey Soul Sister,” “Drops of Jupiter,” and “If It’s Love” do. Maybe America is Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” which replaced “New York, New York” at the Belmont Stakes. I get that even if it's goodbye Frank.
There is hope out there for what America can be through its song. We may not find some Woody Guthrie type character that we can magically associate with us, but we can find our national voice in the songs that we sing, without the political mumbo jumbo and over-inflated patriotism of Lee Greenwood types and their jukebox performances designed to emit tears in MWR eateries. Give us joy. Fill us with nostalgia for our history and hope for our future.
Let it all flow through to something positive and good that can help us find our America again (and where better to find it than through our artists?).
Perhaps, in answer to the question, music is America.