Monday, April 23, 2007

Misreading Rock Lyrics:

Some elitists scoff at the notion that any serious poetry can be found in rock lyrics. Well, some, arguably most rock lyrics are bad. But given the quantity of rock music, even if say 5% is good, there are a lot of "diamonds" in the "dunghill," as Jefferson would put it.

That doesn't mean that the average listener appreciates the message (or even knows the right lyrics!).

Especially with songs about America, American listeners are probably likely to assume an "up with America" message when a typical rock artist who may be cut from bohemian cloth, is likely not to impart that message. Most notably, Ronald Reagan misunderstood Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" which is not an "up with America" song. Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World folks may wrongly assume has pro-America lyrics but does not.

Black Sabbath's War Pigs has profoundly anti-war lyrics, yet many of the young metal-heads listening to the music are likely to take it as a pro-war song. During the first gulf war, the young rebels in the audience would scream things like "yeah, fuck Iraq!" and Ozzy would be like, "that's not what the song is about." Indeed, Zakk Wylde -- Ozzy's guitarist -- comes from that New Jersey metal-head blue collar, sort of northern redneck, culture (in PA, it's the Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) and is pro-war, unlike that old hippie Ozzy (isn't it cool that rockers in the same band can reasonably disagree on politics).

Kansas' "Song for America" likewise has "down with America" lyrics (but set to an upbeat tune). As a longtime fan, I've noticed many fans don't get the lyrics and the band, during the live shows, plays along and pretends it's a patriotic song! The following YouTube clip of the entire song perfectly illustrates this. The entire song is played to the picture of a waiving American flag. If you've never heard the song, it's one of the best composed, best sung progressive rock tunes, up there with the best of Yes, Genesis, and Rush.

The lyrics are reproduced below. They were written in the early 1970s and the writer, Kerry Livgren, was no doubt inspired by the hippie movement, whose critique of America and "back to nature" sentiments trace back to Rousseau. The lyrics in the song are reminiscent of Rousseau's critique of Locke.

Virgin land of forest green, dark and stormy plains, here all life abounds
Sunlit valley, mountain fields, unseen in the rain, here all life abounds
No man rules this land, no human hand has soiled this paradise
Waiting patiently, so much to see, so rich in Earth's delights

Painted desert, sequined sky, stars that fill the night, here all life abounds
Rivers flowing to the sea, sunshine pure and bright, here all life abounds
No man rules this land, no human hand has soiled this paradise
Waiting patiently, so much to see, so rich in Earth's delights

So the maiden lies in waiting, for the sails to reach the shore
Land of beauty and abundance, innocent, you opened wide your door
Wanderers found the waiting treasure, full of gifts beyond their measure
Milk and honey for our pleasure.....

Across the sea there came a multitude, sailing ships upon the wave
Filled with visions of Utopia, and the freedom that they crave
Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder
Chop the forest, plow it under.....

Highways scar the mountainsides, buildings to the sky, people all around
Houses stand in endless rows, sea to shining sea, people all around
So we rule this land, and here we stand upon our paradise,
Dreaming of a place, our weary race is ready to arise

This is certainly not in praise of America's manifest destiny!


Tom Van Dyke said...

God, I hate hippies.

Now THIS is a good song.

Jonathan said...

Loved that movie. I was quite amused by the sex scene in the unrated version. Very few things surprise me; that did.

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