Celebrating the 4th of July this year (and being grateful that we can actually go out and do so, at least to a greater extent than we could last year) had us thinking about songs that are – in some way or another – about America. To be sure, there’ve been songs about America as long as there’s been an America, and just rock ‘n’ roll has used this country, or Americanisms, as the subject of many, many popular songs (“Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys, “Living in the USA” by the Steve Miller Band and “American Girl” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are just three examples).
However, the mid-Eighties saw a very concise trend of rock songs which at the very least had “America” or “USA” in the title. It’s pretty clear which song, and artist, started it, albeit probably without meaning to do so (which we’ll get to).
Here’s our look – in order of release – of the major “America” or “USA” rock songs which were hits during this period.
“(YOU CAN STILL) ROCK IN AMERICA” – NIGHT RANGER (1984)
Released in late 1983, from the title alone this song by San Francisco AOR rockers was largely interpreted as a response to many of the British and Australian artists who were dominated the scene at the time, whom some rock fans dismissed as “pop.” Nonetheless, the song doesn’t directly address the music climate of the time, and in fact the lyrics (“Little sister by the record machine… /She’s going out, she’s gonna party tonight”) are pretty generic – not that Night Ranger was ever ground-breaking (plus, at the time, artists like The Clash, The Police, U2 and Def Leppard proved that you could still very much rock outside of America).
“BORN IN THE USA” – BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (1984)
The granddaddy of ‘em all is also one of the most misinterpreted (or possible re-interpreted) songs in rock history (by the way, we know we’re not the first people to point this out). Since it was first released as a single in 1984, the infectious chorus – and it’s thumping six notes – is still all that a lot of people focus on. Not helping the situation is that, admittedly, is that many of the words aren’t quite clear in Bruce Springsteen’s vocals. While this isn’t news to those who’s taken the time to examine the lyrics more closely (which probably includes most people reading this), the actually song is sung from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, and examines the mixed feelings he experiences upon returning home. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop then-president Ronald Reagan from trying to turn it into a campaign song… or from the floodgates opening for a trend of rock songs with “USA” or “America” in the title.
“VOA” – SAMMY HAGAR (1984)
VOA stands for “Voice of America,” a long-running international radio network. It’s also the title of Sammy Hagar’s most successful solo album (and last before joining Van Halen). The title track – and third single from the record – could well have been “America-kicks-ass” anthem that “Born in the U.S.A.” was interpreted to be (“You in the middle east, be on your toes/We’re bound to strike, everybody knows/Just tell your friends, the USSR/We’re gonna crash the party, ‘cause they’ve gone too far!”). Still, even though Sammy Hagar was known to be a patriotic American (and supporter of Ronald Reagan), the video for “VOA” makes it pretty obvious that, to a degree, the whole thing was intended to be satirical.
“THIS IS NOT AMERICA” – DAVID BOWIE/THE PAT METHENY GROUP (1985)
David Bowie would do fairly well in the early- and mid-Eighties with movie soundtrack work (Cat People, Absolute Beginners), which also included this collaboration with jazz fusion guitarist Pat Metheny for the film The Falcon and the Snowman starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. The song wouldn’t end up being among Bowie’s best-known work, but at the time did make an appearance in both the UK Top 20 and the American Top 40.
“AMERICA” – PRINCE & THE REVOLUTION (1985)
Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” Prince’s song simply titled “America” from his 1985 album Around the World in a Day with his band (at the time) the Revolution could easily have been mistaken for a patriotic anthem, based on just the chorus. In this case, it directly quotes the well-known traditional song “America the Beautiful,” but then the verses (“Little sister making minimum wage/Living in a one-room jungle monkey cage/Can’t get over it, she’s almost dead”) make it clear that this is meant to be ironic. Whether it’s because of the song’s message or in spite of it, “America” ended up as the first Prince single to miss the US Top 40 since “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” two years earlier.
“R.O.C.K. IN THE USA (A SALUTE TO 60s ROCK)” – JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP (1985)
Just the subtitle is something of a misnomer, since it’s safe to say that a couple of artists from outside of the USA also made an impact on rock in the 60s. Plus, since John Mellencamp has too-often been regarded as Springsteen’s main also-ran, it might be easy to assume that the song was an attempt to capitalize on the success of “Born in the USA.” However, John Mellencamp has stated that “R.O.C.K.” was a last-minute addition to his Scarecrow album (which mostly focused on more serious themes). And the song is, in fact, an affectionate tribute to a few of the biggest names in American pop music in the 60s: “Frankie Lymon, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder/Jackie Wilson, Shangri-Las, Young Rascals/Spotlight on Martha Reeves, let’s don’t forget James Brown.” “Forget James Brown?!” Never! In fact…
“LIVING IN AMERICA” – JAMES BROWN (1986)
The Godfather of Soul James Brown sings this song in the movie Rocky IV, as part of the pre-fight ceremony where Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), decked out in red, white and blue, is about to take on an opponent from the Soviet Union. This might suggest that the song is a gung-ho pro-American anthem (like Hagar’s), but in fact it at least a few of the lyrics indicate that it’s underlying meaning is subjective (“You might have to walk a fine line/You can take a hard line/But everybody’s working overtime”). The song also winds down with name-drops of about eight major American cities. However, probably most importantly, “Living in America” gave one of the all-time most important figures in soul and R&B a song that was both his highest-charting single in two decades, as well as the last major hit of his career.
“CALLING AMERICA” – ELO (1986)
The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) didn’t shine on the Eighties music scene quite as brightly as they did in the previous decade (band mastermind Jeff Lynne was gradually shifting focus to his work as a producer, for artists like George Harrison and Tom Petty), but still managed to have a flurry of hits. The last of them (at least in the US), “Calling America” is a bit more about calling than America: the song is mainly about communication technology (“Talk is cheap on satellite/But all I get is static information/I’m still here, re-dial on automatic”). It’s quite possible that Lynne and ELO (who are, of course, in fact British) were looking to just on the “America” song bandwagon (still, while far from their best, this track is a lot of fun).
“FOR AMERICA” – JACKSON BROWNE (1986)
Jackson Browne – another singer/songwriter who’s considered a contemporary of Bruce Springsteen – has always been fairly upfront about his own left-wing political views, both in general and in his music. “For America,” the first single from his Lives in the Balance album, is arguably the most overtly political song on this list. While a few of the more personal lyrics recall his classic “Running on Empty” (“The kid I was when I first left home/Was looking for freedom and a life of his own”), for the most part the song represents the artist calling for American – and Americans – to take a long and honest look at what was at the time their current state (“Until the land of the free/Is awake and can see/And until her conscience has been found”).
“AMERICAN STORM” – BOB SEGER & THE SILVER BULLET BAND (1986)
When Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band released the song “American Storm” as the first single from their first new album in three years (at the time), Rolling Stone in their review declared that the trend of rock songs with “America” or “USA” in the title may have officially overstayed its welcome. Bob Seger might have been aware of this himself, as he declined to title the album American Storm (naming it instead Like a Rock, after one of the other songs which appear on it). Yet the underlying irony is that “American Storm” is actually not about America at all, but in fact is about cocaine addiction. Still, the lyrics are fairly ambiguous (“You face a full-force gale/An American storm/You’re buried beneath a mountain of cold”) which probably added to the to the misinterpretation of the song based on the title.
A Look Back At The “America Rock Songs” Of The Mid-Eighties article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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