Helena Torres (2010-1 y 2010-2) preparó y comparte una especie de soundtrack del curso. La organización y los comentarios introductorios también son de Helena.

America is

What is America? That was the question of our course: I tried to explain with John Mellencamp’s song, which I include here, yet, I place it together with one of the most beautiful songs by Bruce Springsteen, a song about moving from one place to another, looking for an ideal, for a perfect world, though perhaps ruining it later: an idea of movility I saw in America with the pilgrims, the west-goers, the slave holders, the hippies, the sad, the abused. They are all looking for Thunder Road: when they leave this town of losers, they’ll win. I consider that something very important in order to understand America.

Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road

John Mellencamp, Pink Houses


John Mellencamp is an American singer of Dutch origin, who is more widely known in mainstream radio as John Cougar, because of his hit song “Hurts so Good”. Yet, only knowing him as this incarnation forbids us to see what he really is: a songwriter who sought to be a kind of Bruce Springsteen for a younger generation, in the sense that he wanted to write songs that spoke about life in America, just like Springsteen, and that his songs have sometimes been mistaken for all-American patriotic anthems, just like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Whether Mellencamp deserves a comparison to Springsteen only a great music critic can tell, but, he has some great songs indeed, and the song I want to share with you is one of them.

The song’s name is “Pink Houses” and I did not choose it just because of personal reasons: I chose it because, since the beginning of the course, we have been discussing and wondering what is American. Of course, I do not think the song holds the answer to that question, but it gives us another kind of insight. We, as foreigners, are used to the idea of America being the powerful country, the “empire”. This song shows America from the inside, from the perspective of people who live in it, from the windows of pink houses. So, I think the song has a very interesting contrast between this perspective and the perspective the world has of America.

The song shows two common men, each one talking to himself and another to his wife: none of them are powerful, or even rich. It’s the voice of the working men, with no particular Whitmanian idealization. Yet, even when everything seems so down-to-earth, we are faced with the fact that one man is black and another is white, which speaks of a country of differences. The black man and his wife remember younger days that have gone away; the white man thinks he might as well be a rockstar because being the president is just a crazy dream, and that all crazy dreams just come and go. So, we are faced with a country of frustration too. However, there are no signs of that powerful country, the oppressor, the rich.

All is summed up when we reach the chorus: “Ain’t that America for you and me/Ain’t that America, something to see/Ain’t that America, home of the free/Little pink houses, for you and me.” I just feel there is something very ironic while singing this. The “something to see”, reminds me of the expression “Ain’t that something!” that refers to something peculiar or worth paying attention to. Then, the “America, home of the free” reminds me of all we have discussed about the American dream and the idea of freedom immigrants have had ever since America was, indeed, created as a country. It all ends with the simplicity of “Little pink houses, for you and me”. That contrast makes us think perhaps America is not as great as it may seem in the world. The last part of the song reinforces the idea, when it says: “And there’s winners, and there’s losers/But they ain’t no big deal…” Just like anywhere else. America is not that different. The “enemy” is also a country of friends, of brothers, of suffering, of many, many things. There are small stories in America that are worth telling, and since America is made of all those small stories in those pink houses it is hard to settle in a definition.]

The Chosen by God

This section I tried to focus on the individualism of the American people: the are the chosen, they are the ones. Bon Jovi’s song title speaks for itself. As for the Bob Dylan song, I chose it because it records the speaker’s journey for love, through revolution, new ideas, slave trading, and many things, and it made me think about the frustrations of America, that shall always permeate literature, and the idea of hard work. The last one, by Springsteen, is a song about September 11, but I chose it for this section because of its prayer-like structure.

Bon Jovi, We Weren’t Born to Follow

Bruce Springsteen, Into the Fire

Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Blue

The Star Spangled Banner

For this section, about an America of the 20th century that we beginning to have power as a nation with the wars,  I decided to focus on songs that involved a sense of American pride. Of course, the national anthem (played by Hendrix) worked, as well as “We’re an American Band”. Yet, there is also the idea of badly used power in Canadians Guess Who’s classic “American Woman” and the use of “war machines”. Paper Lace’s song I chose because it is about Al Capone.

Finally, everything comes to a contrast with Tom Petty’s depressed and lonely “American Girl”, who was “raised on promises” and wants more from this life of hers.

Guess Who, American Woman

Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, American Girl

Grand Funk Railroad, We’re an American Band

Jimi Hendrix, The Star Spangled Banner

California the Myth

This section was complicated for me because a lot of songs speak about California, which only reinforces its importance. California is the west where the Europeans wanted to go, the Gold Rush, Hollywood, the hippie mecca. So, I chose a variety of songs.

The one by Scott McKenzie is practically a description of the hippie climate, while “Gramercy” is somewhat a hippie-pastoral light-hearted romantic song. Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin and Eric Burdon look at California from a English (delighted) point of view: Burdon, in his song, goes as far as to say: “The American Dream includes Indians too”. That line was what made me choose this song: the mentioning of the Native American people.

But the myth is torn apart by the other two songs: “I’m Waiting for the Man” a song about drug addiction, contradicting the experimental ideas of the hippies, that was released in 1967, just as the hippie movement was taking force, as if reminding that the utopia the flower children were looking for was just not going to happen. The next one, by punk band X, is already from the 80’s, but shows us a decadent picture of Los Angeles and the story of a girl that’s fed up with the city. It is no surprise Bret Easton Ellis uses this band as a recurrent motif in his novel about excesses and decay Less than Zero.

Eric Burdon, San Franciscan Nights
X, Los Angeles

Led Zeppelin, Going to California

Velvet Underground, I’m Waiting for the Man

Scott McKenzie, San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)

The Dream in the Wild

In this first division, “The Dream” I focus on the generalities of the American Dream. The Neil Diamond song I chose because it speaks about traveling and the image portrayed of America is absolutely idealistic. Bon Jovi’s song I had already mentioned while speaking about Gatsby; but here, I take the fact that it speaks about a working class couple who are determined to make the dream come true… yes, like Gatsby.

As for the other songs, I chose them because they show both sides of the land they arrived…and of them, the colonizers. “Woodstock” (that can also be retaken for the Californian myth) speaks about the freedom of the soul, of “going back to a garden” that can be an Edenic idea. The Guns n’ Roses song is much more cynical, referring to the city (Los Angeles, reinforcing my idea of the fall of the west) as a jungle. The song is aggressive and it reminds us of what happened after that “garden” was civilized… it also made me think of the “jungle” of the whites Morrison mentions in Beloved.

Neil Diamond, America
Guns n’ Roses, Welcome to the Jungle

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Woodstock

Bon Jovi, Livin on a Prayer

The Beautiful South

When I started to write this section, I was thinking about everything that became a part of the concept of the South with the end of the civil war: ideas of the redneck, the whitetrash, and, mainly, what Flannery O’Connor said about the reader expecting something grotesque from the south in order to consider it realistic, very Faulknerian thing to say.

So, I start with commonplace “Sweet Home Alabama”, with all its calls to the Lord and its flaming nationalism (regionalism?). Then comes Creedence Clerwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou”, with its references to the Cajun tradition and John Fogerty’s particular slang. Then comes The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” which in spite of its cheerful spirit contains stories about gambling, guns, and Greyhounds.

It all is summed up in “Copperhead Road”, the aggressive song by Steve Earle, that speaks about war and the “savagery” of the South: illegality, sheriffs.

And, just for the sake of grotesqueness, the song by Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder and Lead” is about a wife who shoots her abusive husband. Figured O’Connor would have liked that.

Steve Earle, Copperhead Road

Allman Brothers Band, Ramblin’ Man
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sweet Home Alabama

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Born on the Bayou

Miranda Lambert, Gunpowder and Lead

The Party

This section is concerned with the appearance of rock n’ roll, jazz, and music. Yet, I chose these songs because of the powerful contrast they imply. Both Elvis and Miller were white, and their songs are both cheerful and danceable, while Holiday and… I don’t know if Ken Hensley is black, but the song “Hellhound on My Trail” was written by Robert Johnson, one of blues’ most emblematic figures. And then, both songs by the black artists are harsh and tortured: the hellhound is Johnson’s bad luck, the “Strange Fruit” are two black men who were lynched and hanged. So, even at a moment of party and peace, there were still menaces: cold war, McCarthy, racism…

(I thought about the Louie Armstrong solo Morrison talks about in her essay about Afro-American presence, but couldn’t find it).

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock
Robert Johnson, Hellhound on My Trail

The Empire

We cannot talk about the USA without thinking about imperialism. “The reds and the whites and the abused, the crucified USA” Kings of Leon say in their song “Crawl”. This section contains various songs dedicated to point out the evils of America, in the voices of well-known, if not dissidents, people who speak about and against power: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. There is also a song by English band Razorlight about everything being about America (and a song by Rammstein with the same name filled with brand names I just remembered). I also include a song by Living Colour whose title, “Cult of Personality” and its references to TV say it all. Yet, a question, talking about prejudices and stereotypes: are Living Colour white people?

Rage Against the Machine, Testify

Razorlight, America

Kings of Leon, Crawl

Pearl Jam, Do the Evolution
Living Colour, Cult of Personality

Nam and the Fall of an Ideal

The Vietnam war was considered done of the worst decisions made by the American government, and perhaps it foreshadowed dark times for the American society. Very much like a movie soundtrack, I went for the frustrated utopia of “The Age of Aquarius”, and the dark “Eve of Destruction” and classic “The End”. Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” that, unlike the title, is a story about all the disadvantages of living in the USA, looms up as an American song that is somewhat faithless about America, and Billy Joel’s song is just a small summary of what had happened in history—with its good and bad.

Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA

Billy Joel, We Didn’t Start the Fire

The Doors, The End

The Turtles, Eve of Destruction
The Fifth Dimension, Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
Latino and Mexican Presence

The songs I chose for this section could be considered clichés, but, as telenovelas with Sandra Cisneros, I feel they work pretty well. Trini Lopez’s “America”, taken from West Side Story, definitely portrays the ideas of all the great things that are in America and why would anybody want to be there. As for Santana, well, he was a dominating presence in Woodstock, and he’s one of the most recognized Mexican musicians internationally… and there is also the irony that now he considers himself “a citizen of the world” and not necessarily Mexican.

James Taylor’s son is how Americans look at Mexico. Taylor sees it as an idyllic place where he can escape everyday pressure: yet, ironically, he says: “Never been there, but I’d like to go”. An idealization of Mexico, with sunny roads and beaches, that perhaps has been lost.

For the protest songs and the Arizona Law, I thought about Molotov’s “Frijolero” but refrained from using it due to the exaggerate use of very, VERY, florid language, both in Spanish and English.

Generation X

Bad parentage from Vietnam-scarred fathers and the uncertainty for what was going to happen in the last decade of a millennium brought forth Generation X. I could have chosen many songs to illustrate these generation of broken and undecided young people, but I felt a song that put together all the fury that could not be sung coherently (Nirvana), the heartbreaking stories of lost childhood (Pearl Jam) and all the cynicism and irony (Hole’s “Miss World” and Beck’s “Loser”) came together in a song from the movie Realty Bites soundtrack (a movie that was actually translated as Generación X): “I’m Nuthin’”. Ethan Hawke talks about being an “American man” with junkie parents and nothing to do, nothing to dream about. The story follows a similar pattern with The Offspring’s song, a song about kids who ruin their lives in different ways.

I decided to finish with Marilyn Manson because, whether it was only for publicity or it wasn’t, his image and performances went against many traditional American values: ripping apart Bibles in public and openly supporting violence in a violent society that was trying to hide it (until Columbine) were actions that maybe said more about America than his songs.

Ethan Hawke, I’m Nuthin

Marilyn Manson, The Beautiful People

The Offspring, The Kids Aren’t Alright

The Rejected

This section is a lot longer because of what it implies: the black people, taken from Africa by force, and the Native Americans, whose lands were taken away.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find too much about Native American popular musicians (except Lobo, but he sang pop ballads) so I settled on a song by English artist (ironically) Peter Gabriel, that speaks about a man driven away from his land and having to start again, while a melancholic voice tells him not to give up. I felt that song really caught the core of the Native American suffering.

Moving on to African-American artists, the song by The Chambers Brothers is, yes, a protest song; yet, I consider it important because back in the sixties, while they were recording this song, the studio was burned down, supposedly by the Klan, which gives us an idea of the racial issues and render this song more important.

I thought about using the version of “Amazing Grace” by Aretha Franklin you recommended, but I decided to leave that as your collaboration to this wide soundtrack and to include another example of the spiritual-like audience intervention in a song, as in the Muddy Waters’ blues “Mannish Boy”.

Together with it comes Koko Taylor’s song “I’m a Woman”. This song is interesting not only because it is practically the same structure as Waters’ song, just from the point of view of the opposite sex, but because Taylor’s woman is highly independent and sexualized (“I can make love to a crocodile”) so when we read Harriet Jacobs I couldn’t help but comparing them: this fearless woman against the slave who wanted pity from her readers and was a victim of sexuality. I think Taylor’s woman is more related to Sethe.

That led me to John Lee Hooker’s “The Healer” which I think blends together the two cultures: a very important bluesman singing about the shaman-like figure of a healer (which I also related to Beloved).

Continuing with Morrison, I chose Janis Joplin singing a song that was actually in my book about Negro Songs: “Down on Me”. I was reminded of Morrison’s essay about Afro-American presence: something that is considered terrible, bad, can also be considered appealing. Why do many white people sing the blues?

And, finally, U2’s tribute to one of the most important African-American figures in modern history: “Pride in the Name of Love”, for Martin Luther King Jr.

Koko Taylor, I’m Woman
Muddy Waters, Mannish Boy
John Lee Hooker, The Healer

The Chambers Brothers, Time Has Come Today

Peter Gabriel, Don’t Give Up

U2, Pride in the Name of Love

Janis Joplin, Down on me


Had to happen. This section is dedicated to 9-11 and the paranoia that followed suit. The Pink Floyd song, taken from The Wall, is just illustrative from the idea of the sky filled with smoke. Then comes a song from Canadian Ryan Adams, who sympathizes with New York. Yet, things start to go wrong when everybody’s considered an enemy, as in Green Day’s song (Green Day’s album American Idiot is considered as very representative of this age) and here come, as in the sixties, when they were an interracial band, Sly and the Family Stone, reminding us that “We have to live together!” in their song “Everyday People”. With the Irak war waiting as a consequence of paranoia, Dylan shows again and asks “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people had died?” But the answer is still blowing in the wind…

Ryan Adams, New York New York
Bob Dylan, Blowing in the Wind
Green Day, Know Your Enemy
Pink Floyd, Goodbye Blue Sky

Sly and the Family Stone, Everyday People



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