Monday, May 10, 2010

"Certified Patriotic"

If you're looking for something to do this week, warm up the pipes and enter the "Let My Voice Be Heard" on-line karaoke competition. A panel of thoroughly marginal music industry-types will judge your youtube-submitted singing, as will, eventually, a "fan vote." Sing two songs for your entry. But here's the catch: one has to be a patriotic song.

Still interested? Before you start practicing your banjo and refreshing your kindergarten-era memories of the lyrics to "This Land is Our Land," know that you may select only from one of seven pre-approved "Certified Patriotic" songs. They include the karaoke favorite, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and four country songs: "Only in America," "American Soldier" (even though Toby Keith flipped on supporting the Iraq War), "Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly," and, of course, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" Unlike the Reagan '84 campaign, at least the organizers of the competition actually listened to the lyrics of the Boss's "Born in the USA."

"God Bless America" -- ok. "God Bless my Underwear" -- not ok.

The competition is pretty innocuous, of course, particularly because this blog may be the best pub it gets. It seems to be tapping into an undercurrent our in the broader political culture, though, that is asserting that some "voices" in Obama's America are being stifled. Its press release states: 
Americans have always used music as a positive force when things get tough. Every generation has its music and today’s America needs its voice. Karaoke is all about the performance and singing a patriotic song just makes you feel good!
The first point is true: Americans have used singing historically to get through tough times. Public performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" first caught on during the First World War (and even then, people complained it was too hard to sing.) Social workers organized "community sings" among soldiers and civilians alike. The singing continued through World War II and one can draw a straight line all the way to the recent invention of having someone sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch after 9/11. [although I strongly suspect the Yankees continued this trend not out of patriotism but to give their relievers a few more warm-up throws in the pen.] But the point of earlier patriotic feel-good sing-alongs was to sing together, to build up a sense of being in the tough time together. In this way, they weren't much different than singing in unison that other karaoke fav, "Sweet Caroline."

The country songs selected are also worth considering as part of the missing "voice" of Americans. They all celebrate American exceptionalism. They also assert that the experiences and virtues of ordinary people are all the nation really needs to remain on the sunny side of Providence. These songs do not celebrate the vast potential of the nation but the way things are right now and the people we are.

The last time I sang what I'd consider a "patriotic song" in public, it was "We Shall Overcome," the culminating moment of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis. The crowd sang it to re-dedicate itself to the causes of civil rights and social justice. I believe the song is patriotic because it was the anthem I see as true patriots -- those willing to put their lives at risk to have their nation live up to its ideals. The song speaks of that moment coming "someday." I think that's the central - and perhaps irreconcilable - divide between Left and Right patriotism. Roughly put, the Left sees the nation as perfectable; the Right as perfected.

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