Pop Music and America: A 4th Of July Playlist

Pop music and musicians occasionally turn a critical eye to America and the concept of being American. These 10 examples provide an alternative pop playlist for the 4th of July holiday. The songs range from a controversial patriotic re-arrangement to recent commentary on the concept of "National Anthem."

1969 - Jimi Hendrix - "Star Spangled Banner"

Jimi Hendrix - Live At Woodstock
Jimi Hendrix - Live At Woodstock. Courtesy Legacy Recordings

Jimi Hendrix was originally scheduled to take the stage at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival at midnight Sunday night. Rain delayed performances, and he insisted on being the closing headliner for the festival. The result was that Jimi Hendrix did not take the stage until 8:30 a.m. Monday morning. However, he still played a lengthy two hour set. Arguably his most remembered song from the performance was his electric guitar version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Jimi Hendrix had performed it live before, but for many the feedback littered version of the national anthem was a criticism of the US and its role in the Vietnam War. Just over a year later the legendary Jimi Hendrix would be dead at the age of 27.

1971 - Don McLean - "American Pie"

Don McLean - American Pie
Don McLean - American Pie. Courtesy Capitol

Few pop songs have been the subject of as much speculation about the specific meaning of its lyrics as "American Pie." Filled with what seem to be references to America's loss of innocence in the late 1960s, the song was a massive #1 pop hit for singer-songwriter Don McLean. It seems certain that the "day the music died" referenced in the lyrics was February 3, 1959, the day that Buddy Holly died, but much of the rest of the song remains open to interpretation. At one point in an interview when asked what the song meant, Don McLean replied, tongue in cheek, "It means I never have to work again."

1973 - Paul Simon - "American Tune"

Paul Simon - There Goes Rhymin' Simon
Paul Simon - There Goes Rhymin' Simon. Courtesy Columbia Records

On "American Tune" Paul Simon seems to sing of a nation that is weary and confused, "At the age's most uncertain hour." The song was included on his second solo album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. The melody of "American Tune" is borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach. It reached #35 on the pop singles chart in 1973.

1975 - David Bowie - "Young Americans"

David Bowie - Young Americans
David Bowie - Young Americans. Courtesy RCA

David Bowie borrowed from American soul music, referenced historical events, and even brought up the specter of departed president Richard Nixon to concoct a critical vision of the romantic and sexual entanglements of young Americans. "Young Americans" became David Bowie's first top 40 pop hit in the US since 1969's "Space Oddity." David Bowie has referred to his sound during the time as "plastic soul."

1977 - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "American Girl"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Courtesy Shelter Recordings

Tom Petty's "American Girl" has been the subject of a wide range of speculation and rumors regarding the inspiration of the song. The words seem to describe a woman in desperation on a balcony considering suicide. The content led to unfounded rumors that Tom Petty saw a student commit suicide jumping from the balcony of a residence hall while he was a student at the University of Florida. The song is included on the first, self-titled album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and it reached #40 on the UK pop singles chart.

1985 - Prince - "America"

Prince - "America"
Prince - "America". Courtesy Paisley Park

For his third single from the album Around the World In a Day, Prince inserted the "America! America! God shed his grace on thee" chorus from "America, the Beautiful" to create a critique of the mid-1980s in the US. Poverty and nuclear threats are among the topics addressed in the song. Prince released a 21 minute 12 inch single remix of "America."

2004 - Green Day - "American Idiot"

Green Day American Idiot
Green Day - "American Idiot". Courtesy Warner Bros.

The snarling "American Idiot" announced that Green Day's most celebrated album was on its way. The song takes on a media dominated nation and states that propaganda is designed to keep the country in a state of permanent paranoia. Despite not reaching the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, "American Idiot" has sold more than one million copies. It was a #1 alternative songs hit as well as hitting #1 in Canada and the top 3 on the pop singles chart in the UK.

2006 - Pink - "Dear Mr. President"

Pink - I'm Not Dead
I'm Not Dead. © La Face Records

Pink has stated that "Dear Mr. President" is one of the most important songs she has written. It directly addresses president George W. Bush with personal criticisms of the consequences of his policies. Pink elected to not release the song as an official single in the US out of fear that would reduce it to seeming like a publicity stunt. However, "Dear Mr. President" was a top 10 pop hit single across Europe.

2012 - Lana Del Rey - "National Anthem"

Lana Del Rey - Born To Die
Lana Del Rey - Born To Die. Courtesy Interscope

Lana Del Rey blends hip hop and anthemic pop sounds in this song from her Born To Die debut album. The song's lyrics blend images of wealth, sex, and drugs in a mix that implies money itself is the national anthem. "National Anthem" will be Lana Del Rey's fourth single from Born To Die in the UK.

2012 - Bruce Springsteen - "We Take Care Of Our Own"

Bruce Springsteen - "We Take Care Of Our Own"
Bruce Springsteen - "We Take Care Of Our Own". Courtesy Columbia Records

The single "We Take Care Of Our Own" brings to mind memories of Bruce Springsteen's song "Born In the USA" in wrapping what seems a celebratory tone in words of deep skepticism about the nation. "We Take Care Of Our Own" speaks about a legacy and reputation of compassion in the US, but it actively questions whether the tradition has come to an end.